Real People… The Oversight of Social (Media) Marketing

Marketing and corporate communications on social networks are all the rage, I’m somewhat involved and impressed myself (and available for hire) – but something of the social is constantly overlooked: Even as all those communications are supposed to circle around the individual, provide and prove corporate social engagement, and tap into the power of word-of-mouth, there is all too much advertising and audience-building, and all too little real social interaction with actual people.

In particular, this plays out in two arenas:

  1. the social interaction between brand representatives and interested potential customers in real life, and
  2. the interaction that is invited when people publicly express their interest in a brand/product, not least by/in blogs.

The problem is this: if you are Target  and you can track the purchases of your customers in order to data-mine them and tailor your offers, then you may be in the position that social media marketers wanted to achieve. You have insight into your customers’ behaviors and you can “speak” to them in just the ways they are susceptible to – even if those cases require rather more *in*direct approaches so as not to scare everyone off.

As another – more common – kind of company with (hitherto) less direct interaction, you can continue to use advertising. It can work well enough if your target group is well-defined and reachable, but otherwise just spreads information widely and hopes enough of it will stick somewhere it results in sales – meaning that even companies who pay millions for Superbowl ads still get ~70% of their (new) sales from word-of-mouth (as is the number often peddled but seemingly not very well corroborated).
Or, you can go onto social media and get more direct interaction that will (supposedly) result in a deeper relationship, direct feedback, word-of-mouth marketing driving sales, ponies and rainbows.

Looking at the statistics on what effect companies are achieving via social media, though, there is quite the disconnect between corporate and customer expectations:

What customers want from the companies, apart from the basic information about their products and (maybe) help in deciding about a purchase or if there are problems post-sale, is nothing much more than rebates. Special offers. Many, if not most, company updates are just noise.

The number of “likes” thus doesn’t mean a thing, it’s a marketing “one night stand“.

Just consider where you’d look for detailed reviews and reports on the actual usage of a product you are interested in. Probably, it would be on retail/review websites or personal blogs on which people actively and deeply describe their experiences, not on any site, let alone social media profile, under the company’s direct control.

There’s the rub.

Such portals to user’s minds, especially in the case of blogs that allow commenting, would be invitations to connect. An entry on a company’s Facebook wall or a tag in a public status update are admonishments to get in touch.

So, when there are questions, comments, or complaints done like that, company representatives are welcome – if not outright expected – to provide answers and participate in the discussion; and giving at least the impression that customer complaints and suggestions are proactively sought out would raise the company profile tremendously – if done right.

It would have to be as one discussion partner among others, though (even if with – hopefully – good/better answers from the inside), not as a marketer.

Companies, however, all too often prefer sticking to the social media platforms where they can control the discussion, stick to marketing speak and the corporate communications line, rather than get into the more open ways of actual conversations – and thus they miss a chance to interact with users who are really engaged, to help along the word-of-mouth marketing they are supposedly on the Web 2.0 to promote, to gain valuable feedback and show that the company is listening (and that they are not “a company” but actual people who make a product they themselves care about).

The problems go deeper, though, as the real social aspects of business appear to be getting lost more and more. Especially as companies get bigger, and social media promise more chances of talking to customers and letting them amplify “the message,” there is more of a search to reach “the greatest audience” rather than influence actual, individual, people.

The hope is that there will be more and more “likes” and “followers,” an advertisement will go viral – but meanwhile, quality of products and enthusiasm of gatekeepers would be the real driver.

”New authors traditionally are nurtured by bookstore personnel, especially in independent bookstores. These people literally hand sell books to their customers, by saying, “I’ve read this. I think you’re going to love it.” Not to mention the fact that a bookstore is a small cultural center in a community. That’s definitely a loss.” ~Scott Turow, Why We Should Fear Amazon

The situation with books (see the quote) applies to most products that are available in a wide range of choices and require quite some deliberation: The best “social medium” to help a customer decide what to get is an experienced friend, a knowledgeable reviewer, or an enthusiastic salesperson. People who know the product well, are excited about it, and are able and willing to listen and help…

There’s a reason why the highest luxury and quality is not found off-the-rack, but in the skillful customization for the individual done in bespoke production, after all. With the higher number of hardly-distinct products and the higher options for customization, the real social interaction behind sales, based on competent advice and real conversation as well as obvious enthusiasm about the product and care about the customer becomes ever more important.

We are not just “likers” and “followers,” let alone mere customers, after all – we are human beings.

And what's your take?