What Your Social-Media Team Should Learn From Direct-Response Folks

Adding Up the Metrics of Scale

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Media buying in its simplest form has always been about balancing targeting with scale. You find a specific audience that you want to influence and then you buy enough media to put your message in front of as many people as you can afford to reach. Trouble is , even though it works, it's not always the best approach. This is where the direct response folks have a lot to teach those of us working in the social spaces.

Back in the 1990s I worked with Ward Thomas, who is now director of analytics at Euro RSCG Discovery. Even back then, Ward had built proprietary models that could accurately predict the highest propensity for purchase within a given audience. These models didn't only increase overall response by making sure the right audience was selected for a marketing program, they also reduced the total marketing spend as a whole by eliminating many of the folks who were less likely to respond. So for less money spent, a client could achieve higher response and better conversion.

And no one would buy it.

The agency I worked for at the time had to give away this modeling as a value-add and make money on production mark up, because no client wanted to pay for it. Proof case after proof case was presented. Time and again the model was successful. Yet still, there was a perception that targeting at scale was all that mattered. It was just easier.

This tale illuminates the problem many brand marketers have with social media today. There's still an irresistible urge to build an audience at scale. We feel we need to get our message in front of as many people as possible, so we we put all of our efforts into generating followers and likes and +1s. Then once we build this mass audience, we communicate with it and many times sell against it. And we keep being confronted by the fact that this audience is still too small, compared with the larger audiences of traditional and digital ad spending. Thus we dismiss these micro audiences, or at the most, treat them as quaint test projects.

Yet as those direct-marketing models that we were working with two decades ago proved, there's real value hiding within the smaller subsets of any aggregate audience -- a value we are simply not tapping.

Hiding within your 20,000 or 500,000 Facebook friends and fans are always a dozen, two dozen or a hundred true advocates who can sway the rest of the community. They are the ones stirring the pot and continuing the conversation. They are the ones that engage with you the most. Often they are the ones who challenge your actions and cause you trouble as well. These are your loyalists -- and traditional advertising methods used in this space treat them exactly like everyone else.

There is a place and a time for reaching an audience at scale. Paid media and mass reach are still very effective methods of spreading a message. But in the case of many of our social efforts, this mass philosophy is actually damaging the relationship with our community leaders. So while the metrics may show increased interaction, the value of the engagements may actually be lessening.

Say we run a program that instead of engaging and growing relationships with our top fans, it's designed to get 10 million additional likes by the end of the month. Over the course of that month our metrics will show success. Additional likes per week will go up. Comments per post will go up. Impression numbers will be through the roof. Yet in the process we are also drowning out the voices of the advocates in a sea of folks who care only for the offer that got them there. We've essentially traded advocacy and loyalty for investigation and interest.

A community is an organic thing. It is much different than a customer file. It is a place where our customers might be interacting with each other as much as with us. So we need models and programs that recognize this intangible as a valuable asset.

What do you think happens to an advocate whose voice is suddenly drowned out? We can't always say with statistical certainty, but common sense tells us he or she may stop talking. The advocate is no longer special. We've destroyed her bully pulpit. So off she goes.

The ironic thing is that it's not hard to identify an influential advocate in an existing, functioning community. There are third-party modeling tools to be sure, but an active community manager can provide you with a list within a few days. And we can still grow the community to scale by targeting these folks -- and probably do so for less effort and money spent. It may not happen as quickly, but it will happen more intelligently, scaling the influence of your advocates right alongside your follower counts, and building a community that is engaged rather than simply wondering why they are there.

We may or may not get to a model one day for the social spaces that is as effective at targeting loyalists as Ward's model was in the direct space. But there is no doubt that most of us are not properly valuing the advantages of working with smaller, more engaged audiences. Until we consider how our mass approaches are affecting this advocate value, we will fail to realize the full benefits of social programs and miss the path to profitability that is present in these more engaged connections.

Bob Knorpp is host of the BeanCast Marketing Podcast at thebeancast.com and is president of the Cool Beans Group, a marketing strategy consultancy based in New York. He likes laughing even more than breathing. You can follow the madness on Twitter at twitter.com/thebeancast.
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