In 2011, IBM published a report that clearly highlighted a gap in the perceptions of consumers and business when it comes to social media. “Getting closer to customers is a top priority for CEOs,” according to the IBM CEO Study. “Today’s businesses are fervently building social media programs to do just this. But are customers as enthusiastic?” In a word, no, says IBM: “What we discovered may come as a surprise to those companies that assume consumers are seeking them out to feel connected to their brand.”
IBM surveyed consumers about their social media use, asking them to identify the reasons they go to social networking sites. By a wide margin, the top reason, and perhaps unsurprisingly, was to connect with family and friends, cited by 70 percent of the respondents, reinforcing the notion that social networking is about personal (offline) connections. The next most popular reason is to access news and entertainment, cited by about half. You have to go way down the list, to the tenth spot, to find anything about brands, with a quarter of consumers (23 percent) saying they use social media so they can interact with brands.
IBM’s researchers then did an interesting reality test. They asked a sample of business people why they think consumers follow their brand’s social activities, and then asked consumers why they really did so. The perception gap was stark. Sixty-four percent of business executives think consumers interact with them on social media to feel more “connected” to the brand, when in fact only 33 percent of consumers say that is the case. Sixty-one percent of businesses think consumers follow them to be “part of a community”; in fact that is the least important reason why consumers say they connect with businesses socially. Instead, consumers told IBM, they mainly go to a company’s social site to hunt for discounts (61 percent) and–this is better news–to make purchases (55 percent). Both of these categories rank at the very bottom of businesses’ perceptions.
What can we conclude from this? To the rather modest degree that consumers are interacting with companies in the social media sphere, they’re most often looking for two things: to get coupons and to buy stuff. They’re also looking for product reviews, which are often closely associated with e-commerce sites as well.
There’s good news and bad news here. While there is clear transactional potential, social media isn’t shaping up to be a great place to build a brand. Instead it is a place for consumers to get a deal. The other thing worth noticing in this study is how far companies are from understanding consumer motivation in the social environment, which makes the programs that rely on it so often misguided. As the study phrases it, “Businesses hoping to foster closer customer connections through social media conversations may be mistakenly projecting their own desires for intimacy onto customers’ motivations for interacting. Interactions with businesses are not the same as interactions with friends. Most consumers are not motivated brand advocates who connect with a company primarily to feel associated with a brand community.”
The IBM study should dash the misguided way of thinking in a case study like that of Pepsi Refresh, where product-focused marketing is replaced by gauzy notions of relationships, and should cause marketers to realize the large numbers of people they see on Facebook and Twitter should not be mistaken for an audience clamoring to connect with brands.
Social Media Scales. Or Does It?
In a 2011 speech, Facebook’s Dan Rose made the point that Facebook “scales” word of mouth. When people at Facebook talk about scale they’re usually referring to the more than half-billion people who use the social network. There’s no arguing with Rose’s point that Facebook has signed up a ton of users. So has Twitter. Foursquare is getting there, and MySpace had a ton and then lost them. The big audiences are certainly assets for traditional forms of paid advertising, particularly when targeted based on the needs and interests of the users. This is a source of great value. But how much of the value comes from consumer-to-consumer advice on these social networking platforms?
It has been estimated that there are 256 billion brand impressions created per year via status updates, tweets, and other mentions on social networking sites, according to Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler in their 2010 book, Empowered. They too believe that one of the most attractive things about social media is that it scales. Maybe there is a lot more word of mouth that takes place offline, they say, but if one person tells something to a few real-world friends, the impact is fairly limited; if someone tells something to a few hundred friends on Facebook, the message travels far wider, and faster. At least, that’s the argument.
But our research has found that this way of thinking is flawed, and for a large number of reasons. Among them:
· Face-to-face communication has a far greater impact, in terms of perceived credibility and likelihood to take action, than just reading something online.
· The fact that adveritising and other forms of marketing spark so much word of mouth means that the right type of campaign with significant reach, can unleash a number of offline conversations, making the question of scale a nonissue.
· Most people on Facebook keep in close contact with only about four people per week.
· The greatest impact is created be people’s close personal connections, not the far wider number of loose connections.
The crucial thing to remember about social media is that it is, at most, a complement to brand and marketing fundamentals. To properly tell the story of your brand and spark conversation, you’ll most certainly need the time-tested tools of marketers that have the reach and persuasive power to get the job done.
From THE FACE-TO-FACE BOOK, by Ed Keller and Brad Fay. Copyright © 2012 by Keller Fay Group LLC. Excerpted with permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
[Image: Flickr user Darwin Bell]