Rethinking Social Media Marketing

Gallup released the results of a consumer survey which found (as reported on the Harvard Business Review blog):

“62% of U.S. adults who use social media say that these sites have absolutely no influence on their purchasing decisions. Another 30% say these sites have some influence, and just 5% say they have a great deal of influence. Of consumers who report liking or following a company, 34% still say that social media have no influence on their purchasing behavior, while 53% say they have only some influence. These findings raise a question: is there an inherent flaw in the idea of using social media to drive purchasing, or have companies just been using social media poorly?”

These findings raise more questions, one of them being: An an influencer, how does social media compare to other channels?

Gallup’s research has found that “consumers are much more likely to turn to friends, family members, and experts when seeking advice about companies, brands, products, or services.” But that doesn’t tell us anything about how other marketing channels influence consumers’ purchase decisions. Six in ten consumers may say that social media has no influence on their purchasing decisions but how does that compare to TV or banner advertising, or to direct mail? I suspect that even fewer consumers might say those forms of communication have a great degree of influence on their purchasing decisions.

This, however, raises another question left unanswered by the Gallup study: Should we trust consumers’ self-determination of what influenced their purchase decisions?

There have been a number of studies conducted (look at SSRN for examples) that have attempted to prove that advertising has more of an influence on consumers’ decisions than consumers may be willing to admit.

One of the things that drives me nuts about studies like Gallup’s is that it asks consumers how influential something is on their “purchase decisions” as if all decisions are influenced by the same things, and to the same degree.

The HBR article, after wisely raising the question about the potential inherent flaw in the idea of using social media to drive purchasing, takes a wrong turn, and drives the article straight off the cliff. What did it do? It got prescriptive.

Here are Gallup’s prescriptions to “positively influence purchasing through social media” and my take on them. Gallup advises social media-using marketers to be:

Authentic. Gallup says that consumers are “more likely to listen and respond to companies that seem genuine and personable” and that “companies should back away from the hard sell and focus on creating more of an open dialogue with consumers.”

My take: What, exactly, is an “open dialogue”? How is this different from what companies are already doing on social media? How would I, as a social media-using marketer know if I’m really creating an open dialogue or not? What impact on sales, and on customer relationships, would focusing on “creating an open dialogue” have? And, anyway, is there any proof that the majority of companies using social media focus on the “hard sell”? Consultants should be administered mild, but uncomfortable electric shocks when making nebulous recommendations like “be authentic.”

Responsive. Gallup says “companies must be available to answer questions and reply to complaints and criticisms” and to “actively listen to what their customers are saying and respond accordingly.”

My take: No argument here (other than the minor quibble that nobody should have to recommend that companies “actively” listen, as if passive listening were a viable alternative). But Gallup is now confusing things. Using social media as a customer service or support tool has a lot of merits. But the recommendation to “be responsive” is in the context of positively influencing.” Sure, you could argue that a positive customer support interaction has a positive impact on future purchase intention, but that would be true of any channel the support interaction occurs in, and not just social media.

Compelling. Gallup says that “companies must create compelling, interesting content that appeals to busy, picky social media users” and the content should be “original to the company and not related to sales or marketing.”

My take: Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of creating and providing “compelling, interesting content”? Here I’ve been, creating dull and boring content for lazy, apathetic social media users! Stupid me! Forget for a moment that this is a useless recommendation. The real crime here is that how can you provide a recommendation on how to use social media to positively influence purchasing if you don’t know what how consumers’ preferences and intentions are established? In other words, is there any proof that compelling content–if we could really measure “compellingness”–positively influences purchase intention? Show me the proof and I’ll accept it. Show me how to distinguish “compelling” from “not compelling” and I’ll tell the world what a genius you are.

Bottom line: It’s time to re-think social media marketing.

If the tone of the Gallup study is correct–that social media marketing isn’t having a strong influence on consumers’ purchase decision–then maybe the correct response is to re-think the goals and objectives of social media marketing.

Maybe the purpose of social media marketing is something else besides influencing purchase decisions and intentions.

If we take a customer lifecycle approach and break down marketing activities to…


….then maybe we have to admit that social media marketing isn’t as good (i.e., effective) as mass media advertising, or particularly good at driving consideration or preference. Maybe the best application of social media marketing is for driving engagement.

If that’s true, then recommendations like “be authentic” and “provide compelling content” aren’t wrong, they’re just useless. What we would need, then, is better understanding of exactly what “authentic” and “compelling” is and isn’t. But that would be in the context of how those concepts drive engagement–not purchase intention.

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