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Beware Of The Social Media Marketing Maniacs!

Wasn’t advertising invented to overcome the limitations of word of mouth marketing?

Until Social Media Marketing As A Service matures or establishes a reliable method of demonstrating ROI, it is not necessarily a smart investment for small or medium sized businesses. Beware of the hype. Of the thousands of “Social Media Gurus” popping up, how many of them have actually created a successful campaign for clients using social media tools? I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find half a dozen with real track records.

Social Media: if you haven’t heard about this latest craze then either you’ve been hiding under a rock, or you’ve actually been working hard and creating value. Lately I’ve been hearing it from every direction: “Social Media is the next big thing in marketing,” “your business needs a social media presence,” “social media is replacing traditional media…”

I’ve been an active participant in Social media since 2002, starting with Friendster, and then MySpace soon thereafter. Seven years later, I’m here to tell you that it’s mostly hype when it comes to it’s marketing potential.

Social Mania Marketing (what I will call it from this point forward) is nothing more than the digital equivalent of a good old fashioned high school popularity contest. It has seen a meteoric rise in participation because people are able to share information using the traditional social paradigms they are comfortable with and used to, yet the previous barriers of location and access from person to person are gone thanks to instant social networks.

As Hollie Shaw explains, Social Media marketing is like the oldest form of marketing around: word of mouth. Staging an effective social media campaign means attempting to shape the message of your brand through more channels and conversations than anyone could possibly control or actively influence.

This is basis of my argument: direct advertising was invented in order to overcome the logistical challenges of influencing and rising above a million different conversations. The rush to “control” social media might just lie in a misunderstanding of what social media is and isn’t. The cost of deploying an effective army of advocates is prohibitive for smaller companies when compared to the obvious: buy a sign in the rooms where the conversation happens!

For a business owner, it’s like joining the world’s biggest Rotary Club online, and you are just one in a million people trying to make waves. Seems like a great opportunity, right?

Question1 : What are the Realistic Labor Requirement for an Effective SMM Campaign?

So, lets just imagine for a second what it would be like joining a Rotary Club with 300 MILLION users (the population of Facebook). That’s a bunch of people. Fortunately, these people are connected in rather “organic” ways based on interests and location.

Now, just think about how much time it will require for you, or someone you hire to generate effective influence in the marketplace on a one-on-one basis in this virtual world? If you are time rich and cash poor (you are unemployed or underemployed), then by all means, plug away. Social Mania marketing is basically free, so if you are willing to work very hard at it, you will no doubt win some hearts and minds. But how much ROI are you really going to glean from sitting around all day trying to win friends and influence people to BUY something on a Network designed for leisure socializing?

Social media depends on original content, and a lot of it, every day, for months. The REAL marketing industry suggests that an effective social media campaign requires a staff of writers to publish blogs, tweets, updates, video, podcasts, competitions, and more to create a buzz. Now what small business can afford this?

Think of it this way, you are faced with the exact same problems and barriers to entry in the virtual space of Social Mania networks as the real world. At the end of the day, the guy who wants to get people’s attention will BUY a sign. A paid sign in virtual space is still a paid sign. Compared with search advertising for example, you have the advantage of connecting right at the moment where someone is looking for you.

Deja vu moment: this is startlingly familiar to the other hyped up grassroots marketing crazes of the recent past: email lists, “secret” SEO tricks, blogging for bucks, viral videos, etc. Remember how email list marketing destroyed email for a couple of years: where you spent half of your time trying to clean your mailbox?

Question 2: Are You Going Viral or Are You Just Cold Calling in Cyberspace?

New business does spread via the networks, and there is no denying that the “grapevine effect” is exponentially amplified, often spontaneously, and with or without your input. People plug things voluntarily all the time. In this article, I reference two or three other articles voluntarily. But most of the time things start catching a buzz because people really like a restaurant, a movie, or a band. This highly coveted and elusive “viral loop” phenomenon often happens independently of the originators and producers, and is more akin to writing a hit pop song than a measurable service that can be “turned on”.

Plugging yourself to strangers is different than a viral loop: that’s virtual cold calling. Most people consider self-promotion extremely uncool when on these networks, and will de-friend you or turn off your notifications/updates immediately. As media network users mature, they inevitably become increasingly guarded and selective about making passing associations. Anyone who was around in the early days of MySpace can attest to the “add request fatigue” from bands shamelessly plugging themselves. Products and brands are faced with the same dilemma: frankly, it is inappropriate. No thanks,I don’t want to be friends with Mitchell’s Duct Cleaning Service.

Consider the difficulties that Facebook and MySpace have had monetizing their own networks. If the people running the thing can’t divert users attention toward commercial interests, then how are you or your Internet Guru buddy going to do it?

