Crowded Space: A Business Case for Social Media?

A look at reaching target consumers through social media, but more importantly why companies would want to and whether or not a strategy of this type is justified. (from a talk given Oct 12,2010 at Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado, Boulder)

Thoughts on Social Media Marketing

I believe that beyond ubiquity, there is one core reason why the topic of brand engagement in social media is so hot right now – that consumers have become jaded by decades of interruption. We tivo our commercials. We hang up on telemarketers. We throw away junk mail. We walk into movies late.  Couple those psychological factors with the measurability of online activity, and the availability of these word-of-mouth vehicles, and we have the shadow of a successful messaging vector.   I say it’s only a shadow, because the point of message origination, and the messaging itself is nearly impossible to control. 

To fully flesh out this vector, we need to understand where point A is, and I think that challenge leads a lot of people into the confusion around engagement that we see today.   Companies wishing to engage this space should understand two things:

  • That control was a function of broadcast messaging, and does not exist here. In social media, we trade control for influence.
  • That social media engagement represents a Copernican revolution in the way the company interacts with it’s customers.

In this space, engagement is truly social, and the conversation can quickly go south. It needs to be honest, forthright and transparent. It needs a very trusted spokesperson at the wheel, with solid goals and contingency plans, but engagement begins by planting the seeds. 

It’s kinda like pushing a car out of a snowdrift.  Nobody’s going to be able to push the car out in one lunge – the car is far too heavy, and the ground is too slick.  The best you can do is slowly start rocking the car, give it a nudge, let it rock back past where it was, and give it another shove.  The car absorbs your energy, which makes it seem hard to push, but it also stores the energy you exert, and after some effort, the car has momentum of its own, and pops out of the drift.  Silly analogy?  I think the point comes through though, that despite all the admonitions to engage with otherwise socially responsible behavior, to be effective in word-of-mouth, marketers have to not only communicate transparently, but instigate subtly.

What IS point A? Point A is the audience, and they are gaining momentum.

What IS Social Media, Really?

What’s referred to as ‘social media’ is simply a manifestation of our inherently social nature enhanced by a level of technological prowess that we’ve become BORED with. We’re not talking about the latest and greatest thing in technology, we’re talking about things that have become so ubiquitous that they’ve become commonplace, and that’s when things become socially interesting – when I can talk about it with anyone, that’s when media becomes valuable. Social Media is a solidarity good – the more people use it, the more valuable it becomes.

As far as I’m concerned, social media is a really broad category.  It is technology that empowers non-technical people to communicate.  The lines are very blurry, and it could arguably go back to the telephone or the printing press – perhaps we simply don’t recognize that association because no one was ever successful at pushing advertising into people’s phone conversations? 

So, it’s not one thing – it’s lots and lots of things. But realistically, social media today relies mostly on that transparent and boring old technology known as the internet, and a class of that known sometimes as User-Generated Content.

Now, this user generated content is nothing new, it’s merely gained momentum by measurably affecting interruption advertising and push messaging.  Some companies are embracing a social approach simply because it’s the new IN thing, but the savvy companies embrace it because of the metrics they can extract.

I’m very intrigued with the marketing application, and the way this technology is impacting traditional, but I’m surprised by the seemingly widespread confusion associated with engagement.  This is the stuff we learned in kindergarten – you be nice, people will play with you.  When you’re a jerk or a showoff, they split.

Social Media Infiltrates the Traditional Agency

Traditional media has been shaken to the core by an exodus to the web in the past few years. Some attribute the changes to the economy, while others point to growth in broadband and the general availability of information on the internet. This paradigm shift is most certainly an amalgamation of several factors, including perception of ad efficacy in various channels.

Newspaper readership has dwindled and a sad few have closed their doors completely. Subscriptions were down, but worse, the 2008 ad spend dropped nearly 30% in some categories.1 Reach and performance metrics acted as the harbinger in this dive, but the industry should not discount psychographic factors from both sides of the advertising fence.

