Written by Peter Roper.
It was a beautiful marketing dream. Networks of people connected by friendship and shared passions could stay in touch with the brands they choose. The quality of a brand’s content could spread by shared appreciation. The quality of a brand’s performance could spread by word of mouth.
Social networks have been evolving the ways in which billions of people communicate for the last decade. As a communication channel, it’s probably lived up to the hype. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of social media’s hype as a marketing channel. The promise was a great democratisation of business. No matter your size or marketing budget, you could compete on the same level as the world’s biggest corporations, judged on how human a business could be instead of how much it could spend on advertising. That was the promise but, eventually, all social networks realise they have to generate revenue like any other business, and that either means selling to its audience or selling its audience. It chose the latter, which is also known as ‘advertising’.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of people propagating the buzz – because there are plenty – but it’s just buzz. Social media isn’t the meritocracy for brands it could have been, anymore, if it ever was. It’s exceedingly rare and accidental for something to go viral without an advertising agency and some assistance from paid distribution and, even with those, it’s far from guaranteed. Three years ago, a brand could expect its Facebook posts to be seen by about 20 percent of its followers. These days, it’s closer to two percent.
Social media is just another paid advertising channel. Brands can pay to distribute their messages in images and words that people can click on.
There is a very good reason for me to make this point as strongly as possible, because the crux is the positive flipside to all this. Once it’s accepted that Facebook and company are simply channels on which to buy advertising, digital marketing becomes a much easier proposition. A platform like Facebook can now be assessed in the same way as any advertising channel: how many of the right people does it reach and will reaching them through this channel contribute to my marketing goals by moving people further down the funnel?
Then, all it takes is good-old-fashioned trial and error to discover its place in a brand’s media mix. Like every media channel, there are things social media advertising does very well and things it doesn’t. And, like any media channel, it’s never going to work on its own. In 2016, the best marketing communication is still integrated marketing communication.