The blind alley of social media

Let me be clear – social media is not in itself a blind alley.  Its arrival has heralded a very powerful means by which organizations can fulfil a range of important tasks far more effectively than was previously the case.  It is a brilliant channel for two-way engagement with a range of stakeholder groups, including – critically – customers.  This, in turn, can help to build relationships and influence opinions, and enable a company to deal swiftly with customer service issues.  It can also be a vital listening device (and help forewarn of potential crisis management issues) and a useful source of intelligence.

As a brand building or sales medium results are rather more mixed: much depends upon the product or service category and the audience that is being engaged.  An audience of computer gamers is likely to be highly responsive; an attempt to engage users of shower cleaners rather less successful.  In any case, it is crucial to recognise the vital fact that the audience secured via a social media channel is frequently (but not always) unrepresentative of the total market segment being targeted by the brand overall.  Additionally, the content being created to fill these channels is growing exponentially, yet audiences will increasingly have less and less time available to consume each new piece.  The commercial value to be derived from a great deal of social media activity is very much in doubt, with valid ROI metrics (i.e. that can demonstrate impact on brand equity and sales versus other media) frequently absent.

At the extreme, social media activity can potentially harm the brand.  Even the upmarket, and successfully growing, supermarket chain Waitrose has managed to get things wrong.  Its now infamous Twitter campaign in 2012 asked consumers to complete the sentence “I love shopping at Waitrose because…”  The responses included that it was to avoid “poor people”, that it was because “the butler had the week off” and that “Clarissa’s pony just will NOT eat ASDA straw.”  Clearly it is not just that brand building via social media can be difficult; brand harm is a real risk, particularly once the results of a poor execution are broadcast rapidly across both online and offline media.

The sense, however, in which I mean that social media is a blind alleyBlind Alley concerns its symbolic place in representing a shift in recent years in the understanding of what marketing really is.  A growing group of marketers see digital marketing, or a sub-set of it such as social media, as being a more contemporary version of ‘traditional marketing’.  This is actually quite dangerous for the people concerned, the organizations that employ them, the brands they look after and the profession within which they work.

The problem is that much of what passes for contemporary marketing, such as ‘digital marketing’, is substantially not marketing at all, but a form of communication.  These tools are very valid, and frequently very useful, but they are most often primarily tactical.  The emphasis is firmly on the short-term – to promote and therefore sell more – but without the framework of a proper marketing and brand strategy much of the effort and expenditure can be misdirected.  The requirement to satisfy the underlying needs of customers and to differentiate yourself in the marketplace – in terms of the core product and service offer – remains the touchstone of marketing, just as it has since Theodore Levitt wrote his seminal article in 1960.

Real marketing is based upon driving the business from the outside in.  It is based upon strategy, not tactics.  It is not – in more extreme cases – about being pushed and pulled around as a result of reacting constantly to the noisiest stakeholders on social media.  The Marketing Manifesto, launched last year by the Marketing Society, succinctly sets out the simple customer-driven imperative that lies behind strategic marketing.  Social media use that lies outside such a framework will act like a loose cannon, risking brand reputation and achievement of strategic objectives, and result in sub-optimal use of resources.  In the longer term the silos that are being created within organizations to manage tools such as social media can risk brands’ ability to compete effectively and may stunt the careers of over-specialised practitioners who get stuck in them.

As Martin Glenn, CEO of United Biscuits has said “It is really interesting what you can do in the social space, but it is ephemeral.  That’s good when you need rapid response, but you also need to be building great products and services based on a thorough understanding of what consumers need and will pay for, and that takes much longer and requires a lot of patience.”  In order to develop a brand strategy that incorporates a viable sustainability element this longer term perspective is critical.  Mistakenly trying to lead the development of a sustainability strategy via social media is driving up a blind alley.

Further discussion of this topic is welcomed.

Image credit: geargodz / 123RF Stock Photo

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About David Whiting

I help organizations to create competitive advantage, build brands and develop new opportunities, in particular by aligning sustainability understanding with customer insights
This entry was posted in Developing Sustainability Marketing, Understanding Marketing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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