The research company Gallup claims that a recent study debunks three social media myths. When Gallup, a trusted name in reserach, announces "groundbreaking new insights into how people interact with social media and into its effectiveness as a marketing tool," you're inclined to pay attention.
But while the results are interesting, I wouldn't make any decisions about how to use social media based on them, particularly since the "myths" Gallup claims its research refutes aren't myths at all. All of Gallup's conclusions are givens that we have accepted as fact since the dawn of social media.
The first of these non-myths is that social networking is an online-only phenomenon. Here's what Gallup says:
Our analysis suggests that the most frequent type of social networking is still analog-face-to-face or over the phone. This holds true among all types of social networkers, even younger social networkers.
The study of social networks goes back to the 1930s, so clearly there was somebody who thought it was an analog function, and even the most infatuated social media advocate would be nuts to argue that all (or even most) such networking has shifted online. Intuitively, we know people still talk to one another. But if that wasn't enough, Keller Fay research made it quantifiably clear years ago that the vast majority of word of mouth happens offline.
This doesn't minimize the value of online social media engagement. As Emanuel Rosen says in his important book, The Anatomy of Buzz, word of mouth that begins online can ignite both online andoffline conversation.
Beyond word of mouth, though, it has been patently obvious since the earliest days of the Internet that offline social networking wasn't going anywhere. I remember attending WELL Office Parties, face-to-face gatherings of subscribers to the early, text-based network The WELL. The meetings were held in Sausalito; my wife took honorable mention in a chili cookoff at one of these genial get-togethers. As social media advanced, we saw the rise of tweetups, social media breakfasts, the Social Media Club and Third Thursday-like events. Most of the people I know who work in social media spend half their lives (it seems) at conferences. And these represent offline social networking for the hardest-core occupants of the social media fishbowl.
The second non-myth Gallup wants to explode is that all social networkers are the same. According to the research, "social networkers have different intrinsic reasons why and how they use their networks. They won't change those to fit your organization, so the key is to understand these differences and align your initiatives to them."
This is vital information, Gallup argues, because "bowing to the argument that 'everyone is doing it, so we should too,' many organizations approach social media as a tactic in search of a strategy. But using mass tactics to reach consumers implies that all social networkers are the same."
Gallup acknowledges that marketers employ customer segmentation-just not when it comes to social networks. But the study was based on research with consumers, not marketers, so you have to wonder about the basis for the assumption comes from. Again, I haven't met anybody who views social network audiences as homogenous. In fact, many organizations know exactly at whom their Facebook pages are targeted. In some cases it's their brands' biggest fans, for instance.
This is not to suggest that there aren't a lot of companies who do jump into social networks because it's trendy or because they see their competitors doing it. But that has nothing to do with social media. Companies with substandard marketing have been jumping on bandwagons since long before Univac was a gleam in Remington Rand's corporate eye.
For savvy marketers, there has been plenty of reseach into the demographics and psychographics of Facebook users. It's been six years since we had access to "A Demographic and Psychographic Profile of Heavy Internet Users and Users by Type of Internet Usage." And that's just one among hundreds, maybe thousands of studies that slice and dice the characteristics of social networkers.
I have no argument with Gallup's research, but it explodes a non-myth. Nobody thinks everybody on Facebook (or any other social network is the same.
Which brings us to our final non-myth:
Gallup would have us believe that there's an assumption that social media initiatives drive customer loyalty and acquisition. The fact, according to Gallup's research, is that engagement with a brand drives social engagement. According to Gallup:
Brand-sponsored social media initiatives have very little impact on consumer decision making. Nor do they drive prospective customers to consider trying a brand or recommending a brand to others in their social network.
The study was based on research with some 17,000 social media users. This is what Gallup does, right? They ask people their opinions. It's how we know the president's or Congress' ratings are up or down. But there are problems with using this approach to determine whether social media initiatives drive customer loyalty or acquisition.
The survey asked people to rank the sources on which they'd rely when deciding which companies, brands, products and services to use:
The first issue is that those small percentages ascribed to social channels can still add up to big bucks. Hubspot reported that 41% of business-to-business companies and 67% of business-to-consumer companies acquired customers via Facebook. The numbers are similar for Twitter and company blogs, while LinkedIn (not surprisingly) led to more B2B customer acquisition than it did for B2C companies.
So the fact that Facebook isn't as influential as your customer's spouse doesn't mean it's not effective.
The second issue is that Gallup seems to separate online initiatives from engagement. They are not mutually exclusive concepts. Looking through random Facebook pages, I see company representatives engaging with customers on their walls. Do a search: There are tons of social media community manager jobs open as companies seek people qualified to engage customers in venues like a Facebook page.
It's pretty clear to people working in the space that social media initiatives are a way to create more engagement; nobody expects someone to buy a product just because they've been exposed to the initiative. Read any of the gazillion posts written about measuring social media effectiveness. Somewhere in nearly all those posts you'll find some reference to engagement. People talk about Return on Engagement (ROE) as though it has somehow attained the same status as ROI.
Gallup argues that customer engagement is a "deep rational and emotional attachment," and that it drives social engagement. To which I respond, "What's your point?" This is Marketing 101. There's no revelation here.
Gallup turns to its customer engagement hierarchy, listing four key elements-confidence, integrity, pride and passion-required to create an engaged customer. Smart social media initatives are designed with these elements in mind. Connections between companies and customers can help deliver on the brand promise, resolve customer problems, reinforce the organization's fair treatment and respectful treatment of customers. (If that's not a goal of your customer-facing social media activities, what the hell is?)
Again, I have no quarrel with the results of Gallup's research. But the researchers appear to have made casual observations about organizational assumptions, then used its survey results to "debunk." them. I'm befuddled by the posturing - the study somehow has exposed heretofore unkown truths when they are, in fact, just blinding flashes of the obvious.