I really thought I was done for a time with Social Media pundits’ periodic but ever-recurring announcements of X’s coming death — these follow anytime from within a few weeks to a year of the previous announcements that if you’re not “on” or at least investigating X, you yourself will soon be history, Social-wise. After all, I had already pointed to an entirely bogus Forrester Research “study” of Marketers’ supposed “fatigue” with Facebook; implored Marketers not to give up on Earned Media, despite Augie Ray’s prediction that that is exactly what they were going to do in 2014 (though, have they by now. mid-October 2014?); pointed out the big loophole in a pundit’s prediction that “marketing as we know it will end in 2016” — at least this guy gave himself a couple more years before it’s the end of the world as we know it doesn’t happen and he can be called out; and, finally, I had called out the ridiculousness of the Social Media Punditry Mutual Admiration Society’s prediction that Facebook would “fall out of vogue” for business use by December 2014, all because their hero, Scott Monty, had, OMG, OMG, left Ford: This is the End, My Friend: Social Media is Dead, Sort Of.
My work here is done, I felt, for Time itself would clearly and conclusively rebut boastful and wrongheaded predictions, although I fear it is not to be expected that their authors will issue the mea culpas that honesty and honest debate deserve. But then — you’ll excuse me for reviving one of the Godfather’s famous lines — Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in — i.e., when Augie Ray recently published his imprecation, Stop Social Media Marketing. Since it’s as well-written and fun to read as all his posts, I could have let this go as just yet another really-getting-old-now Social Media near-death prediction — if not for the fact that Augie also uses it to offer some unsettling and dubious career advice: “I predict that many CMOs will diminish their support for social media, content and earned media marketing in the next year or two, and when they do, careers will be adversely impacted. If your career relies on Marketing Department support for content or social media marketing, now is the time to take stock of the trends and consider some actions to protect your career.” That is to say, now is the time when, except under some (purportedly) very particular and rare circumstances, you should get the hell out while the getting is good. I think this advice is misguided, and I hope it will not be heeded.
But first, let me point to one contention upon which I think the two of us could not agree more or agree more enthusiastically: Unless you work for “the right kind of company” — the kind with superior or at least very good products; the kind with a valid and recognizable social purpose; the kind with exemplary or at least very good customer service — then, yeah, you probably should look for a job and career elsewhere: Because nothing you can attempt from a Social Media Marketing perspective ((let’s just abbreviate that for the rest of this post as SMM) can help turn around a dysfunctional or mediocre company. Whatever its presumed and, I believe, still largely untapped virtues and powers, SMM isn’t magic; it can’t rescue sinking or floundering ships. Any disagreements I have with Augie’s analysis — which are substantial — are effectively irrelevant if this essential point is denied. (That, of course, applies to Augie’s further arguments as well.)
That said — again, it’s the most important point in this whole debate — let’s get into the disagreements. First, Augie’s advice for SMM folk that they should get out now before it’s too late — which will be “in the next year or two” — is predicated on his assumption (or prediction) that while CMOs “still intend to rapidly double [their SMM] investment,” “I predict that increase will not happen.” This prediction, unfortunately, betrays a fundamental ignorance about how budgets are actually managed. If CMOs still intend to double their SMM investments — and if their budgets are approved, which they seem to believe, pace Augie’s research, will be the case — then the chances of those budgets being radically culled are precisely zero. There is nothing more perilous for any budget-owner than giving back allocated funds. Givebacks can mean either of two things: You more or less dramatically mis-conceived what you should be doing or you’re sure you can’t accomplish what you previously extolled as necessary. Either of these is a potentially fatal admission that you don’t know what you’re doing. (Moreover, even should the CMO feel safe enough to chance this risk — seems kind of unlikely given CMO tenure rates! — he/she also knows that givebacks can never, in all probability, be regained in the future.) However irrational it may be, this is how budgeting works today: So don’t worry boys and girls, Daddy/Mommy is not yet going to give back one plug nickel of the SMM budget and therefore your job is perfectly safe: Maybe not for that five-year forecast Augie refers to, for the long run — although, as Keynes said, in the long run we’re all dead — but for the short run, for “the next year or two,” you’re okay.
