Social media is the next big thing! No, it's the big thing! It is here, now, and it is big! Let's face it, if you're not aboard the cluetrain to social media marketing city, you're sitting on that station alone!
A pity, then, that social media traffic is so often worthless.
Let's look at the market signals. Why is it that you pay dollars per click on Google Adwords for financial keywords, yet the same keywords on social networks are priced at five cents?
This suggests to me one of two things. Either the social networks are seriously underestimating the value of their own traffic, or most of the people on social networks aren't interested in commercial messages. If they were, then the bid values would closely match those of Google Adwords.
I think the latter is the most likely scenario. Social media traffic isn't priced higher, because it isn't translating into revenue for the advertisers. This isn't happening because the intent of the users when engaged with social media is not conducive to selling stuff.
Of course, social media traffic isn't all bad. We'll look at some ways you can benefit from it. But firstly, let's compare and contrast some aspects of social media marketing and search marketing, in order to help clarify the value proposition.
1. Traffic Is Not An Asset, Traffic Is A Cost
Traffic only becomes an asset when it translates into something else. When it becomes a bookmark, a sign-up, a link, or helps establish a genuine relationship. It must also result in an increase in revenue. If it doesn't, then traffic remains an expense.
What is the value of 10,000 Diggers hitting your site to look at, say, a picture of a monkey riding a bicycle? Zero. The trouble is that a lot of marketers are watching the web scorecard - that spike in the visitor stats that shows the number of visits - and using that as a marketing metric. "Hey, I'm popular!".
Sure, with 10,000 teenagers amused by a picture of a monkey riding a bicycle. But how is that helping boost revenue?
There isn't a lot of meaning to such a relationship. It is low value.
"This is a truth of the Internet: When traffic comes to your site without focused intent, it bounces. 75% of all unfocused visitors leave within three seconds.Any site, anywhere, anytime. 75% bounce rate within three seconds. By unfocused, I mean people who visit via Digg or Stumbleupon or even a typical Google search....."I'm just looking," is no fun for most retailers. Yet they continue to pay high rent for high-traffic locations, and invest time and money in window displays. Very few retailers lament all the traffic that walks by the front door without ever walking in. A long time ago, they realized that the shoppers with focused intent are far more valuable. Smart retailers work hard to get focused people to walk in the door and to keep the riff raff walking on down the sidewalk.".
2. Uncontrolled Message
It is difficult to control the message. Released into the wild of social networks, the message can just as easily result in negative effects as positive ones.
Check out this sad experience of being dugg, from Kim at Cre8Pc:
"Since I logged off last night around midnight, 12 hours later, over 23,000 people have been to this blog. The reason is that someone dugg about the post I wrote, where I shared a resource I found useful. That post was "dugg" and the incoming traffic this blog is receiving is to that specific blog post I wrote....Diggers complained about everything from the site design of the site I wrote about, to how stupid I was to write about it at all.....Which part of this Digg activity am I supposed to be happy about, now that something I wrote has officially been slaughtered there?"
Kim wasn't trying to get on Digg as part of a marketing strategy, but it shows how unpredictable the "benefits" of social media exposure can be.
Perhaps this might explain why Digg has been left at the altar a few times? It suggests to me that it might be difficult to extract real commercial value from such environments. Part of the problem is structural. Digg is "free" and "open" and "anonymous", which leads to a tragedy of the commons.
At the risk of blowing our own horn, part of the reason our SEO community is valuable is because people have to pay for it. People have provided a signal of interest lacking on most broad social networks. There are no questions from a member named MakeEasyMoneyOnlineTodayRightNow asking how to get his adsense earnings up to $1 a day. The price of admission helps protect the community from the tragedy of the commons.
3. Branding Is Often An Excuse For Failed Marketing Campaigns
"It's a brand spend!". Marketers say that a lot.
What they often mean is "we can find no no measurable return".
Return on brand spend is very difficult to measure, and even more difficult to isolate in a channel such as online social media marketing. Did visitors remember our brand? Did it affect their future buying decisions? Was the brand association positive or negative?
If you're thinking of engaging a social media marketer, and they use brand building as a metric, ask them to explain how they will demonstrate an increased, favorable level of brand awareness. If they mention traffic numbers, ask them how that squares with my first point "Traffic Is Not An Asset, It Is A Cost".
To my mind, any commercial endeavor must ultimately come back to revenue.
4. Level Of Interaction
What are people doing on social networks?
On the likes of Facebook, they are engaged in social activities. They are catching up with their friends. They are playing games. Marketing messages in this context are about as welcome as an Amway salesperson at a bachelor party.
