By Aaron Templer
Part One: Marketers (Still) Don’t Do Data
This the first in a five-part series that looks into social media marketing moving into 2021. Part One examines the marketing industry’s ongoing challenge with understanding and processing its data, and how this contributes to poor decision-making related to social media marketing. In Part Two we’ll take a look at some data demonstrating the ineffectiveness of social media marketing that all too many marketers seem to want to ignore. Part Three makes some suggestions on what exactly we should do about it. Part Four takes one of these suggestions and fleshes it out: move social out of marketing and into customer care. Part Five outlines the key to making this shift.
Social media marketing effectiveness data is top-of-mind for me these days. I’m a part of the teaching team for the American Marketing Association’s Digital Marketing Bootcamp (if any of them get back on schedule) and we like to bring the latest industry studies and trends to our presentations. I’m also working on a social media marketing-related project involving quite a bit of research. In collaboration with Julia Roth, Director of Marketing and Communications at the University of Colorado School of Law and a top-shelf marketing mind, we found, organized, and analyzed 50 recently published reports and studies on digital and social media marketing. I’ve also interviewed several people who led some interesting social media efforts for companies that were featured in published case studies.
This five-part series is my take on what we found. First things first: marketers still don’t do data very well. This is due in no small part to the volume of quality, agenda-free digital marketing studies being drowned out by the volume of content created by digital and social media marketing companies with vested interests in demonstrating the value of the services they provide. It’s a problem that’s spreading like COVID-19. We no doubt have the rise of content marketing to thank for this, not without a small amount of irony. Marketing agencies (yes, like mine) tout content marketing as a way for brands to earn the trust of their stakeholders. They (we) tell clients: produce (or better yet, hire us to produce) content that seems as if it’s a purely value-add and customers will view your brand as acting in their best interest. The law of reciprocity takes things from there.
Companies that offer digital and social media marketing solutions (the HubSpots, the Sprout Socials, the MailChimps) are also churning out “reports” and “studies” for their own marketing purposes. Naturally, this content buttresses their business model and the value they bring to the industry. Those of us who are looking for objective data to help guide our marketing decisions don’t always identify the connection to this content marketing ouroboros: The product of the thing that is driving the marketing content is marketing itself.
The uroboros that is social media marketing data: the product of the thing that is driving the marketing content is marketing itself.
Having waded through more than my share of these digital marketing studies and compared them to those produced by more agenda-free publishers, it’s becoming increasingly hard to find meaningful, consistent, and reliable data about digital marketing, and especially about social media marketing. Marketers beware: if we’re not careful we’re going to kill that which sustains us.
What’s worse, marketers are listening to it. The agency blogs with posts that promote the value of a certain marketing tactic, supported by a citation from such content, are legion. I’ve judged marketing plans in competitions that use them. And no doubt they’ve snuck into my plans and consulting.
By way of comparison, back in 2014 Augie Ray published what I consider a seminal blog post about the effectiveness of social media marketing that uses what I think are more of the kinds of agenda-free studies we don’t see as much of anymore. Augie is a customer experience expert these days, working and thought-leading on the subject across the social web and for the consultancy and research company Gartner. Before establishing himself as a must-know expert in the customer experience space, he worked in the social media sphere, using it for strategy and customer experience insights at American Express and Prudential.
Augie doesn’t suffer fools or their data and he had his finger on the pulse of social media marketing as well as anyone. For instance, Augie was warning of a 50% decline in organic Facebook posts reaching audiences before most were willing to talk about it. Today Hootsuite reports that all of 8% of organic reaches an eyeball.
Hootsuite reports that all of 8% of organic social media reaches an eyeball.
Julie and I went back and tried to find new versions of Augie’s cited sources. We were able to find exactly zero. Studies (signals) of this kind are now drowned out and subsumed by content marketing (noise).
The second takeaway from our recent research has more broad-ranging implications. Not to put too fine a point on it, social media marketers either don’t know what they’re measuring or how to measure it. They’re either ignoring what they’re seeing or their biases have so calcified their thinking that they can’t see it. Marketers have plenty of data, but it seems we’re too calcified by our desire for social media to work as a marketing tool. In other words, our confirmation biases are pegged.
