Part Three: Undoing Marketers’ Confirmation Biases

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By Aaron Templer

Part Three: Untethering the Intractable: Undoing Marketers’ Confirmation Biases

This is the third in a five-part series that looks into social media marketing moving into 2021. Part One examined 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. Part Two took a look at some data demonstrating the ineffectiveness of social media marketing that all too many marketers seem to want to ignore. This post 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 writing a book (in its final stages!) 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 have led some interesting social media efforts for companies that were featured in published case studies.

I’m fascinated as to why marketers are so insistent in disbelieving the data as it relates to social media marketing. I think it’s a combination of several factors that we can finally address and change in 2021.

Rob Siefker, Senior Director of Customer Loyalty for Zappos, told me he doesn’t look for social media-savvy talent when hiring customer care experts to manage their social accounts because “everyone knows how to use social media.” Instead, he looks for people who know what “going above and beyond looks like, because how can you give it if you don’t know it?” Community-builder and researcher Nichole Kelly who built a social community of over a million people for a debt-relief organization told me she’s spent a career asking and training people to “unlearn marketing” for purposes of building online communities.

I say we make 2021 the year of unlearning.

Moving off of our biases is much easier said than done. Social media marketing is a huge industry with deep, vested pillars that are very difficult to move. We’re wandering in a vast place, a megalopolis with global ad agency high rises on the east side to red light district shingle-hangers on the west side. All of which contribute to interests very much vested in the billable hours and freemium business models social media marketing represents, all intent on ensuring marketing department budgets have a nice chunk allocated to them.

HubSpot’s Not Another State of Marketing Report finds that 74% of marketers invest in social media marketing, and the 2020 Duke/Deloitte/AMA CMO Survey found that outside agencies deliver a quarter of it. That 74% is feeding a seemingly insatiable appetite for social media marketing. A Lyfe Marketing agency blog post claims there are 50 million social media marketing companies, agencies, and freelancers across the globe (we’ve reached out to Lyfe several times to ask for their source on this and are still trying to reach them). Online ad agency WordStream’s State of the Digital Marketing Agency in 2018 report found 82% of digital marketing firms offer social media marketing services. On the traditional agency front, a 2019 survey of advertising and marketing agencies found that among those offering full scope of content marketing services, 79% included social media marketing.

All of this might make you think anyone new would run scared from entering the shark-infested space. But quite the opposite is true. Social Media Marketing training services have popped up all across the Web, promising aspiring young freelancers the chance to live their dreams of owning self-run businesses. One 30-day course, Choose Pristine, promises “SMM” training whereby you can launch a social media marketing business by simply watching online videos. “This Is THE ONLY Way to Make $10K in the Next 30 Days Without Any Experience. Period,” they claim. Many such offers abound on the internet. They’re today’s Get Rich Quick schemes. Google them sometime: Our Proven Step-by-Step System for Reaching Out to Businesses and Getting Them to Give You a Shot… How to Get ANY Business to Say YES, Even If You’ve Never Sold a Thing Before… How to Create a PROFITABLE Facebook Ad in 10 Minutes… How to Use LinkedIn to Get New Clients at Will.

The Choose Pristine founders who promise a digital nomadic life without much effort.

Choose Pristine is founded and run by two guys dripping with stereotypical millennial tropes and who make promises of breaking free from the grind of traditionally-employed situations that are hard to resist. Quentin Chad and Jovan Stojanovic, complete with man buns and wood bead bracelets, serve up their promotional videos from places like an outdoor coffee shop in Thailand to sell their “digital nomad” lifestyle. You, too, can take advantage of marketers who’re spending on social media marketing without any evidence of return. No experience required. The demand is that strong.

As Augie Ray did before me, I’ll summon Upton Sinclair to help us understand one simple reason why marketers tend to deny the data surrounding social media’s effectiveness: It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

We need to break free. Here are five ways to consider.

First, as marketers we have to embrace the fact that we, too, have cognitive biases that cloud our perception of social media. Mitigating these biases starts with this simple fact: we don’t interact with social media the way consumers do. We see promises of friend-to-friend marketing, of exciting and new campaign possibilities, and we watch with goose bumps and spine chills when a brand uses the platforms in creative ways. This simply does not align with how non-marketers interact with the platforms. Non-marketers don’t view social media as channels for influence opportunity. They see opportunity for reciprocity and connection.