Consider the context of the message. Search marketing works well because the searcher has already signaled their intent, and that intent may well be commercial. It's like walking into a shop, and asking to buy a watch. The relationship and interaction is direct and obvious. The context of social media is more like a cocktail party. People are there to socialize, not enter into commercial interactions. They may do so, but the relationship is fuzzy and indirect.
To overcome this obstacle, look for social networks, or network groups, where the users demonstrate clear, commercial intent. Alternatively, have a clear idea of how you're going to progress "fuzzy indirect" visitors to desired action.
Social media marketing is time consuming.
Building your social networks. Responding to "friends". Is there are measurable return for the time spent? What is the opportunity cost of that time?
For example, compare the time you need to get a commercial message on the front page of Digg, with getting a commercial message on the front page of Google. With Adwords, I can do it in seconds.
With Digg, I'd be unlikely to get a marketing message to the top, unless I'd previously developed relationships with all the right people and/or gamed the system, which, in itself, takes a lot of time. Even then, the marketing message, unless heavily disguised, will likely be despised by a community rabidly opposed to any message with an obvious commercial imperative.
Is this time well spent on either channel? Once again, a cost/benefit analysis, where the benefits are clear and measurable, will provide the answer.
6. Rampant Stupidity & Useless Distractions
I guess no-one ever went broke underestimating human stupidity, but one really has to question the marketing value of these types of approaches:
"The Coca-Cola Company will feature its Sprite brand on a new Facebook Page and will invite users to add an application to their account called "Sprite Sips." People will be able to create, configure and interact with an animated Sprite Sips character. For consumers in the United States, the experience can be enhanced by entering a PIN code found under the cap of every 20 oz. bottle of Sprite to unlock special features and accessories. The Sprite Sips character provides a means for interacting with friends on Facebook"
Facebook, which distinguished itself by being the anti-MySpace, is now determined to out-MySpace MySpace. It's a nifty system: First you get your users to entrust their personal data to you, and then you not only sell that data to advertisers but you get the users to be the vector for the ads. And what do the users get in return? An animated Sprite Sips character to interact with.
Are people going to then talk about Sprite in a way that would increase the sales of Sprite? Really?
I can barely imagine this would work for a teen audience. Such an approach has no chance with an adult audience. Keep in mind that most people who are heavily active on generalist social network sites are likely to fit in the 15-25 year old range, although there is evidence to suggest this age range might be changing. Look at it this way - how many stories about hip-replacements ever make it top the top of Reddit?
There are a lot of messages that just aren't going to work on social media. Wrong time, wrong place.
"Media buyers, the agency people who book campaigns, report that the college social network is a truly terrible target. They're mainly students, with low disposable income, of course; but, beyond that, the users appear to be too busy leaving messages for each other to show much interest in advertising. Facebook's members appear indifferent even to movie advertising aimed at their demographic. Clickthrough rates, the percentage of time users click on an ad, average 0.04%, just 400 clicks in every 1m views, according to one report seen by Valleywag."
7. Difficult To Scale
It is easy to scale up a television campaign. Buy more airtime. It is easy to scale up an Adwords campaign. Increase the number of keyword terms and/or bids. How do you scale up a social media campaign? You can't re-create viral. Viral is hit and miss. All word of mouth is hit and miss. How many people can you cost-effectively follow on Twitter?
Social media tends to pay dividends in the long-term. Social media, generally speaking, is hard to influence, but by understanding your field well and creating relationships in your niche, you can learn to create the types of content that influencers will pick up on. Like the mavens in The Tipping Point, they will spread your message for you.
Forging such meaningful relationships won't happen overnight.
Where Social Media Pays Off
Ok, I admit it. This post has been a bit of a rant :)
It's not all bad news.
Whilst not a replacement for a marketing strategy, social media can be a viable component of a wider marketing strategy. It can be used to generate buzz. It can be used to attract links. One well placed article can achieve both these ends. If that buzz, and those links, can then be translated into a valuable relationship, and perhaps better Google rankings for commercial keywords, then the social media approach may well pay dividends.
In order to do this, social media must be back-ended with content geared towards establishing a valuable relationship, rather than one-off visits.
Marketing exists for one purpose: to sell stuff. If it doesn't do that, then it isn't marketing.
The key to evaluating social media marketing, like with with all media spends, lies in tracking and cost/benefit analysis. If traffic provides you with a measurable return on investment, then the marketing spend is justified. The only traffic worth anything is that which ultimately results in revenue producing interaction.
The problem I find with social media traffic is that so little of it ever does.
Your mileage may vary.
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