Holidays 2008: Social Media Was Just Talk

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

For all the spending and related buzz about social media this year, it didn’t do much for getting folks to actually buy anything, did it?

I know such sentiments amount to damnable heresy. So many companies are spending so much money on digital campaigns, chat rooms, and on monitoring the incessant chatter that emerges thereby/therefrom. A multitude of agencies, staffed by enthusiastic experts who’ve been encouraging such activities, are aggressively promoting more such activities…primarily because so many companies are doing them. It’s cheaper than creating TV commercials, and delivers more eyeballs than a print ad. Best of all, social media let people interact with, or otherwise touch, your branding. 

Isn’t it about time that somebody asked why?

If you haven’t already heard about this season’s "best" viral campaigns, you will soon: whether an almost-funny little movie about what happens to insensitive husbands and boyfriends from JCPenney, the always-entertaining "dancing elves" e-card from OfficeMax, a similarly customizable makeup toy from Sephora, or another one that I missed…the success will be based on how many people saw, played with, and/or forwarded the stuff. 

But here are some nagging context issues that won’t get a lot of coverage:

  • The content of these campaigns is inherently more credible if it makes no claims to credibility
  • Relevance is directly proportional to authenticity, and indirectly proportional to expectation
  • Only the stuff that is apparently worthless possesses any value

It just seems silly to carp about consumers not wanting to buy anything when we spent so much money and creativity avoiding the very suggestion that we wanted to sell stuff to them.

Even some of the most educated tomes on social media require a de facto cognitive dissonance that encourages businesses to work overtime to avoid selling anything. "That’s the old model," or "The language of the Internet is collaboration and consensus." For every case history offered as a reason to embark on a social media campaign, there’s another one held up as an illustrative mistake to avoid (the Motrin Mom catastrophe being one of the latest, or pretty much anything Wal-Mart ever tries to do online).

But what do they illustrate, exactly?

Corporate reputation is already at historic lows, as is customer satisfaction. For all of the effort companies have made to embrace social media — what big company doesn’t already have somebody blogging because, well, "ya just gotta do it and experiment" — only 16% of Americans actually trust what those companies blather on about. Only about one-third of consumers who post anything in a company-involved social media experiment believe they’re even heard, let alone subsequently satisfied.

The reality of P2P online sharing, whether as a distribution medium for information or a crucible for the emergence of fact and opinion, is a phenomenon that every business must understand and address. Its impact reaches far beyond the purview of the folks who do marketing, though: informational sites like promise to rewrite the way brands are conceived and delivered to consumers.  

So, for all of the buzz about social media this year, I think we saw that all of that conversation did a lot for agency revenue, and it kept the Twitter crowd busy telling one another how with it they all were. But making the leap to impacting sales, or building anything sustainable (and sustainably valuable) over time, remained a chasm that has yet to be crossed. It’s the void between fiction and fact.

I think we’re seeing that people don’t believe companies when we pretend that we’re not selling stuff to them. Corporations have spent the last few years effectively lying to the public, and we’re surprised that it hasn’t done much for sales?

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