Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Long Hard Road of Social Media

There has been plenty of hype surrounding the potential of social media as a low-cost, high-impact promotional tool for business.

Much of the social media hype has been fuelled by the various success stories, in particular the YouTube sensations that have generated millions of views from relatively low-cost production videos. A few of the classic examples in recent years include Blendtec, Old Spice, Tippex and the Dollar Shave Club.

Blendtec is a premier example as it has managed to make everyday food blenders look cool and exciting. From their collection of videos, where they blend a range of bizarre items such as iPads, super glue and golf balls, they have reached a broad audience and have now surpassed 220 million views. But what is particularly effective about their videos is that they have generated such interest by simply demonstrating their blenders in action.


Another great success is the Old Spice campaign from 2010, which helped repositioned the brand to being a younger, more modern brand, and was able to generate around 1.4 billion total impressions in just six months through the combination of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and mainstream media.

So it’s no wonder that businesses are now increasingly looking at social media to dramatically grow their brand awareness, substantially leverage word-of-mouth and deliver significant increases in sales.

But unfortunately it’s not as easy and effective as the hype suggests. And as time goes on, it is becoming more apparent that social media is not a magic pathway to building a strong brand and growing the bottom-line. Indeed, for many organisations, social media is now proving to be a long, hard and expensive road paved with many pitfalls.

One significant pitfall is brand integrity. To generate social media interest, the campaign needs to be innovative, funny, controversial and/or grossly entertaining. That is often hard to do within the confines of a well-crafted brand image.

As an example, a couple of years back, Perth-based pie manufacturer Mrs Mac’s had a very successful online campaign in Australia that utilized numerous social media platforms. Their YouTube video from this campaign now exceeds 2 million views. However, I would suggest that the campaign was not overly consistent with the traditional image of their brand. 

Therefore, in their next online campaign, which was in aid of a new product launch, they took a more conservative approach in line with their traditional positioning. The end result was only a couple of thousand YouTube views in total and little interest in the new product as a result.

The growing cost and effort of social media, coupled with a long payback period, is also becoming more apparent. A good case study for this point is Westpac Bank. Westpac have had a social media team in place for a few years now, with the main goal of trying to leverage their 10 million or so account holders.

So how successful have they been in leveraging and engaging their customer base? Well, as at May 2013, they had less than 15,000 Twitter followers, just over 50,000 Facebook likes and only about 370,000 total YouTube views. Clearly, at this stage, I would guess that their social media investment has a negative ROI and is likely to have a long payback period.

Therefore, it appears that social media is becoming a long, hard grind without much of the magic that we’ve been led to believe. And for every success story, there are probably 100’s or maybe 1000’s of campaigns that went nowhere. While, I am still positive about the long-term value of social media for many firms, I would strongly counsel against the extent of optimism and high expectations that normally accompany social media activities.

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