Part Two: Time to Come Clean About Organic Social Marketing

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By Aaron Templer

Part Two: Time to Come Clean: Organic Social Media Marketing Doesn’t Work

This is the second 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. In this part we 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 have led some interesting social media efforts for companies that were featured in published case studies.

Part One of this series concluded that marketing still doesn’t do data very well, and it’s obfuscating our ability to understand the efficacy of social media marketing. Now we’ll look at the facts around social media marketing, and wonder why we as marketers seem intent on ignoring it.

As we discussed in Part One, a large part of the problem with determining the effectiveness of social media is the source from which we get our information. Social media companies, with a vested interest in our enduring faith in the effectiveness of the medium, churn out content marketing materials masked as objective studies and reports like a candy factory while we, like Lucille Ball, try to gobble it up. Some content released in 2018 by Sprout Social called Creating Connection: what consumers want from brands in a divided society is a good example of what you’ll have to slosh your way through these days. They surveyed 1,013 people, never-defined beyond “U.S. consumers,” asking a variety of questions about how they feel about connecting with brands on social media. When you dig into the content though, it’s much more accurate to say how they want brands to connect with them on social media. Asking people what they want in such research is what clapping on one and three is to rhythm and blues: you’re going about it all wrong and even someone casually familiar with the discipline will probably make fun of you for it.

The study’s main takeaway proclaims that “When [my emphasis] customers feel connected to brands, more than half of consumers (57%) will increase their spending with that brand and 76% will buy from them over a competitor.” The probability of “when” someone will feel connected to a brand on social media is a highly questionable issue in those studies we looked at (we examine a few of them later), so that conclusion is suspect from the jump. But the study asks this of respondents along with other multiple-choice questions that fill the respondents’ heads with a picture of a brand-customer utopia where brands take up the social causes the respondent cares about. Do we want, they ask, a brand to bring people together for a goal, act as a leader in society, and perform other deeds of benevolence that brands are traditionally terrible at actually demonstrating, let alone doing? Under those circumstances, why, yes, of course I’ll feel connected, and I’m practically guilted into admitting that I’d increase my spending. What kind of jerk wouldn’t?

I was able to connect with a very kind and responsive PR rep for Sprout Social about this study, but she was unable to add much clarity. I asked her how they arrived at whether or not a customer feels connected to a brand, and she replied “For that stat we prompted respondents to select statements they agreed with to complete the sentence, ‘When I feel connected to a brand or business, I am …’ and then gave them several options to select from—including increasing their spending and choosing that brand over competitors.” So there isn’t much there, there. Other than an assumption (not based on any actual spending or loyalty) that social connects brands to consumers, the entire exercise seems intended to promote the virtues of social media marketing for Social Sprout.

Self-guided, self-motivated studies of this kind might make good content marketing, but they don’t serve as objective reasons to use social media for marketing purposes. Marketers, however, do use them as such. We cite studies like this without doing much digging into their legitimacy.

Another issue with these reports is their careless use of case studies (you can check out Augie Ray’s 2014 perspective on this topic as well). Many content marketing-oriented studies use them without regard to the many shortcomings of case studies, such as their tendency to illustrate outliers (e.g. user-created content can skyrocket sales, all your business has to do is produce GoPros, etc.). In Part Five  I discuss how the vast majority of the more thriving social media communities tend to be built under three relatively narrow contexts, representing outliers rather than standards. Case studies feed off of these, leaving the rest of us wondering if we chose the right employer as opposed to a lesson we can bring back to our office.

Far too many social media marketing case studies are outliers. They don’t apply to most of our worlds.

Also, our research shows that social media case studies almost always come up short when demonstrating actual business results. The above-mentioned Sprout Social report is peppered with little #brandsgetreal case study vignettes, inserted ostensibly as an attempt to prove the concepts they’re driving at with their biased survey data. The authors wrap up these sketches with “results”, all focused on views and impressions and vague claims of success. One measures the value a social media campaign brought to a company by bundling it into the brand’s overall $1 billion market valuation while making no attempt to hide its inability to tease out the number. Another of these #brandsgetreal case studies doesn’t even try to conjure up a legitimate business outcome, concluding that the brand “hopes to raise awareness—and generate solutions” from its social media marketing campaign. Actually, having written that it occurs to me that this is perhaps the best way to approach the issue of results in social media case studies. Just be transparent: we’re all just hoping it works.

We also found some sneaky incongruencies between the questions asked and the reported results in these pro-social media marketing content marketing pieces. Like a study by Curalate, a digital marketing platform, that hired OnePoll, a brand-driven research company “used extensively for PR, media and brand exposure campaigns” that delivers exactly the kind of conclusions you’d expect from such a cabal. The study, Social Content is the New Storefront, makes “broad” claims about “U.S. Consumers” which they culled from 1,000 names and 10 questions, and how social media marketing drives purchasing behavior.

