The latest news involving social-media pioneers isn't good. Pepsi has fallen to third place behind Diet Coke in spite of its widely heralded switch from Super Bowl ads to a huge social charity program called Refresh Project. Burger King has grilled through a couple of CMOs and fired agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky after producing Facebook campaigns and viral videos that got lots of attention while the business witnessed six consecutive quarters of declining sales. This comes at the same time as major publishers like the New York Times are quitting the free-content business (if it was ever a business, per se), and News Corp. has started a for-pay iPad newspaper from scratch.
Every CMO should use this occasion to pause and reflect on the assumptions that were behind these efforts, especially if you're about to roll out a social-media campaign or start giving away content for free. Unfortunately, there are many reasons why you shouldn't, and may not.
You could simply ignore the news. The case for why you should double-down and keep forging ahead is simple, and I'm sure there will be social evangelists who'll use comments to this essay to claim that we can't hold Pepsi or Burger King's campaigns responsible for the overall results. Lots of things affect sales, from the overall economy to the particulars of how individual stores operate. The social campaigns not only delivered what they promised but surpassed their goals in terms of engagement, response and thus ROI.
The answer to these claims is equally simple: If those "other" things mattered more to business performance, they should have been the focus of marketing, not entertainment or whatever. And what good are invented metrics for social campaigns if they don't evidence any influence on sales? There's no such thing as a successful brand that doesn't deliver successful marketing, is there? In fact, the latter builds the former. They can't be disconnected, and if social marketing can't be made responsible for tangible behaviors that matter to the business, not just to ideas about branding, then no made-up measures of its importance matter much at all.
You could refute the validity of the news, which I'm sure will also appear below. We all know about Procter & Gamble's use of YouTube videos to fuel engagement with its brilliantly conceived "the man your man could smell like" ad campaign, because it's featured in most presentations at social conferences and even in a few books. Ford's Fiesta Movement produced lots of leads for its dealers and helped win its CMO marketer of the year honors. But all we know for certain is that these examples proved that integrated marketing works, which is something we've known for decades. P&G's ads sent people to stores where they found compelling promotional pricing, and Ford's vastly improved sales-conversion number on test drives benefited from the great quality of the car and its pricing, as well as from the overall economic conditions over which it had no control (see above). Identifying what the social efforts did, if anything, requires the upfront presumption that they were necessary and therefore accomplished anything at all that mattered (like starting out to claim that cereal is "part of a balanced breakfast"). For all we know, Old Spice and Ford could have sold more products without them.
You might think or be told that Pepsi and Burger King just failed to "do social right," which is scarily reminiscent of the arguments made in support of the two-thirds or more of CRM implementations that failed at the start of the century. This argument requires that we presume "correct" social would work, which tracks back to my last point.
I think you should consider that the news might augur the end of a fad. No, not the end of social media, but rather the beginning of the end of social media's infancy. Maybe it's time to stop talking unseriously and get serious for real. Technology has utterly changed the ways consumers get and use information, and it has completely disrupted how companies create, share and collect it. We've had a good run of years in which this revolution has prompted quack science, theory and some good ol' fashioned mercenary selling, most of it by smart, earnest people who believe that new technology also changed human nature and the very purpose of business function. It did neither. People still need and do the same things they always did, and companies still need to sell to them. Pretending that conversation has any value apart from the meaningful, relevant and useful information within it -- fad ideas, like "content" is anything more than a silly buzzword, or that anybody wakes up in the morning hoping to have a conversation with a brand of toothpaste or insurance -- is no longer credible in light of the latest news.
Instead, CMOs need to discover new ways to do the old things that still matter: Offer products and services that someone truly needs, admitting that you want to sell stuff to them, and then properly serving them after they've given you their business. Sounds so easy as I type it but doing so has gotten so incomprehensibly complicated. Maybe the news coming out of Pepsi and Burger King is a wakeup call that we need to make all of this simpler, not harder. I think it starts with quitting the glib new rationales for avoiding these traditional and difficult challenges.
May silly social media R.I.P., and may smart social live to serve businesses better in the future.
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