“The explosion in Consumer Generated Media over the last couple of years means consumers’ reliance on word of mouth in the decision-making process, either from people they know or online consumers they don’t, has increased significantly,” said Jonathan Carson, President of Online, International, for the Nielsen Company. Nielsen recently published some staggering numbers along with the assertion that “consumers trust real friends and virtual strangers the most”. Another statement made in this release urges advertisers to “be encouraged by the fact that brand websites are trusted at that same 70 percent level as online consumer opinions,”2 placing a thin veil over the curious demon that is tormenting both brands and their agencies: that online consumer opinion currently carries the same weight as brand websites.

Nielsen: Consumers Trust (April 2009)

Interestingly, there appear to be few correlations between the Nielsen data and 2008 ad spend reported by AdAge, below,3 but there are some that could be drawn. The reality is that consumer-generated media is such uncharted territory for some, that the numbers are not being presented alongside traditional spend. The source for the AdAge data reports that Internet data reflects “display ads only.”4

AdAge: Breakdown of the 2008 Advertising Dollar (LNA 100)

TNS 2008 U.S. measured media for all advertisers including LNA 100: $142 billion.

Reflecting on 2008 ad spend, we can envision multi-channel integrated campaigns where frequency still reigns supreme, but there are several key indicators of shift in message and delivery.

During the recent Cannes ad festival, the awards were dominated by PR and Integrated campaigns, which AdAge Editor Laurel Wentz described as “a clear admission that the age of interruption is over.” Wentz goes on to say, “This is a [winners] list dominated by attempts to engage consumers and deeply involve them in brands.”

David Lubars, Chairman/CCO of BBDO North America puts it another way, “The way the world is heading is voluntary engagement … The work has to be a magnet.”5

What does this mean to an agency being approached with the question of Social Media?

Rather than engage the insights and experience of established interactive agencies, some traditional agencies are forging the road ahead, attempting to develop expertise in-house, and finding the task to be formidable. In a recent interview, Alex Bogusky, Chairman of CP+B said, “we’ll see a lot of longstanding big agencies struggling.” Traditional media seems to be, he said, “freaking out.”6 CP+B has been venturing into the realm of Social Media recently, and have even put forth a beta site that leans heavily on consumer-generated content.

Agencies looking to develop Social Media strategies internally are finding that some foundational marketing concepts must change. Of course, a successful Social Media campaign would first set out to identify groups in which the target demographic is active, yet base the overall strategy not on sites, but on goals. To participate effectively in this space means the abandonment of push messaging in favor of a more dynamic, conversational style. The message would be developed around a core set of questions that the target market would be expected to have curiosity around, and achieve frequency with timely delivery of on-message keyword phrases. Trust and credibility must fostered and developed by engaging the audience with as much transparency as possible. Listening is one of the most critical aspects, both conversationally and analytically, but it’s all too often missed.

Recently, aspiring adman Byron King “infiltrated” Social Media, in an attempt to gain favor with CP+B, if not a job. King created a persona as an “Interactive Mole”7 with the stated goal of generating the type of buzz that would cause someone within CP+B to reference his work on Twitter. Ironically enough, the inside man that fell for the ruse was none other than Wojtek Szumowski,8 CPB’s in-house sociologist, and posts related to King’s travails then dominated the front page of the CP+B beta site. King earned a LinkedIn recommendation from Alex Bogusky himself,9 but not a job.

Are you listening?

1. Source: Newspaper Association of America, “Advertising Expenditures”, Date not cited,
2. Source: Nielsen, “Global Advertising: Consumers Trust Real Friends and Virtual Strangers the Most”, July 7th, 2009
3. Source: AdAge, “Spending Fell (Only) 2.7% in ’08. The Real Issue: ’09”, June 22, 2009
4. Source: TNS Media Intelligence, “TNS Media Intelligence Reports U.S. Advertising Expenditures Declined 14.2 Percent First Quarter 2009”, June 10, 2009
5. Source: AdAge, (subscription) “Cannes Swept by PR, Integrated, Internet Winners”, June 29, 2009
6. Source: The Huffington Post, “Embrace For Impact: Alex Bogusky Discusses Social Media and Long Term Changes in the Media Landscape”, July 10, 2009
7. Source: Byron King, “The Mole Project”, July 15, 2009
8. Source: Twitter,
9. Source: LinkedIn