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The Beauty of the Social Marketing Backlash

This story was originally published on June 9, 2010, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

It had to happen sooner or later; the only question in my mind is why it has taken so long. It appears that the backlash against social media is beginning. All I can say is, yippee!

With trends like social media — or almost any trend — we tend to over-imbue the idea or offering with our own expectations of what’s possible and inevitably we are disappointed when we learn that nothing could do all that. I think the old “Saturday Night Live” line “It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping!” nicely illustrates the point, and social media has traveled a very typical path.

Uh, Duh!

When I started writing about social media in CRM in 2002, few people saw its potential, and it took several years before the concept gained critical mass. Then for a period of a couple years it was all that anyone wanted to talk about. People wrote books about it and gave speeches, and many out-of-work PR and marketing pros became experts overnight talking about it from their blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The other day I ran across an article by Tom Stein titled “The Ugly Truth About Facebook for Business,” in which he documented multiple small-business owners who said that Facebook had been a total waste of time, and these owners had stayed with the technology, in some cases, for two years. The article goes on to talk about how much effort and time these businesses put into developing content for their accounts daily and how frustrated the owners were.

The only answer I can give to all this is, duh! It might be painful to hear this and hard to swallow, but the reason for the lack of success can be boiled down to operator error. A year an a half ago Clara Shih wrote The Facebook Era (a good book, by the way) in which she plainly showed that Facebook and other forms of social media are good at keeping tabs on acquaintances, people we know casually or through a mutual association — just the kind of people who could be called “customers.” Our best friends might interact with us through social media, but they also email, pick up the phone or eat and drink with us.

The difference is huge because the sum of all those interactions is bi-lateral communication in which we give information but we also get information, too. The problem with using Facebook or any other outbound social media exclusively is that when used this way it is no more revolutionary than a dumb direct-mail blast, and we all know how well that works.

Need More Input

As I have written before, to be effective at using social media, you need a social media strategy that incorporates both the outbound messaging that we love as well as ways that prompt user or customer input. It is the input that makes social media valuable, and it is seeking input that we seem to have trouble with.

I don’t know why this is. Perhaps it has to do with the incessant need marketers have to justify their existence to the CFO. The usual approach is to heap up some statistics, like the size of the base you market to, the number of impressions, and similar things. We consider that real work, but when it comes to asking open-ended questions to come up with a good idea that had been hidden and that we can use to refine products and messaging, we don’t see the same value.

On other occasions I’ve suggested that the ratio of inbound social media use to outbound should approximate the 80/20 rule. I might go 70/30, but the point is that the preponderance of effort should be on listening and understanding or, as Stephen Covey said in Rule 5 of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand then to be understood.” Your messaging should be so chock-full of knowledge and information that the recipient is compelled to act, and that doesn’t happen if you’re spending a couple of hours a day just trying to dream up something relevant to say.

Now that we are getting over the phase in the social media bubble when we think it’s the answer to every affliction known to humankind, perhaps we can begin the process of understanding its uses better as well as the nuances between different types. Social media is a rich toolbox with many interesting and effective gadgets, and knowing which ones to use and when is more than half the battle. We’re at least over the idea that all we need is a hammer, and that’s progress.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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