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anything less than that is a reflection of outdated,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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
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?
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for
Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.