Is There a Social Media Double Standard?

“When people can count something, they usually want to.”

That’s the response I got from a panelist at a recent social media conference. Yes, marketers get together at expensive hotels and talk about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube, Slideshare, even Pinterest. Yes, even Pinterest. 

As an aside, the business center at the Hyatt in midtown Manhattan does not have phones. They do not provide phones. Not talking about a super satellite phone that you can contact the Mars rover with. A basic, 12-button, 1 receiver, long squiggly cord phone. At the Hyatt. In midtown Manhattan. Just wanted to make sure that was clear.

But I digress.

I had asked this panelist whether he thought social media investments were being overly scrutinized compared to say, advertising. Why is it held to a higher standard? Why do executives demand a quantifiable return on investment in social media, but spend heavily on expensive yet equally (or more) difficult to quantify advertising campaigns?

Conversations go something like a Dilbert cartoon:
“No, you cannot have $100K to invest in a social media program for a year.”
“Why?”
“I don’t understand how it’s going to make me more money.”
“Fine, I’ll go back and re-work some numbers.”
“Great. Oh and by the way, you’re approved to spend five million dollars on two 30-second super bowl commercials and 20 highway billboards.”
“Ok. But you know that sometime over the next 12 months I might be able to give you an educated guess on whether that 5 million dollars had some directional effect on whether or not people bought more of our stuff.”
“Perfect. That’s all I need.”

“When people can count something, they usually want to.”

At first I bought it. It’s a pretty broad statement, so I started to think about the psychology of it. Do we really want to count anything we can count? I thought about the things in my life that I haven’t counted, but probably could. For instance, I could have easily counted the amount of money I spent in bars while I was single, but never did. I didn’t want to know. I still don’t want to know.

I think the answer was too simplistic. Something else must be going on. And I think it’s two things.

First, marketing folks sitting in other expensive hotels 15 years ago sold the world digital marketing on the premise that it could do what traditional advertising never could. You can count everything. The ultimate direct marketing tool, they screamed (I know, I was one of them). You want to know how many people visited your site? Done. You want to know what they did on the site? Done, and done. Oh, you even want to know how many of those people bought something? Yeah, we can do that too.

Digital marketing became the son you expected more from. “I don’t care if your older brother can’t tell me where he was last night. YOU’RE the smarter one. I expect more from you.”

Trouble is, we never adjusted our thinking as digital marketing grew up. As the lines between ‘digital’ and ‘traditional’ marketing began to blur; as digital marketing became more than just “the ultimate direct marketing tool” (cue movie trailer voice), we never adjusted our thinking for the new role it plays in what we do; a role much larger than pure direct marketing. When social media came around, it inherited the expectations of (dare I say) ‘traditional’ digital marketing, rather than treating it as a paradigm shift in how people interact and what it means for how we measure success.

Secondly, people are generally averse to risk. Most people are walking around all day trying not to get fired. And I get it. After all, the kids have to eat, and you have to keep the bank that owns your house happy. No one’s going to get fired for spending 5 million dollars on advertising. It’s what we’ve always done. People a lot smarter than me have spent a ton of money on it, so who am I to argue its effectiveness? And hey, if it doesn’t work, well, what does “it worked” or “it didn’t work” really mean anyway? I can’t tell you for sure how many people saw our TV commercial, or whether it made them buy more stuff. But we used a ‘safe’ creative, and the network told us we were targeting the right people. So maybe it was a fluke. After all, we knew this stuff was hard to track, right?

Everyone agrees, and no one gets fired.

On the other hand, spend a hundred thousand dollars on social media and don’t show up with numbers proving at least a million dollars in revenue? That’s a tough conversation to have.

“I don’t care if I bought your older brother a Ferrari to get to work every day. YOU will have a Prius, and if you can’t tell me how much money you saved on gas every day, you’ll find yourself on the bus.”

So for my marketing friends reading this blog, I’m not saying there isn’t a role for advertising or other things that are tough to quantify. In fact, there is a great deal of quantifiable research that shows the connection between advertising and purchasing. The industry wouldn’t have gotten this far otherwise. I’m just saying it’s time to break the double standard. Time to sit in another expensive hotel and start coaching the guys holding the purse strings on what the expanded role of digital marketing and the explosion of social media means for how we measure success in those investments.

And whatever your profession – marketing or otherwise – think about the last time you took a risk at work. When was the last time you looked at the way things have always been done, asked why, and went out on a limb? Or even took a calculated risk? Get the facts in front of you, poke as many in your thinking as possible, and present your case. Even if it’s not viable, good leaders will respect a well thought out proposal. If your leader doesn’t appreciate this type of thinking, you might want to reconsider where you’re working.

We wouldn’t be where we were today without people who took risks. The world could use some more of that.

But if you do get fired, don’t sue me.

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3 thoughts on “Is There a Social Media Double Standard?

  1. Pingback: Building the B2B Social Media Machine | Marketing…pfft!

  2. Pingback: Building The B2B Social Media Machine | Innovation

  3. Pingback: Building The B2B Social Media MachineInnovation

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