Budgets aside, the real crux of Augie’s argument depends on his very specific view of SMM and of Marketing as such, each of which he equates (disdainfully) with advertising. Real, true SMM should not “include paid media” — i.e., advertising — “on social networks.” (“Go ahead and invest in advertising on Facebook and Twitter, just do not call it ‘social.'”) This is a quite Puritanical, one might say extremist, view of SMM, one that is not argued but rather simply stipulated. It’s all the more surprising to then see retweets and likes (presumably fans, followers, and shares, as well) excoriated as SMM “fool’s gold.” OK, yeah, these have been often naively overvalued but, good Lord, aren’t they about as purely, natively “Social” as you can get, unlike (at least in the good old days) Facebook ads? Didn’t marketers get so overexcited by likes and retweets, etc. precisely because they were born with Social and unavailable to traditional advertising? But here is when surprising turns into the bizarre: If I must ignore fool’s gold, to what then should I be paying attention and giving credibility? Well, according to Augie, the solid measures of SMM effectiveness are actually “changes in consumer attitude or behavior such as greater in [sic] awareness, consideration and purchase intent.” Sound familiar? Of course they do, for these are the classic “metrics” of traditional advertising — aided awareness, unaided awareness, propensity to consider, propensity to buy — and specifically of TV advertising! (There is a reason for the endless recycling of Wanamaker‘s famous quip, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half” — and my guess it’s due to fanciful traditional advertising “measures” of propensity to buy, etc.) But what explains why Augie — otherwise hellbent on purifying SMM from the filthy lucre of paid media — shoos away advertising with his right hand and then cuddles it back into his pocket with his left? That’s not a rhetorical question: I have no idea what the logic, if it indeed be logical at all, of this reasoning is.
Under what conditions then does SMM as defined (or purified) by Augie, work? I won’t quibble too much here: It works in select verticals — Sports, Entertainment, and Style; it works for “brands with a purpose”; and it works for brands with “better products and services.” (FWIW, I might add SMB as a fourth category, as so many reported “successes” on FB have been of the small business variety. Are these outliers, exceptions that prove the rule, or still largely untapped opportunities? Whatever, they don’t hold the marketing positions under dispute here.) Apparently it does not work for brands outside these verticals or lacking these particular characteristics, although by including USAA within the “brands with a purpose” category, I suppose that opens the door theoretically to at least other insurance and banking brands. (After all, USAA shares the same basic “purpose” as all other insurance and banking brands; it has a unique niche, yes, but hardly a unique purpose.) But there is unquestionably an important deficit here, for if in Augie’s eyes your brand doesn’t fall into the “magic intersection” you’re not only out of luck but, worse, you’re doomed to “stumble with unwelcome, heavy-handed, embarrassing, brand-damaging posts on Facebook and Twitter.” Wow, talk about SMM Puritanism; now we add Calvinist predestination! Your brand’s best and most conscientious attempts to be accepted in conversation, to be lucid, uncomplicated, and helpful are doomed to fail. You can’t play to win; you can only play to fail and land in SMM Hell. I expect many brands will beg to differ.
Minor point (well, maybe not so minor): In the third category of Augie’s “Earned Media Venn Diagram,” I was dismayed to see Apple yet again dragged out as the poster child of “Brands with better products and services.” Really? Are Apple’s “products and services” really “better” than, say, Samsung’s today? I think the consensus conclusively betrays that as historical fiction. Granted, Apple doesn’t bother with SMM, and judging from its history of corporate arrogance toward its customers, as well as its concomitant Social tone-deafness, so ably demonstrated by the Ping #fail (“sort of like Facebook and Twitter meet iTunes” said Chairman Jobs) and the truly epic Impersonal Marketing with U2 #fail, well, they really shouldn’t! What Apple does bother with, of course, is a virtually Stalinsque PR operation — Question: What is the difference between Stalin’s Show Trials and Apple’s Product Events? Answer: Nobody faces an armed firing squad after an Apple Product Event) — and massive, ubiquitous traditional advertising. Could these have more to do with the bleating of the sheep at Apple Events and outside/around Apple stores than “better products and services”? In any case, highlighting Apple as a Social Media Marketing star, whatever else you might feel about the company, is bizarre and embarrassingly wrong.