This is hardly a new issue, yet it persists. Long before social media, a boss gave me a piece of advice (maybe you’ve received this one, too): “Never use yourself as a data point. Because you’re in marketing, you’re inherently unreliable. You think about these things differently than a customer. I don’t ever want to hear you say “I think this or that” about what we’re doing. You need to say “The data shows”.

Marketers: we are unreliable data points.

Second, we need to come to terms with a tough reality: when you really evaluate the success stories in social media marketing (setting aside customer care for a moment), the vast majority of the more thriving social media communities tend to be built under three relatively narrow contexts. As marketers we don’t very much like to admit this because we want social to work in all contexts, especially those for which we’re pressured to drive revenue. But time and again we see three types of organizations building communities on social media and we’re seduced by the case studies and blog posts that ask us to learn lessons from them. In reality they’re outliers, not standards:

  1. Brands with inherent and powerful scroll-stopping content or what I like to call Remarkability (think GoPro, ESPN, and celebrities). Your B2B office furniture reseller has to compete with heliskiing front-side spins and Zion Williamson 360 dunks on social media. In HD.

    How compelling is your office furniture reseller’s content? Image: Zion Williamson Creative Commons

  2. Brands with cause or purpose built in, like nonprofits, issue or political campaigns, or the very rare corporate brands that contrive it (LiveStrong, Obama for America). Manufactured cause marketing, a call to action among many social media marketing consultants, is tricky and can backfire: bait-and-switches kill the value in social groups. If purpose and cause aren’t built into your brand already, you run the very real risk of damaging sales trying to contrive it. Also, if you’re looking to examples like Dove’s Real Beauty to guide you, good luck teasing out what results Unilever’s behemoth marketing machine realized from social media vs. traditional media.
  3. Brands that follow tried and true marketing principles and have built global, hardcore support over time with unique, solid quality in their products or services (Harley Davidson, BMW). Nike and Taco Bell were a thing long before social media. Their audiences found them, not the other way around. It’s worth revisiting a study from Part Two here:
        • The Value of a Facebook Fan: Does “Liking” Influence Consumer Behavior?, a 2017 study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, found strong evidence that not only do consumers like brands they already have a fondness for on social media, but “the mere act of ‘liking’ a brand has no positive first order effect on consumer attitudes or purchases”. Social media engagement is a consequence, not a cause, of brand affinity. And get this: two meta analyses suggest that “if anything, its effect is detrimental”.

A culture of using pot-of-gold case studies combined with marketers’ biases make us believe that we can apply what we see from GoPro, LiveStrong, and Harley Davidson to our restaurant and accounting firm clients, and that’s just fantasy. The lens of these categories illuminates an important concept not much talked about in social media marketing, what social capital scholars call appropriability: the degree to which the value in one social construct is able to be used in another. This is a barely studied dynamic in marketing, one that’s found in the finance and leadership disciplines but not in marketing. Developing the acumen to understand and recognize degrees of appropriability would be of tremendous value for marketers when evaluating if effective social media marketing is possible in our various contexts.

The third thing that needs addressing is specific to agencies: we need to stop making promises we can’t keep. The more we claim social media marketing will generate business returns for our clients—as opposed to billable hours for us—the more entrenched we all become. We need to encourage clients to consider social media as a tool for other areas of their business, like customer care. Asking clients about how they measure that side of their business, and how you can align social media efforts with it instead of sales, can open up valuable conversations that build value as a trusted partner in their business as opposed to a billable hour-grabber.

We need to stop—once and for all—thinking of social communities as channels. 

Fourth, we need to stop—once and for all—thinking of social communities as channels. They don’t work the same way. They have social norms and ties that are very different from marketing channels. This is the thrust of the larger project I’m working on into which this all fits. More on that, I hope, this spring.

If you need evidence as to how utterly incapable we are of untethering ourselves from channel-thinking, look no further than the seemingly intractable desire to use fans and followers as measures of social media success. Networks don’t act. The people in them do. Measuring the size of a network is to completely misunderstand how social constructs work.

Remember the 2017 University of Maryland study, Bias on Your Brand Page? we discussed in Part Two: The authors dug into 170 million unique users of 3,000 brands and found that that the larger the following, the more likely word-of-mouth is to be negative, while smaller followings lean more positive. Again: think about that the next time you report social media follower growth to your boss, your client, or demand it from your staff.

Then ask yourself if you’re trumpeting a triumph of hope or actually working to add value to the brand’s business success.

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