The problem with Facebook and other social media is that they were not designed to carry advertising. Maybe they extol trivia and create too much extraneous din, but that 's the way users like them, even if some advertisers don't because all that endless chatter is hard to quantify.
As Keith Reinhard told me, "There is a huge difference between creating a brand and creating buzz. A buzz is what you create about a brand, and that 's quite different than creating the brand itself." Keith, who attended Ad Age 's social-TV conference recently, added that this is something we've always known but is "a point missing from our endless celebrations of digital technology."
In the old days, Keith explained, marketers created buzz by engaging consumers with "brand extensions" -- sales promotion, direct marketing and free publicity.
"The internet now allows us to do those three things with amazing efficiency and creativity," Keith said. "But none of those activities substitute for creating and sustaining the brand itself.
"The point is we need both -- the brand-building skills we learned in the past, combined with the brand-extension tools technology offers today. The danger is that in our mad dash to be digital, we lose sight of the former, and a brand's core values begin to disintegrate."
Indeed, the chatter about the chatter has gotten so out of control that companies might be better off running ads next to media coverage of social media rather than on social media itself.
Here's how a satirical New Yorker piece by Teddy Wayne, written from the point of view of an article about Facebook, put it:
"First, I take a sort of new angle on Facebook, which means you'll post me on Facebook. My second half concerns itself with Twitter, so you're powerless not to re-tweet me, perhaps with a pithy comment before the re-tweet, like "Long but worth checking out.' And I throw in a nod to Google and/or Circles or whatever the hell it's called, which means I'll be added or encircled or something. There's nothing pandering about me whatsoever!...
"What will Mark Zuckerberg do next? Who cares! You do, in an involuntary Pavlovian way, which is why you're reading me when you should be outdoors, talking with a loved one, listening to live music, knitting, doing nearly anything else! Make a limp statement about your technocratic dictator that masquerades as wit, you enslaved peon, and pass me on!"
Of course, so many people want to read about it because so many people are using it.
Critics rail at food and soda marketers for contributing to the obesity epidemic, but with so many people racing (not with their feet) to collect 5,000 friends, Facebook and other social media must be assessed a big share of the blame. You could spend all day -- and many people do -- posting and blocking and gifting energy (and that 's not the kind of energy that gets you off your duff).
But that doesn't make social media itself a sure-fire advertising play. In fact, it's anything but.
Al Ries, in his May 7 column on social media, made the point that "if you don't have the right strategy, good tactics won't help you very much. And social, like all media, is a tactic. What concerns me is that too many marketers have elevated tactics -- especially those of social media -- to the level of strategy."
But Al quotes Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts as saying, "Strategy is dead." Kevin says that "we live in a world where our kids are connecting to each other and to brands across the world with no money involved." If you take the time to devise a strategy, Kevin warns, "the more time you are giving your rivals to start eating your lunch."
One speaker at our social-TV conference made the point that consumers weren't "habituated" to how advertisers want them to perform, but that 's because social media is optimized for users, not advertisers. Marketers might complain that social media is a "disjointed experience," and it "takes too much time to get value out of it" and even that there are "squishy metrics," but social media is not something marketers can control. It goes in its own direction, and if there is too much buzz and not enough action, that 's the way consumers want it, and marketers interfere at their peril. Sure, consumers may be "talking nonsense," as one panelist put it, but it's their nonsense and it's their noise. If marketers try to corral all that energy, they'll end up with results they can't depend on.
Pepsi's newest campaign, "Live for Now," tries to emulate social-media conversations, but it might end up being as muddled as the "Pepsi Refresh" debacle. You can't let consumers devise a strategy for you. As one reader said, "To be a leader you need to lead, not just explain why you're a leader and throw a lot of "ideas' (or crap) out there and expect people to latch on to it."
The Pepsi people themselves came up with the insight that they are "timely" and Coca-Cola is "timeless." They apparently see that distinction as an advantage, but it just shows how Pepsi has lost control of the conversation and is at the mercy of it.
What we learned at our social-TV conference is that great content makes for deeper engagement "and transforms all parts of the ecosystem."
As Keith put it, "It's good to know we're moving away from our obsession with technology to focus on ideas and content."
After the General Motors move to curtail its $10 million Facebook-ad spend, Ford said in a statement that "we've found Facebook ads to be very effective when strategically combined with engagement, great content and innovative ways of storytelling, rather than treating them as a straight advertising buy."
It's comforting to know that even with social media, content is still king, and ideas still rule. Maybe that 's evidence enough to reintroduce strategic thinking into the mix, or is that beyond the scope of today's marketing plans?