Just How Influential Is Your Social-Media Program if It Isn't Helping To Sell Product?

The Biggest Thing in Marketing May Be Obscuring Our Understanding of Persuasion

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain
Back in the early 1900s, business didn't know much about advertising.

As Arthur Schultz, the former head of Foote Cone & Belding and the co-author of "The Man Who Sold America," about Albert Lasker, put it: Business people "would barge into [advertising] with an idea and see it fail and lose money, and banks wouldn't loan them money if they knew they were advertisers."

Now banks won't loan businesses money if they use social media. I exaggerate, of course, to make a point, because it seems to me that the more prevalent social media becomes, the less we know about the power of persuasion.

Ad Age Editor at Large Matt Creamer drew a big response when he wrote in our first issue of the year that popularity doesn't necessarily lead to influence (never mind purchasing) when it comes to social media. "One of the nasty effects of the rapid growth of social media is that it threatens to warp our understanding of influence," Matt wrote. He said a marketer "has to wonder what all that information means, if it adds up to anything more than a popularity contest and what, exactly, does a tweet influence a person to think, believe or do?"

In other words, advertisers don't even know what the primary purpose of social media is supposed to be. People use it to spread their views without much thought to whether they're influencing anybody, but that's not enough for advertisers. Talk about half of their advertising being wasted.

As Steve Rubel of Edelman Digital put it in his column last week, "Unfortunately, impressions do not adapt well to a world where media scarcity no longer exists. The reason is that, to some degree, reach and impressions are empty data points." He added that Facebook doesn't always reward the businesses that have the most fans.

In a Jan. 10 column in Ad Age, Al Ries throws more doubt into the equation. Burger King's internet promotion Subservient Chicken was wildly popular, but it didn't do much to boost sales. Al quoted Bill Bernbach's famous line that "A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster." So how do you know the cause of lousy sales -- great advertising that drives people to the product (who then reject it) or bad advertising that keeps people away (and have no need to reject it)?

Color me confused. John Wanamaker, he of the "half-wasted" quotation, had it relatively easy. His media choice was between newspapers and circulars. Now it's a jungle out there, and advertisers aren't even sure what the latest entries are supposed to do for them.

What does all this say about the success (or lack thereof) of the most ambitious of all the social-media programs, Pepsi Refresh?

At the Association of National Advertisers conference last fall, Ralph Santana, a former Pepsi exec, said the soft-drink company got the 1% of influencers and the 9% of participators, "but what we learned is that the predominant use of social media and narrowcasting tactics missed the masses -- and Pepsi is about as mass as a brand can be," observed Mr. Santana, who is now senior VP and CMO at Samsung Electronics North America.

"So the key learning experience for us was that in addition to having a cultural idea that taps into a mass sensibility, you need to make sure that your idea is getting enough exposure to be successful," he said.

Pepsi, as you might have surmised, begs to differ: "The Pepsi Refresh project far surpassed consumer engagement and awareness expectations and industry benchmarks within the first several months of the campaign."

But if you equate "engagement" and "awareness" to popularity, what assurance does Pepsi or anyone else have that a social-media campaign can reach the tipping point of producing active advocates for your brand that will eventually lead to (dare we hope?) real live sales?

Perhaps an even bigger problem is the fickle nature of social media users. MySpace just a few years ago dominated the scene, but Facebook took over because its format was less klunky and easier to navigate. Given its dominance, it seems improbable that users will flee Face book anytime soon, but who would have forecast the situation MySpace is in today five years ago when News Corp. bought it?

What marketers using social media care about is an adoring and responsive crowd, and they will go anywhere, anytime, to find it.

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