That’s casting a lot of shade on social media marketers, and we’ll take a look at some studies we found that will back it up. But first there are two implications to consider about this problem. The first one is obvious: we’re recommending and acting on incorrect information. We need a new, honest relationship with the data in order to do right by our organizations and clients.
The second implication is a bit more abstract, but almost as important. Marketers’ lack of data acuity puts the rest of the marketing research milieu in question. Seeing as how marketing effectiveness studies rely significantly on data and measurements reported by marketers, how can we trust them? Garbage in, garbage out. ’Twas ever thus.
Relying on bad marking data to make good marketing decisions: Garbage in, garbage out.
- You’ve probably heard some version of this before: According to the 2020 Duke/Deloitte/American Marketing Association CMO Survey, 67% of executive marketers can’t quantitatively measure the impact of their social media marketing. That number balloons to as much as 77% in some B2B sectors. Social media marketing consistently falls into this category in other studies we looked at as well.
- In the same study, CMOs rank their social media spending right around 3 on a scale of 1 to 7 in terms of how it contributes to business performance. This metric is almost perfectly flat over four years, while CMOs continue to increase and plan to increase their spending on social media by over 60%. Is a three-out-of-seven a waste of an organization’s marketing budget, or is it just… bleh? Seems like one of those non-committal, we’re-in-some-kind-of-malaise, we-don’t-really-understand-our-data scores to me, especially since it hasn’t changed in four years. Doesn’t it also seem odd to keep spending on something that is at best so unremarkable?
The CMO Survey, February 2020. ©Christine Moorman
- Of the 3,000 HubSpot users surveyed in its 2020 Not Another State of Marketing report, only 35% said that understanding the ROI of their social media campaigns is “Very Important” or “Extremely Important”. When all the data measuring social media marketing effectiveness across all the years is piled up, this seems like the jeweled crown that rests upon it. Most of us are just doing social media because… well, just because.
- Shout out to HubSpot’s content marketers, who in a moment of refreshing self-awareness, decided to call their 2020 state-of-marketing report Not Another State of Marketing Report. I see you, HubSpot.
- A 2017 Altimeter/Hootsuite report, Beyond ROI: Unlocking the Business Value of Social Media, finds 85% of marketers in agreement that social data is accessible, but a full half of them say their organization lacks the skills needed to work with it.
- Again from the same study: a mere 26% say they tie social media marketing metrics to business results, and the rest simply use what’s available in the tools. Sit with that one for a minute: We’re measuring the effectiveness of a tool by using the tool’s measurements. Talk about the fox running the hen house. And it’s Hootsuite who’s reporting this. What’s the saying about the greatest trick the devil ever pulled?
Marketing data from social media companies who stand to gain from it is the devil in disguise.
- This sentiment from a marketer running Arby’s social media efforts captures the dynamic well: “It’s difficult to tie what we’re doing in social with hard metrics around sales or store visits … However, when we take a deeper look into the quantitative results and look at the sentiment and passion intensity of the comments [on our Instagram posts], we’re driving significant positive conversations around our brand.” That’s an awfully athletic way to arrive at a “positive conversations” metric. I see this kind of vague thinking a lot in these studies. It’s vaguely better than negative conversations, I guess, but not exactly a result definitive-minded C-level execs care much about, or what marketers should aspire to.
- Some 20% of marketers surveyed in Buffer/Social Chain’s State of Social say they’re uncertain if social media is effective in their marketing efforts. A promising minority, but in the same study over half of the respondents said their organization doesn’t have a documented social media strategy. So what are we to make of the people who do claim certainty around social media marketing’s effectiveness? How can you measure something when you don’t know what it’s supposed to be doing for you?