The realm of Social Mania networks is largely a place where people talk about themselves, keep up with the waists and hairlines of their graduating class, and try to find a mate. It’s not necessarily the place to try and sell Insurance or suspension bushings. The problem is simple: most people are not there to shop or do business. Google and Yahoo search on the other hand is just the opposite. 55% of local searches are made with the intent to buy!

Consider Bill Gurleys analysis:

There is ample historical data that proves web sites like these are inherently difficult to monetize. Most other online communication products have had similar struggles. Two great examples of this: the many leading players in the Instant Messaging (IM) space (AIM, ICQ, Yahoo Messenger) and the leading free email sites (Hotmail, Yahoo Mail). These products/sites have always had some of the lowest eCPMs on the Internet. Many speculate that this is because the user is so heavily engaged in using the product (i.e. communicating) that they are unlikely to be distracted by or engaged in an advertising message.

Question 3: A tool for existing customer relations? Yes! Attracting new clientele? Not so much…

As Gene Marks points out, Social media is not a place for marketing, it’s a place for service. At best, offering pro-bono help or advice to your existing clients will boost customer satisfaction, but then again that makes the possibility of hiring a 3rd part proxy to do it for you problematic: if you are a financial consultant, you can’t hire an internet pro to consult on the advantages of Roth IRA to some people you’ve managed to introduce yourself to.

Social Mania is about having a participant in the conversation about your product or service. If you are lucky enough to have anyone talk about your product or service online, then you want to actively participate and guide the discussion. This is where social media has it’s core value.

Social Media, if anything has brands on the defensive. Alerts are setup so that anytime someone “tweets” a keyword about your brand, your brand’s evangelists or advocates will get involved in the discussion either cheerleading, or performing damage control.

If this seems like it has the potential to get annoying to users, then you might be right. This exact same problem has existed on User Groups and forums for quite a while: it’s called Trolling and Plugging. Web users despise people who chime into a conversation out of nowhere and extol the virtues of a product or service. On forums, it’s been a common tactic to ban members who join only to plug or defend a commercial product or service. Everyone knows that person is on the payroll.

Question 4: Have You Compared Your Minimum Cost and ROI Between Social Marketing Services vs Traditional and Direct Advertising?

My biggest argument against Social Mania for active small business owners is ROI. If you are a busy businessperson, then you don’t have time to spend hours per day building and maintaining your network of potential clients. Paying for someone to do this means hiring a “web professional” of some caliber who will need to clock in a lot of time to be effective. Anyone who tells you that they can make anything significant happen on your social media campaign in a few months is clearly delusional.

The social media marketing companies that do have success charge a lot of money, because the labor requirements of one-on-one propaganda is in the virtual world are the equivalent of hiring employees who can not only work consistently to maintain real-time content, but also understand how to develop and measure results and progress using statistical tools. Consider what B.L. Ochman says in Business Week:

…integrating these tools into a corporate marketing program requires skill, time, and money. The budget for an effective social media marketing campaign begins at $50,000 for two to three months. I’m sure companies have spent less, and I know they’ve spent more.

The truth is that proving ROI is recognized as the biggest challenge for social media. Even the best face significant criticism of their methodologies.

So as a small business owner, it’s more logical to take the thousands of dollars required to experiment with social media, and spend it on paid advertising in channels that can demonstrate ROI. Start with a managed Adwords campaign, then move into Billboards, Radio, & TV.

Question 5: If marketing reps flood social, then doesn’t that ruin what was great about it?

Social Mania is already faced with a tremendous problem we are familiar with: spam. Thanks to the design of social networks, normally one must win the acceptance of another user before you can communicate with them. This is exactly like email, however it takes it a step further with an opt-in. Spam is still happening though, with an army of Marketeers creating fake users who try to win your trust so they can start plugging their wares.

What is killing MySpace is this exact problem: people are bombarded with ad requests from people they have never heard of. In the same way you must clean your inbox, you must clean your requests box.

In conclusion, there will be thousands of people in Nashville flocking to social media this year because everyone else is doing it, but little of it will make a difference for most of them. For those companies who do invest money in it to do it well, it’s a precarious investment at best.

That said, if you haven’t already, get yourself a Facebook and Twitter account, enjoy it’s many interesting features and functions, and spend no more than 30 minutes a day keeping up with your circle of influence and promoting your product. The key to social media is genuine participation. Social Networks are an amazing resource to keep tabs on the people in your life, but the hype surrounding it as a turnkey marketing solution as a service is exaggerated.

Don’t miss Gene Marks insightful article about Social Mania and it’s limitations.

Related Article By Ernie Gray: Why Position Part Of Your Ad Budget To Web?