Social Dynamics in Social Media Marketing

Needless to say that the social media buzz is at an all-time high. It basically has taken over all discussions around Digital Marketing. As with so many other things online, measurement is now only slowly catching up, and an increasing number of applications come out every week that promise to make “Social Analytics” a reality soon. Good marketers want to measure how well their investments perform, and it has been discussed at length that CMOs have no choice now that to demonstrate tangible and concrete returns on the money they are entrusted with.

It is my opinion that a large part of that money spent on social media is currently wasted. A lot of that waste comes from acting out of fear of missing out on the latest new “revolution”, from giving in to so many people, pundits, gurus (whatever term you like) who are clamoring the “go social or die” message that has become the only heard voice now. I believe that we still don’t get Social Media Marketing.

First of all, and I am really amazed at how rarely if ever this is brought up, what do we mean when we say “social media”, which seems to be such a broad generic category of platforms. Ask any business person, not one of the tens of thousands of SM specialists, to make a list of those platforms, and they will inevitably say “Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube (which is not)…” and then be at lost to find a fifth one. Some might say Flickr, others Pinterest if they read a lot of Online Marketing stuff.

Of all the thousands of application, platforms, or services that would technically fall into the social media category, the reality is that, to most people in business, “social media” is Facebook and Twitter. In other words: for the vast majority of companies now, doing Social Media Marketing means doing stuff on Facebook and Twitter.

We still tend to look at those two platforms as broadcast channels; marketers use them the same way they do with advertising. Let us look at it this way for a minute, i.e. how well messages can be sent to as many targeted people as possible. Right off the bat, we have a serious audience size problem. If we look at it freed from the buzz veil, we must admit that audiences are awfully small, when compared to potential or even actual clients/prospects bases. What are the 40 million Coca-Cola’s fans on Facebook compared to the billions of consumers they have? Add to this that any message seems to be seen by only a tiny minority of one’s audience, and we have a problem. Most companies are realizing it, and this is one of the reasons why they promote their Facebook page and Twitter account so vigorously.

So, since audiences are in fact so darn small, we want to believe that people on social media are of a different nature, of better quality: they are influencers. And among them, there must be a whole hierarchy of influence, with the biggest influencers at the top, the ones every marketer wants to influence. Influencing the influencers seems to be the big Social Media Marketing game. So far, most analytics applications have determined influence based on someone’s audience size, and how much their followers/fans shared their messages; a very basic approach, to say the least.

If influence is the capacity to make people adopt ideas and/or new behavior, we immediately see the limitations of current measurements. Sharing with one’s network someone else’s messages certainly does not mean I adopted that idea (I may have had it myself), and the simple fact of sharing, which is basically a zero-effort action, does not scale high in behavior change.

I believe we still need to understand way better how social dynamics apply on Social Media platforms, sorry, Facebook and Twitter. Social network theory, which has been a well-established body of knowledge for decades, tells us, among other things, that influence is in sharing the message, not in initiating it. In other words, the “sharer” is more important than the person whose message is shared. Without those individuals in a network, nothing gets passed along.

Current analytics products do not approach online networks accordingly. We are still in need of better applications. They will have to access to astonishing computational power to be able to deeply analyze the relationship dynamics within your audiences. However, I believe we are just a few years away from that ability. One company is amazingly positioned to do just that: Facebook. It is mind boggling what their social scientists will be able to know about users.

While we are trying to figure out how best to analyze online social dynamics, how we could really identify the true influencers, which is at the heart of Social Marketing, marketers can easily benefit from that dynamics, even without understanding it well, almost in a no-brainer way: just by adding social sharing buttons on their Web sites. It is easy to do, it has absolutely solved the “send-to-a-friend” problem (which anyone who analyzed sites knew didn’t work) in an amazingly frictionless way, and do not force you to maintain a parallel site (i.e. a Facebook page).

Finally, I am not saying you shouldn’t be on Facebook or Twitter. However, I think that, for most companies, this should be done with an experimentation mindset, with play money. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting. If you find yourself investing more efforts (time and money) on social platforms than your own site, without efficiently measuring returns, you are in trouble.