- In the same study, 66% of marketers say they use (what I call) non-results-oriented metrics when measuring the effectiveness of their social media efforts (Likes, Shares, and Comments). 93% use non-results-oriented metrics to evaluate effective influencer campaigns (Reach, Clicks, Comments, Impressions, and Views ranked 1–5, respectively). And Engagement (60%) and Traffic (51%) top their measurements of effectiveness when advertising on social. All of these are ranked ahead of Leads and Sales. Studies sponsored by social media companies insist on calling these “top-of-the-funnel” metrics, but that’s just gaslighting. Leads or inquiries are the top-of-funnel measurements that matter, and when you really look into it, social media isn’t producing much of either (more on that in this post).
- A study by Buffer and AppSumo, the latter with a racist character/logo that I guess we’re just supposed to ignore, found that brands are increasing their Facebook page posts while reporting 50–70% declines in engagement with them. If you’re claiming engagement is an important metric—a fairly questionable position to take in the first place—and you see it declining while continuing to invest in it, then I worry that even the best marketing minds can’t help you.
Is anyone else bothered by AppSumo’s racist logo? Why isn’t anyone talking about it, especially in the midst of a rise in hate crimes against Asians.
- A 2018 Social Media Examiner Industry Report found something similar: 56% of their (pro-social media marketing, it should be noted) audience can’t or are unsure if they can measure their social media marketing ROI. Still, 62% report intentions of increasing their organic activities.
- In what I think is becoming the most glaring example of marketers flummoxed by their own data, customer service/care via social is showing significant promise in terms of returns for organizations (much more on this blog posts 4 and 5 ). Yet a surprising number of businesses are ignoring it. A SproutSocial content marketing report claims a 146% rise in social messages that require brand responses over three years, but the brands’ response rate has actually decreased (on average they respond to only 1 in 10) in the same timeframe. Marketers, we need to ask ourselves why we’re not pushing harder for moving social media activities to customer care. Is it because we’re paying attention to the data or because we don’t want to lose the billable hours, FTEs, or budget?
- SproutSocial released another content marketing-oriented “report” called Turned Off: How Brands Are Annoying Customers on Social. In it, they warn that social media users will unfollow brands if they promote too much: 46% report unfollowing a brand because of too many promotions. (Maybe the other 54% who don’t unfollow a brand because of too many promotions are social media marketers.) Confusingly, the same respondents tell Sprout Social that they need to see a product or service 2–4 times before purchasing it and 20% need to see it 5–8 times. Does your brand promote too much or too little on social media? Good luck.
Does your brand promote too much or too little on social media? Good luck.
- Over half of B2B marketers in the Chief Marketer’s 2019 B2B Outlook Survey cite “Measuring ROI” as the biggest challenge of social media lead generation. When I see these stats, which have been in B2B marketing studies for years, I have this strange vision of the Netflix documentary that will chronicle the brave soul who finally said “enough” to their B2B boss, stopped investing in social media marketing, and now sits atop a mountain to which marketers trek to gain wisdom.
- Finally, market research and digital marketing agency Good Growth spent a few months in 2017 researching social media marketing for their fourth annual digital marketing growth book. Quite a bit of our research coincided with theirs, and they concluded that “investment in social media [marketing] continues to be a triumph of hope over hard evidence of commercial return. […] There remains a lack of clarity regarding the commercial outcome from the investment.”
Garbage in, garbage out. These studies strengthen the cognitive biases that are preventing us from seeing what we don’t want to see. I think these and many studies like them illustrate marketing’s need for less data on the one hand, but more directly tied to business results on the other. I’m hardly the first to write about this, but less data and a refusal to buy into the vanity and what is (at best) the leading indicator data offered by social media tools may help us see the results of social media marketing work more clearly.
We need a back-to-basics relationship with marketing data, especially social media marketing data. Maybe we can find inspiration from the minimalist movement, or the Simple magazines of the world. Whatever the case, it’s clear that, as Nassim Taleb warned us, we’re in the midst of a calamity in the information age: the toxicity of data has increased much faster than its benefits.
The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits.
– Nassim Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes
In Part Three I talk about what we as an industry need to do to peel ourselves away from these bad data practices. But let’s begin by taking a close look at the obfuscated question itself: does organic social media marketing work?
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.