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The Brutal Truth About Social Media: It's OK to Be a Little Antisocial

Here's Why Most Consumers Will Never 'Engage' With Brands or Content, and Why It Doesn't Matter

By Published on . 21

I recently did an interview for AdAge.com titled "Viral-Video Genius Damian Kulash, Lead Singer of OK Go, Tells All." It attracted a lot of interest because of OK Go's Chevy-sponsored music video, an instant hit that had a cameo in a Super Bowl ad. Plenty of people shared the Q&A via social media, spurred on in part by a tweet from our official Twitter account, @adage, as well as a plug from @okgo.

Beyond retweeting us, some people responded to the band and to Ad Age on Twitter. One guy named Mark Naples emailed me directly: "This Kulash kid was a genius even in seventh grade," he wrote. "Damian was one of my students at St. Albans in D.C. He was writing really clever raps and other lyrics even then. A great kid. …" (These days, by the way, Naples has moved on from teaching and is managing partner at WIT Strategy.)

Social savvy and highly shared group OK Go.
Social savvy and highly shared group OK Go.

The seventh-grade teacher of "this Kulash kid" got me thinking about why people "engage" with content and brands -- why they've ever engaged with them -- and how social media has and hasn't changed fundamental truths about engaged consumers.

Many social-media "experts" insist that a "two-way conversation" between marketers and consumers is the whole point of social, and anything less than that is a reflection of outdated, broadcast-style thinking. But the reality is that many people follow and "friend" brands simply because they want to hear from those brands, not necessarily talk back.

If you look at the behavior of the Twitter audience of one particular specialized business publication (@adage, with more than 350,000 followers) and one well-known art-rock band (@okgo, with more than 650,000 followers), you'll see that most folks are only listening. Though Mark Naples could have reached out to OK Go or Ad Age on Twitter, he chose good old-fashioned email -- wisely, I'd say. OK Go, even though it's one of the most shared and socially savvy bands (its music videos have been viewed at least 300 million times), generally doesn't tweet back to fans that much. And I would have seen a tweet from Naples if he'd addressed it to @simondumenco, but he had more to say than would fit in 140 characters, so I'm glad he emailed.

Besides clicking on the links we serve up, retweeting is the thing followers of @adage and @okgo seem to do most. It's a form of engagement, sure, but a retweet is at its core a republication. Ad Age and OK Go are essentially broadcasters of content, and some of our "fans" volunteer to serve basically as broadcast-repeating stations via social media.

That sharing, made easy by social media, is highly valuable but not vastly different from what's seen in some old-school media. For instance, magazines have "pass-along readership," which is what allows Time Inc.'s People to claim 43 million readers per issue even though its total subscriber and newsstand distribution is 3.6 million. And libraries and mixtapes were early forms of file-sharing for books and music.

The Utopian notion of two-way conversations being the primary purpose of social is not only generally impractical and unscalable, but just not what most people want. I do my best to respond to tweets directed at me, but the vast majority of my followers are passive consumers of the tweets I publish and the content I share. And I have no problem at all with that .

Meanwhile, I happily accept my role as a passive consumer of some of the best content I see in social media. For instance, I follow Nebraska adman and Twitter wit Tim Siedell, aka @badbanana, who tweets random musings like "What's that thing that 's like Photoshop except way easier to use and it's for real life? Oh yeah, vodka."

I occasionally retweet Siedell's gems, and last year I bought his his Amazon Kindle ebook, "Marching Bands are Just Homeless Orchestras, Half-Empty Thoughts Vol. 1" (a $2.99 collection of some of his funniest tweets). But just because Siedell is on Twitter doesn't mean we have, or ever should have, a two-way conversation.

Siedell, God bless him, entertains; I sit back and get entertained.

Meanwhile, Twitter itself is becoming more like a traditional media company in that it's trying to find more and better ways to filter and present its content, while channeling users' interests and cuing their behavior. Consider its recent Ad Scrimmage project, with the tagline "Watch, vote and tweet your favorite Super Bowl commercial."

Savor the irony: Twitter baited its users into broadcasting their thoughts about the most expensive form of advertising on that antique broadcast medium known as TV.

So maybe it's OK to think of social as a form of broadcast media, at least some of the time? Though I'd say so, some social-media purists freak out at the idea.