Augie quotes research reports throughout this piece, a couple zeroing in on the apparent flightiness and incompetence of CMOs. We’ve already dealt with their supposed foolishness for “doubling” their SMM budgets so I won’t rehearse that. But some attention is in order here because it will lead us to what is really the heart of the matter here. “74% of CEOs think Marketers focus too much on the latest marketing trends such as social media – but can rarely demonstrate how these trends will help them generate more business for the company.” And: A “mere 15% of CMOs say they have proven the impact of social media quantitatively. Another 40% ‘have a good qualitative sense of the impact, but not a quantitative impact’ and a whopping 45% have ‘not been able to show the impact yet.'”
And STILL “CMOs expect to increase social media marketing spending 128% in the next five years!” What fools these mortal CMOs be! Indeed, if this were the whole story, I’d have to agree that this is foolishness on a gargantuan scale! But maybe the very gargantuan scale of such foolishness should lead us to, I don’t know, consider the possibility that this isn’t the whole story, that there is something else going on here. Just a thought.
I wonder: If we were to ask these CMOs if they really felt it was either fair or sensible to be tasked to prove ROI from SMM, what would they say? Okay, stop laughing, I know you think the question is ridiculous and the inevitable answer would be they’d unanimously disclaim responsibility for SMM ROI. And that, indeed, would probably be the case! In fact, I dearly hope so, because, remember, what Augie’s researchers looked for here is for CMOs to prove ROI for SMM as a discrete channel, in isolation from all the other digital activities that said CMOs are responsible for, as well as those other digital activities they aren’t responsible for, that in fact belong to other Executives in IT, Corporate Communications, Customer Service, Sales, and god-knows what nether-regions of the corporation.
If we were to ask CMOs, a title that covers a multitude of sins, as Augie might say, why they can’t prove the ROI of SMM, how would they respond? Uh, It’s too soon to tell? Um, We don’t really have the right toolset to figure that out? My guess is that some tiny percentage of CMOs would, unfortunately, resort to such subterfuge. My next guess would be that you’d hear answers like these:
Of course we’re not booking any sales from Facebook. for goodness sake! Why on earth would you think we would be? That’s not why we’re there.
Yeah, I read Augie Ray and all those other guys, too; I know that likes and retweets and shares are squishy soft and they aren’t directly generating any business for us, but what am I supposed to do, pretend they don’t exist, that they somehow don’t mean anything?
Look, we’re sending a ton of traffic to our Web site and they’re making out like bandits over there, but guess what? I don’t own that. Jimmy and Jenny take credit for that!
You know, I can’t prove any of this, because I don’t control Search here, I got nothing to do with what they’re doing over there in the businesses, but I’m pretty sure there’s a bunch of people coming from our [SMM] campaigns going to Google and clicking on the PPC ads. I don’t know, I can’t prove a lot, I can’t know what happens then, but I bet a lot of that’s happening ’cause the guys there are always crowing about their PPC success.
One thing I know for sure is that our mobile site’s getting a ton of traffic — that’s what IT keeps reporting — and the mobile site’s what’s converting best for us nowadays.
Hey, we’re referring a ton of people to the Customer Service guys, and we get the thank-yous later on on Facebook for the great work those guys are doing. There’s re-ups and even a bunch of new sales coming from that but all I can prove is that I sent people on over to Service. And Service, god bless ’em, could care less about sales.
I wish I owned our Social properties — but I don’t. The best I can do is make sure we put the little Twitter and Facebook and Instagram logos on the last frame of our ads. And, yeah, we add the hashtags, too, when there’s a campaign going. We’re as supportive as we can be, when we can be, but, you know, I’ve got my own stats to worry about.
Look, I own so-called Earned, and just like all the experts have been saying, it’s getting harder and harder to earn much of anything anymore but, guess what, I don’t own any Paid except for what I spend on the social sites, and I don’t own Owned, either. What do you expect? Trying to prove ROI for Earned is a mug’s game.