Some 52% of “U.S. Consumers”, they conclude, report seeing a product they were interested in on Facebook, but makes no mention of the likelihood that the respondents will be following the brands they’re already advocates for. Over the years many studies have exposed the tendency for social media users to follow brands they’re already aware of (we look at a few a little later), a fact simply ignored in Curalate’s report—and many studies like it—that amplify social media marketing as an effective sales tool. It’s a detail that’s easily (or willingly) overlooked by marketers, blinded as we are by confirmation bias and anxious as we are to justify our billable hours.

Later in that same study, the authors boast this finding: “65% of U.S. consumers say the link in a social media post led them to a product they weren’t interested in.” The implication, I guess, is that consumers have purchased a product, thanks to social media, that they weren’t previously interested in. The actual question asked of respondents was “Have you experienced [my emphasis] a link in a social media post that led you to a product that you weren’t interested in?” Both are clumsy, and, depending on how you interpret them, in conflict. And of course being “led to” could mean a number of things, including a bevy of options that have nothing to do with an action. Sure, it could mean purchase. But it also could mean putting it in a comparative set of other products, or even simply becoming aware. Or maybe it just means “Yeah, I’ve seen links of products I wasn’t aware of.”

If you’re willing to wade through this malaise and find some studies with less bias, the news is not at all good for social media marketing’s effectiveness. In Part One I mentioned Augie Ray, and his 2014 blog post What if Everything You Know About Social Media Marketing Is Wrong? Augie took a methodical approach to evaluating social media across the key marketing dimensions that every MBA student and marketing executive is told to care about. He used around 15 industry and academic studies to back up some solid conclusions. Candidly, I think of his post as seminal and timeless, and even though the studies he cites are old by internet standards, the dynamics at work in online social constructs haven’t changed enough to undo his points.

Julia and I tried to find updates to the studies he cites, and uncovered exactly zero. We found some different ones, though, almost all of which support Augie’s point in 2014. Augie’s data, from sources decidedly different to the content marketing-generated malaise we see today, demonstrate that social media isn’t a preferred channel for consumers to learn about brands, find more information about purchase decisions, effectively build brand trust, effectively build brand awareness, lead generation, and neither fans nor followers on social media equate with brand affinity. Moreover, he found that social media does not drive purchase intent, and that social media is not a cost-effective reach tool. Predicting Facebook’s shift to an advertising platform before many of us were having conversations about it, Augie was talking about 50% declines in organic Facebook posts reaching audiences in 2014. Today Hootsuite reports that all of 8% of organic reaches an eyeball.

Today Hootsuite reports that all of 8% of organic social media reaches an eyeball.

In our 50+ studies no older than 2017, we ignored what I called Promise Keeper studies concerning the growth of social media, how many people are on social media and which channels, and how much time people spend on social media. These aren’t marketing studies. They’re at best census data, at worse propaganda for social media marketing platforms and their Plover Bird affiliates. Then we categorized them by publishing source and made our best judgements about biases. When we evaluated the findings in the more agenda-free studies, our conclusions look remarkably similar to what Augie wrote about in 2014. Again, I encourage you to read Augie’s post because I won’t rehash it here. It’s still quite pertinent.

Here are our highlights:

Brand Awareness and Affinity


  • 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 consumers not only 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.” In other words, 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”.
    • This confirms many other studies over the years that find the same thing and in my opinion have all kinds of cascading effects, becoming a factor in every equation looking at purchasing behavior. If a customer buys something as a result of something they saw in their social media feed, to what extent did their existing affinity for the brand play a part? You can’t count on the social media industry to tease that out for you.
  • Another 2017 Journal of Marketing Research study, Effects of Traditional Advertising and Social Messages on Brand-Building Metrics and Customer Acquisition, found traditional advertising is still a more effective tool in building brand awareness and customer acquisition than social media posts by brands, and even by consumers on behalf of brands.
  • A 2017 Harvard Business School study found that liking a Facebook page does not change customer behavior. On its face this may seem simply disappointing, but it actually subverts what we know about the basic forces of influence. Robert Cialdini, essentially the founding father of modern influence theory, lays out five essential principles of influence based on human hardwiring in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. One of them is consistency: we experience a cognitive dissonance when our actions don’t reflect our beliefs. Social media marketing, it would seem, is the rare place where we’re immune to this long-held understanding.

Purchasing Behavior


  • A 2017 Harvard Business School study found, across 16 studies, “no evidence that following a brand on social media changes people’s purchasing behavior.” Nor does a friend’s endorsement: The study found that social media had “no enhancing effect on the purchasing habits of friends.”
  • The above-mentioned Value of a Facebook Fan study discovered that liking a brand on Facebook is viewed as a “token” action in terms of friend endorsements.

