The social media brand problem (or the 20% solution)

Bensimon Byrne's Max Valiquette looks at how people don't actually want to engage brands on social media (but do anyway).

By Max Valiquette

Blah, blah, blah. Social media this and social media that. We get it: you’re a marketer and all you’ve heard about for the past three years is that your brand has got to be active in social media. No matter what.

First, maybe you were clueless, then maybe you were cautious, then you talked to your legal team and wondered how people get anything done, and finally you’ve managed to get a Facebook page and a Twitter feed going (which doesn’t mean that your legal team isn’t still a pain).

But your brand is in social, and this makes sense. The speedy adoption of social networks, especially in Canada, represents an enormous shift in media habits. As marketers, we know that it’s pretty much impossible to market a brand now without some sort of social media presence, even if we don’t exactly know what it means.

Our latest Consumerology study, which we’ll be getting into in detail over the next few columns, is all about social media. Instead of just surveying the general population, we’ve decided to focus this particular survey on a slightly smaller sub-set of Canadians: those who are actively engaged in social networks.

Our gut feeling tells us these folks represent where everyone is going. Truthfully, we wish we’d studied the heavy Facebook adopters three or four years ago, when just (just!) a few million Canadians were using it. Now that 20 million or so Canadians are on FB, we think it makes sense to ask people about other developing social media (from established giants like YouTube and Twitter to newer up-and-comers like FourSquare and Google+.) Lots of data to come.

But first things first: out of everything we’ve learned there’s one standout number that shopper marketers have to pay attention to: 20%.

Only 20% of our respondents (people who are active in social networks) say following a brand or connecting to a company was actually a worthwhile reason for getting involved in social media.

That was dead last of all of the potential options we provided in our survey: we didn’t ask if people used social media to correspond with prison inmates (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but we pretty much gave ‘em every other option.

And still, connecting to a brand was dead last.

We like to think of this as the lie that we tell ourselves, even as we build out Facebook brand pages and write Twitter feeds in the voices of our spokespeople: we pretend that our customers actually want to follow brands. They do, of course, but they don’t want to.

There was a blog post from the founder of Instapaper a few months ago: a guy named Marco Arment took some of the major tech brands to task for the lies they peddle over social media. Facebook’s big lie was, of course, “Our users want to interact with brands.”

Arment’s not wrong – if anything, he may have been wrong in limiting that to Facebook. According to our research, it appears to be true of all social networks. If we want to have an impact on purchase behaviour, it’s best to remember that. It’s not surprising that the brands that do best in social are digitally focused: eBay, Apple and Amazon are good examples.

We can’t pretend that social media has radically changed the way consumers view brands, or marketing. The people who wanted to fast forward through television commercials aren’t all of a sudden happier to connect to these brands in social. The sheer connectedness of our marketing messages into the media and personal world of our customers hasn’t created an environment of greater openness to marketing messages, if anything, our customers are more aware of their intrusiveness. Our shopper marketing messages may be easier to send than ever before – but our customers may be less interested in listening.

Max Valiquette is the managing director of intellectual property and content development at Bensimon Byrne. For more information on Consumerology, or to download a copy, go to