The new social media realities

Taxi's Thomas Kenny breaks down why brands have yet to adapt to the new social world.

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By Thomas Kenny

The social landscape has changed dramatically for brands in the past two years. We’ve quickly discovered that the promise of a new day where brands and consumers converse, collaborate and champion each other was, at best, overstated and, at worst, a ruse.

The good news is that, as we continue to live and breathe within these still nascent mediums, we’re beginning to better understand their shortcomings and, more importantly, their potential. What follows is a list of four macro trends occurring in social media and some suggestions for how brands should be reacting to them.

The “community” fallacy

The greatest trick that Facebook ever pulled was making marketers believe that brand fanatics actually exist. For the past five years, marketers have been reading monthly social reports wherein brand supporters express their unrelenting devotion to [insert brand name here]. These reports have conditioned us to believe that somewhere out there (Saskatchewan maybe?) exists an army of devotees eagerly awaiting each new update, desperate to jump through whatever hoops we set out for them.

But for all except a handful of brands, these people don’t exist. And if they do, there are very few of them – not enough for us to be designing programs and strategies for. Instead, we should be thinking about designing programs that have as few barriers to participation as possible and creating content that will be compelling to enough people to actually move our businesses.

Organic reach is gone

This shouldn’t come as news to anyone. We’ve all read the angry letters to Zuckerberg persecuting him for betraying our trust in exchange for increased ad revenue (Et tu, Brute?!).

What’s really baffling is that this turn of events came as such a surprise to everyone.

Instead, what should be surprising is how few brands have adjusted their strategies accordingly. In the past 24 months, the organic reach for branded pages on Facebook has dropped from between 15% and 20% to less than 3%.

What most people don’t talk about is that this isn’t a problem unique to Facebook. A recent test found that on Twitter, most tweets are only seen by a very small percentage of followers – less than 5%.

Yet many brands continue to throw posts into the social abyss without promotion. Let’s put this in very clear terms – your number of page likes and followers doesn’t matter. If you don’t support content with media, it’s not getting seen. And because it’s not getting seen, it’s not worth the investment that goes into creative development, production, approvals, analytics, etc.

In response, what many brands have begun doing, and all brands should be doing, is dramatically reducing their posting frequency and ensuring that most, if not all, posts receive paid support.

Expressions over interactivity

When social media first exploded on the scene, we were told that consumers would become active participants in building brands. This was true, but not in the way that many of us interpreted it to be.

It was true in the sense that people now had platforms in which they could share their experiences with products and brands and, perhaps most significantly, hold them accountable. What it did not mean, however, was that people would want to spend the better part of their afternoon creating a submission for your user-generated content program (“Create a short film telling us why you love our toilet cleaners in exchange for $2 off your next purchase!”).

Brands are realizing that the more complex their digital programs are, the less likely people are to participate. Fading are the days of elaborate consumer-engagement programs and complicated Facebook contests. Brands have begun embracing simple brand expressions that ask nothing more of their audience than to click “play” at the start and hopefully click “share” once it’s over. Facebook’s recent emphasis on video and the tremendous success in social from campaigns like Always’ “Like A Girl” and Volvo’s “Epic Split” are great examples of this phenomenon in action.

The less we ask of our audience, the easier it is for them to engage. Interactivity isn’t inherently a bad thing, it just needs to be commensurate with what the participant gets back in return.

Scale Matters

“(For years) brands maintained a low hum of activity throughout the year but never put enough weight behind creative assets to move the needle on sales or attitudinal metrics.”

That quote is directly from an email I received from a North American Facebook rep explaining how brands should be investing their media dollars in social. Brands have spent the past several years spreading their Facebook and Twitter media dollars across multiple posts and multiple segments.

But what we’re learning now is that we’ve been spreading our dollars too thin and have never been putting enough weight behind posts to be truly impactful. The concept of “always on social” is appealing – but so is the concept of “always on TV.”

The problem is that investing enough to deliver media weights that will actually be impactful is way too expensive. So we need to stop striving for a steady drumbeat of activity – instead we should be thinking of how to make fewer posts more impactful for a bigger audience.

We’re quickly discovering that social isn’t the game-changing force it was heralded to be when it first emerged on the scene – at least not in the ways we expected. This isn’t to say that it can’t be a powerful tool for marketers. The key to unlocking its potential is to see it for was it is, not for what it was supposed to be.

Thomas-KennyThomas Kenny (@thomaskenny) is strategy director at Taxi in Toronto.