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Is Social Media Really a Teenage Mutant Ninja Hurdle?

ImageNever having accepted that puns are the lowest form of humor, I found myself revisiting “Teenage Mutant Ninja Hurdle,” as a surprisingly profound catch phrase for the current state of social media. So please forgive me as I exploit the “Heroes in a Half Shell” by sharing four not-so-comical implications for serious social media marketers to consider in 2014.

Teenage: In Both Fact and Behavior

Before the term “social media” became popular in the mid-naughties (and no, I didn’t make up that term for the 2000s), the notion of social was alive and well with many prescient marketers who created weblogs in the late nineties. These pioneers saw the shift from marketing at consumers to conversing with them as a means of gaining competitive advantage.

But more than a history lesson, the point of calling social a “teenager” is that the industry is in its adolescence in more ways than this practitioner can count. As an emerging discipline, we are constantly shouting out for attention without always having the substance to make our case. Similarly, we fall in love with the “new girl” (hey, look, there’s SnapChat!) and add new platforms to the mix without a clear rationale or plan of attack.

Mutant: From Floor Wax to Dessert Topping

Here, the challenge starts with the term “social media” itself. What began as a customer-centric revolution that demanded that brands be “social” is now morphing into yet another media channel through which brands push highly targeted messages. I’m not condemning the “media” part of social but rather acknowledging that the ownership of social is once again in play as dollars get shifted from earned engagement to paid placements.

Another morphing factor is the ever-expanding roles social can play within a business. The content your company presents on Facebook and LinkedIn can have a sizeable impact on both retention and recruitment of employees, for example. A good listening strategy can turn social into a research channel for product development while solving customer service issues. So, yes, like the old SNL skit, social is a floor wax and a dessert topping, and undoubtedly will mutate more in the days and years ahead.

Ninja: A Fearsome, Stealthy Warrior 

Despite all the complications described above, social media still has the potential for being a powerful weapon in just about any brand’s marketing arsenal. Oreo’s efforts on social have not only kept the brand top-of-mind but also reminded us all how much fun it is to eat them. Their highly entertaining approach to Instagram, for example, sneakily inspires a craving for their classic cookie.

Smaller brands like Keen have sought social success both out of budget necessity and a desire to cultivate fan passion. Best known for its offbeat footwear, Keen has been particularly successful on Pinterest, gaining nearly 3.4 million followers. What started out as a quiet experiment has helped transform Keen customers into a veritable army of brand-promoting ninjas.

Hurdle: The ROI Thing

Despite (or perhaps because of) all of the roles that social media can play for a company, it still has trouble overcoming the ROI hurdle. Marketers are hard pressed to quantify the return on social media the way they can with investments in direct marketing like DRTV or SEM, and consequently, social is often starved of resources from both a staffing and an out-of-pocket standpoint. This, in turn, can limit the impact of social, raising the old “which came first: the turtle or the egg?” conundrum.

One factor that will help this cause is improvements in multi-channel attribution modeling (see this brilliant review of options by Avinash Kaushik , particularly for CPA-driven marketers. Another will be a renewed and potentially quantifiable focus on pleasing existing customers, which ironically, is how this whole social thing got started in the first place. Then ROI becomes a calculation of the Risk of Ignoring — something my friends Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael simply wouldn’t stomach.

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