Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Why Social Media Really Matters

Summary: marketing has shifted steadily over time from passive to active consumer engagement. Social media is the latest stage in this evolution. Marketers need to master new skills at each stage; as they do, advertising budgets will shift to take advantage of the new medium's increased effectiveness.

Of all that research I mentioned last week, two pairs of facts stood out. One was the disparity between the time people spend on online activities (20% to 30% of total media time) and the share of advertising expenditures spent online (10% to 15%). Although some difference may be justified by the differences in media effectiveness, this still suggests to me that ad spending will continue to shift into online media until the spending is roughly proportional.

The other disparity was that search accounts for 5% of online time but 60% of online ad spending. Some of this may be due to the fact that it’s much easier to buy search advertising (think Google AdWords) than other types of online ads. But I think the primary reason is that search serves as a gateway to other Internet activity—so marketers wishing to drive traffic to their own Web sites need search advertising to make this happen.

The final, related factoid is that social media have grown from virtually nothing to nearly 20% of online time over the past few years. This matters because social media are an alternative gateway to finding Web content: instead of doing a search, I can ask my online community for information or recommendations. Thus, social media present a major threat to search advertising revenues. Although social media currently gather under 3% of online advertising, this will surely change as marketers work to find ways to exploit its potential. If you’ve been wondering why Google should be concerned about Twitter and Facebook, that’s your answer.

These shifts from offline to online advertising and from search to social media suggest a progression through four stages:

1. mass media, or broadcasting: this began in the late 19th century with the emergence of national brands and national print media. Today it is represented primarily by television. You can date TV-dominated era from, say, 1950 to 1985.

2. database marketing, or, more poetically, narrowcasting. This is about direct contact with segmented groups of customers. Date it from 1985 to 1997.

3. search marketing. This is characterized by use of search engines to drive traffic to Web sites. I’m being arbitrary but let's date it from 1998 to 2007.

4. social marketing. This is use of social media to connect with consumers. I’ll date it from 2008, although effective marketing uses of social media are just starting to emerge.

As each new medium has emerged over years, some portion of advertising dollars has shifted from the preexisting media. Of course, the old media don’t go away completely. Indeed, traditional mass media (including radio and print as well as TV) still account for the largest share of advertising spend.

The four media differ along several dimensions. These include:

- consumer engagement. Broadcast is the most passive medium; essentially, it’s yelling at people who may or may not be interested in the message. The audience in database marketing is still passive, but it's targeted at segments that marketers have some reason to believe are interested. With search marketing, the consumer takes a somewhat active role in deciding what to look for, even though the ads themselves are still placed by marketers. With social marketing, control is directly in the hands of consumers, who decide which messages they will receive.

- authority. I find this an intriguing concept. Basically it has to do with how consumers decide which messages they should believe. In the mass media, authority is essentially conferred – people believe things because they are "seen on TV" or have the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval". With database marketing, the medium (typically direct mail, more recently email or telephone) doesn’t itself confer much authority, so the message itself must command attention because it’s relevant to the consumer’s needs of the moment. This relevance motivates the recipient to actively explore the marketing offer and assess whether its source is credible.

In search marketing, the source of authority is implicitly based on the group itself: Google PageRank is largely determined by the number of links to a Web site – a version of “wisdom of the crowd”. With social marketing, group-based authority is explicit: consumers can see the number of followers, recommendations, reviews and other ratings provided by group members and decide whether to trust them.

- post-sale relationship. This defines the relationship between the marketer and consumer after the initial purchase. In the mass media world, the relationship barely exists: customers use the product and, hopefully, like it enough to buy it again. At most they ask for service if there’s a problem. With database marketing, post-sales contacts become important for cross-sell, upsell and retention. Indeed, this is where database marketing truly shines because it’s where rich data is available for targeting and relationship building.

Search marketing reaches a new level of engagement because customers can interact directly with the company Web site. This lets them initiate transactions, send messages, and in some cases actually change product configurations such as setting telephone features. With social marketing, consumers take direct control, initiating engagement themselves and, even more important, publicly sharing their engagements with other community members.

- marketing focus. This shows the critical task that marketers must master. With mass media, the primary marketing goal is selecting a message that builds a successful brand. For database marketers, the key skill is effective segmentation. Search marketing is primarily focused on developing content, both to attract traffic via organic search and to meet consumer needs once they appear at the site. For social marketing, the ultimate goal is convincing consumers to become brand advocates. Content is still important, of course, but its nature shifts from information that visitors consume to tools like widgets that empower them to share their enthusiasm with others.

The following table summarizes these dimensions.

mediumconsumer engagementauthoritypost-sale relationshipmarketing focus
mass media (broadcasting)passively exposedconferredservice / supportbrand message
database marketing (narrowcasting)targetedrelevance-basedcross sell / upsell / retentionsegmentation
search marketingactivity-triggeredimplicit groupWeb self-servicecontent
social marketingconsumer-controlledexplicit grouppublic engagementempowerment

At the risk of stating the obvious, the table shows a steady increase in consumer empowerment from the passive receipt of mass marketing message to active control in social media. Because this is a fundamental change from traditional mass media marketing, it has several important implications:

- for each new medium, marketers must learn new skills.

- as marketers learn new skills, they will use the new medium more effectively.

- as marketers use the new medium more effectively, it will receive increasing portions of their ad budgets.

- since social media is very new, its share of advertising budgets will continue to grow for some time.

In short, social media matters not because it's cool, but because it offers marketers a new and more effective way to reach their consumers. Marketers who fail to master the required skills will fall behind marketers who do.


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Jake Rosen said...

David, great post. I think you are stating some of the obvious for marketers and others in this space, but it is important to tell the story over and over again because there are so many novices out there. Your point about social media yielding a steady increase in consumer empowerment hits the nail on the head. Give people power, show they are valuable and your brand will generate some real affinity.