Reputation and Trust


  • A 2017 University of Maryland study, Bias on Your Brand Page?, dug into 170 million unique users of 3,000 brands and found that word-of-mouth on social media is often subject to bias, that this bias is typically negative, and when it affects brand performance it tends to damage it. The study also found that the larger the following, the more likely word-of-mouth is to be negative, while smaller followings lean more positive. Think about that the next time you report social media follower growth to your boss, or demand it from your marketing department.
    • This also has interesting implications for those who insist on touting the power of social media as a tool for customer insight. Social media biases can “certainly decrease the quality of insights marketers can extract”, according to the study.
  • Avinash Kaushik, among a handful of the internet’s most respected analytics thought and practice leaders, makes a similar point about social media encouraging and amplifying negative sentiment in a blog post that urges all brands to stop organic social media marketing posthaste. Looking at Expedia social media posts, he finds “pretty much every single comment on pretty much every single Expedia post is a complaint about how horrible Expedia is […] If your Facebook presence is solely to inspire people […] why are you on Social Media?” This combined with some compelling math related to his Conversation, Amplification, Applause, and Economic Value social media marketing metrics, motivated Avinash to appeal to “the intelligent rational assessor of reality” in all of us to “kill all the organic social media activity by your company. All of it.”

Lead Generation, Funnels, and Preferred Channels


  • Social Media Today, a social media blog, and Sharp Spring, a sales and marketing platform company, came together to produce a 2019 report called The State of Social Lead Generation. Over half the marketers surveyed were either neutral, somewhat dissatisfied, or extremely dissatisfied with social media as a lead gen tool. Some 38% notched Somewhat Satisfied ratings.
    • Nearly 70% of those same marketers were either neutral, somewhat dissatisfied, or extremely dissatisfied with the quality of leads social media generates for them.
  • Chief Marketer’s B2B Outlook Survey reports that social still ranks behind email, search, content marketing, and live events for generating leads. It falls behind email, content marketing, in-person meetings, calls from sales, and account-based marketing for lead nurturing. It’s second to last on the list of tactics to move leads through sales funnels.
  • Keiler Perkins’ massive annual Internet Trends report for 2018 shows barely marginal growth in traffic referrals from social to ecommerce sites (from 2% to 6% over three years) and Facebook e-commerce click throughs (1% to 3% over two years). These barely perceptible gains don’t even keep up with the growth of the Internet: 19% according to the report. As the Internet matures and continues to attract new minds, new technologies, and new techniques, traffic referrals from social aren’t budging.

Having presented and consulted on this topic for a decade, the most common pushback I hear from marketers when presenting this data is around the sales lifts and boosts some brands are able to measure from their social media efforts. “I can offer a coupon on Twitter, and sales jump” a common declaration goes.

To those ends, it’s important to consider the tendency to measure short-term gains from social media marketing, while ignoring the long-term value. Or worse. As a marketing researcher from global data-aggregator Warc put it when summarizing WARC’s Seriously Social report, a short-term social media marketing focus is “ultimately undermining long-term effectiveness”.

Sales lifts and follower boosts from special offers abound in the social media case study milieu, but very little of it is associated with long-term business success. Warc has released several reports on social media effectiveness based on hundreds of social media case studies. Indeed, social media marketing studies demonstrating long-term value are so few that the report’s authors lament in their top-four takeaways for the study as a whole how “social campaigns [are] constrained to work over short timescales [and] unable to deliver the same benefits as long-term ones.”

As marketers our job is to balance short-term lifts in sales through activation tactics like discounts and trials without damaging long-term business necessities like profitability, market share, and customer churn and retention. Deep dives into social media marketing’s so-called success stories reveal the trumpeting of short-term wins while distracting us from the balanced marketing results marketers are responsible for delivering.

Whether it’s Starbucks’ limited-time Frappuccino offer, New Zealand Bank’s “Like Loan” campaign, or Mattessons stopping a decline in sales with their Fridge Raiders campaign, social media marketers like to confirm biases with measurements and data that demonstrate sales lifts. This is not without its implications. As the WARC report puts it, “the inevitable consequence of short-term measurement is a drift to strategies that deliver better in the short term. Unfortunately, these tend to deliver poorer long-term performance and so short-termism ultimately undermines long-term effectiveness.”

Social media marketing studies that demonstrate a balance of long term value with short-term sales lifts are, like Starbucks’ limited time Frappuccino, unicorns. Image via Starbucks Newsroom.

It’s ultimately your data that matters, of course. If you can measure business success from your social media efforts, more power to you. There are outliers, usually located within three brand categories that are outlined in Part Three of this series.

But if your data isn’t demonstrating business success, you aren’t alone. Maybe this post will help you find the courage to defund social media in your marketing mix, or garner the support you need to make the case to your boss.

Up next: So what are we to do about all of this?

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