For example, AdAge.com recently published a a guest post by Zach Rosenberg , director of the L.A. office of Horizon Media, titled "How to Turn Tweets Into Ratings Points." The gist of his argument was that if you're disseminating marketing messages via Twitter, it's useful to think about tracking and analyzing the reach and resonance of those messages.

Rosenberg proposed a formula for calculating Target Ratings Points (TRPs) for tweets based on a bunch of things, including the fact that the average Twitter user has 136 followers and that there's a 5% likelihood ("a conservative estimate based on partners who leverage the Twitter platform") that any of them will see any given tweet.

Rosenberg's post was shared widely -- it was tweeted 661 times, according to our on-page tweet counter, which tends to lowball. But it also attracted three angry comments -- so angry you'd think Rosenberg had proposed that Twitter somehow be used to drown kittens. Some choice excerpts:

"OMG LOL SRSLY? #FAIL. This is not only unnecessary, it's wrong. Twitter is a dynamic conversation driven by consumers; TRPs are a static estimation of passive commercial delivery."

"Social media is not a broadcast channel ... so please stop with these broadcast metrics and comparing it to media channels."

"After I checked that it wasn't April Fool's, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at this ridiculous post. And how did Ad Age allow this to be published? Social media is NOT a broadcast medium and never has been. Yet, many agencies, media, brands and marketers simply treat it as such."

While I agree that plenty of agencies, media, brands and marketers are pretty clueless about social media and misuse it a lot, the idea that "social media is not a broadcast medium and never has been" is folly.

My colleague Matt Creamer recently reported on AdAge.com that "slightly more than 1% of fans of the biggest brands on Facebook are actually engaging with the brands, according to a study from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, an Australia-based marketing think tank that counts Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and other major advertisers as its supporters." The study used one of Facebook's own metrics, People Talking About This. As Matt explained, that is the "running count of likes, posts, comments, tags, shares and other ways a user of the social network can interact with branded pages."

Matt quoted self-described Facebook advocate Karen Nelson-Field, senior research associate at the institute, on that 1% statistic: "I don't think it's a bad thing. People need to understand what [Facebook] can do for a brand and what it can't do. It doesn't really differ from mass media. It's great to get decent reach, but to change the way people interact with a brand overnight is just unrealistic."

To bring things full circle, I'll just point out that if you look back at ancient human history -- before 2006 (when Twitter launched) or before 2004 (when we got Facebook) -- people had plenty of ways of engaging with brands and content. It wasn't as simple as it is now, of course, but it wasn't terribly difficult. As long as any of us can remember, there have been toll-free numbers on the back of cake-mix boxes, letters to the editor at print publications, and call-in shows on TV and radio.

One of my fondest memories of early social/interactive media dates to my days at Milwaukee magazine. Fresh out of college, I worked as an editor-writer at my hometown's glossy, and part of my job was doing radio. Fellow staffer Jim Romenesko (who later gained fame as the ur-media blogger) and I would take turns making on-air appearances at a local station to discuss Milwaukee magazine stories and talk to readers calling in.

One day, the DJ announced, "Next up, we've got Ron on the line." The caller sounded breathless: "Si? It's Ron Fieber! Mr. Fieber -- your high-school history teacher! Remember me? I heard you on the radio and I just had to call in. I always knew you'd make something of yourself! Si, I'm proud of you. ..." And on and on, much to the DJ's delight and my embarrassment.

(I can't remember my stammered response, but for the record I want to state that Mr. Fieber was a life-changingly brilliant teacher and just the loveliest human being. He's retired now, but if he were on Facebook, I'd totally fan him.)

Like Damian Kulash's seventh-grade teacher, my high-school history teacher felt a compelling need to "engage" and interact with some content.

Most consumers of media will never have reasons as good, or as heartwarming, as those Mr. Naples and Mr. Fieber had. But, hey, that 's OK.

As for the 99% of humans who aren't engaging with media and brands? Maybe it's time we accept that they might not be engaging through social media because they choose not to. And, hey, that 's also OK. Or to put it another way, maybe passively consuming content is just the way that most people choose to engage.

OMG LOL SRSLY?

Yeah, SRSLY.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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