OK, so I made all this up, that is, I made up all those words, but I didn’t make up the realities that those words quite accurately (if not always articulately) depict. I didn’t make up the fundamentally dysfunctional organizations that our CMO operates in (along with his/her peers, the CIO and Chief Customer Service Officer and CTO and Head of Sales…) The reality is that most CMOs are incapable of demonstrating SMM ROI not because they’re shortsighted or lazy or traditional advertising dinosaurs — though some are certainly any or all of these things — but because they are organizationally precluded from being able to do so.
It’s been, what, about two and a half years since Jeremiah Owyang published his Converged Media Imperative report, arguing for the integration of Paid, Owned, and earned Media into, in effect, one huge project. He even called it POE Convergence — yet another proof that you can take the boy out of Forrester but you can’t take Forrester out of the boy — but I’d stress that he offered this precisely as an imperative, as something that should be done, not as a description of what had been done or was, except for some largely trivial examples, being done, in corporate America. Again: POE wasn’t, isn’t a done deal; it was, is, a goal. (Nonetheless, it was declared dead within a mere few months of the original Owyang publication! Sound familiar?) If and when marketers own all of (at least digital) POE — and, of course, work all this together intelligently — then you can legitimately demand ROI for marketing spend. So long as these responsibilities remain fragmented within protected silos, however, only a few of them will be able to “prove” themselves in hard dollar revenue (and, ultimately, in profit, another thing altogether); for all the rest, it is, as stated above, a mug’s game.
There are several ways of putting this, but I think Dave Morgan said it well in a recent article that distinguishes Media Outputs from Business Outcomes. Dave lists some Media Outputs and I’ve added several to the list: These are likes, fans, followers, shares, and retweets; TV GRPs and print pages and printed coupons; but also “engagement” customer advocacy; and search queries and Web traffic. They are all proxies — differing greatly in value according to any number of factors unique to their channel and to companies and their various goals — for the “provable contributions” they make to Business Outcomes, which are sales leads and sales; revenue and profit; new customers and retained customers; recruiting leads and new recruits; employee/partner advocates and customer referrals. The important point of this differentiation is succinctly stated: “Outcomes are channel-agnostic (and usually interfaith). Media delivery metrics are by definition unique to each and every media channel. Outcomes aren’t. Leads generated are leads generated. Sales are sales.”
See what we did there? This pinpoints the, IMNHO, always-misguided attempt to provide hard ROI for SMM earned media: The metrics appropriate here are indeed specific to the media themselves, and sadly they are not likely to be direct leads and sales. What they are likely to be are such soft stuff such as likes, retweets, search queries, and Web traffic — the latter of which in particular, however, can (should) start you talking very seriously about leads and sales if/when your Web sites are oriented to producing leads and sales! In a nutshell, the business outcomes marketers look for may never show up directly — but only indirectly and circuitously — from discreet media outputs, and this is particularly true of those produced by SMM.
Social is a channel and it can and certainly should be looked at discretely when you’re crafting its strategy and tactical implementations, when you’re figuring out how it can work with the rest of your digital activities, and when you’re determining success or failure — actually, it’s normally success and failure — of strategy and tactics. But we happen to live in a multi-channel world and any marketer worth his/her salt has been, or should have been, busy building a digital portfolio that also includes (minimally) Web sites, search, video, and mobile. It is only a complete digital portfolio that at the end of the day should be held accountable for ROI, not its channels individually, and certainly not SMM individually. That 45% of marketers have “not been able to show impact yet” from SMM is a bit disquieting, because there are lots of unfairly-libeled things that indicate “impact,” but it is certainly a good thing that, despite the by-now hundreds of superficial and misguided articles teaching us “How to Prove Social Media ROI,” those teachings are roundly ignored.
Proving ROI is hardly rocket science and it’s certainly well-understood by anyone with a marketing background. The formulas are there, but you’ve got to know what you’re looking at when you employ them, and looking at SMM as a channel somehow isolated within our multi-channel world, impervious to, untouched by all your other digital activities in it, just doesn’t work.
So my advice to SMM professionals: Hang in there and, however you can, help effect the most desirable and effective Digital Convergence possible within your organization. And if that’s simply not in the cards, then, indeed, make a move — perhaps to a better-positioned SMM operation.