The Current State of Social Confusion

In the most recent update to the social LUMAScape (LUMAscape is an organizing infographic of a sector’s ecosystem updated once a year by the good people of LUMA partners), over 200 solutions were grouped into 33 groups.

I briefly skimmed the infographic, and I could list at least five solutions that were not even mentioned in this year’s graphic. It’s no surprise that an emerging tech market like social media attracts so much innovation, but at this state of social adolescence, social media has yet to decide what it means for businesses. Is it a marketing channel? A customer service channel? Another communication channel? Or is it something else, something completely different than anything we’ve seen to date?

In the life cycle of social media and businesses, we are adolescents. While consumers have completely adopted social media as a way to communicate and consume information, businesses are still catching up with social media’s full potential. Everyone knows that you must be “on social,” but unlike other, more mature business functions, there are no standards or generally accepted best practices and playbooks. Social media in business is in a constant state of confusion, and its history is key to understanding why.

And on the third day, Facebook was created

Social media has been around for almost two decades now. Early on, it included networks like Friendster and MySpace, but in its most popular form, social media emerged in 2004 with Facebook hitting early adopters. By 2007, social media had crossed the chasm into the mass market and amassed over 50 million users. By 2012, social media was adopted by most of the population; even those who resisted it in the past found their way onto Facebook (see a good overview of Facebook history that coincides with social media’s evolution here).

Social media has transformed the way people communicate, interact, share information, and even evaluate and buy products. Like any innovation, to reach a wider audience, social has had to evolve. But the evolution has been symbiotic. As social media has changed, it has also changed us.

The speed by which information disseminates (and in the case of platforms like Snapchat, decays) has had a profound effect on how we consume content. The World Wide Web has ushered in the age of information and shifted the power balance from businesses to consumers. Social media has taken this development to a whole new level. Beyond the droves of cat videos, memes, GIFs, and other pop culture innovations, what social media has done is digitize conversations and make them public. Personal interactions that previously were private are now available and recorded.

For decades, businesses tried to find ways to learn more about their target audience — their likes, dislikes, desires, and interests — all in pursuit of influence. Social media has made this easier. Suddenly, a goldmine of information about consumers is readily available to tap into, listen to, and, finally, utilize.

The Genesis of Confusion: First Came Listening, Then Came Ads

Enter social listening tools, circa 2008. The most famous was Radian6 (founded in 206), a revolutionary solution at the time, that allowed businesses to mine social conversation to highlight topics, trends, and developing stories. Back then, social media “gurus” preached “listen before you talk.” They compared social media to a huge cocktail party and told businesses that they can’t just come in and expect to start selling. Solid advice.

The social networks, led by Facebook, realized the enormity of the potential: all these eyeballs and pageviews, just waiting for advertisers. So, the networks took the most obvious route to monetize their businesses: they sold ads. Since the AdTech industry has some basic standards for measuring success, it was easy for the networks to align with those standards. Impressions, pageviews, clicks — all generally acceptable terms that, for the experienced marketer, require no explanation.

But what social media has that no one else does is a rich, almost unbelievable amount of information about users, conversations, and interests. And it’s all digitized, available, and ready to use.

Social networks took full advantage of this. Walking carefully on the tightrope between user privacy and marketers’ need for information, the networks introduced hyper-targeting functionality that let marketers all but name the specific people they would like to target, allowing them to create campaigns so specific that it’s almost a “target-of-one.” Imagine, the social networks messaged, that you could place your product in front of the exact type of buyer you’re looking for. Moreover, imagine that you could do it for a fraction of the cost of traditional advertisement. It was almost too good to be true.

This has been the reaction from brands and agencies: skepticism at start, followed by a reflex-like reaction. Brands failed to recognize that this is a new type of advertisement, so they just grouped it with the other “media” you can buy, and gave media-buying teams access to the ad platforms.

After all, brands already started shifting budgets from traditional media-buying to digital media, so adding social media to the arsenal of media-buying was an easy choice. Social media for media-buying teams became exactly that: another “media” type to buy for ad space.

Social as a Direct Marketing Channel

At the same time as social networks started developing the ad platforms that would later drive their business and fuel their valuation, Direct Marketers, and more specifically, Digital Marketers, started looking for ways to join the social conversation. Businesses started creating personal profiles for their businesses and tried to build an audience. The name of the game back then was audience growth and making things “go viral.”

Marketers started taking on more social media responsibilities, and the role of the community manager was created, followed later by the social media marketer.

Side note: What’s interesting about the role of the Community Manager — even just by its name — is how far from classic marketing it is. Community Management, in its purest form, is an enabler of conversations in the community, the administrator of online communities. More on this role and the added confusion to social media later.

At the same time that social media gained more steam with both consumers and businesses, and consumers started reacting more positively to brands, more social networks started to show up, giving business more options to connect with consumers. The existing networks reacted with more features to enable businesses to have an organic (not just paid) presence on social media. And so, with an emphasis on social for business, the entry of new networks, and an increasing engagement by consumers on social, marketers needed a way to manage all of this new complexity. Enter social publishing solutions and apps.

Led by the early mover Hootsuite, publishing tools provided marketers with the ability to post, schedule, and manage multiple networks, profiles, and campaigns from one solution. Soon enough, more business went on social (“because everyone else is on it”) and noise started to take over consumers’ social feeds.

Facebook responded with an algorithm change that made it much harder for brands to show up organically on consumers’ feeds, cutting by more than half the organic “reach” and sending a clear signal to brands: “If you want to connect with your audience, you should pay for it.”

This move also eliminated the need for audience growth, since all the audience was now available for advertisers, and the size of your earned followers no longer played a role in driving engagement. The name of the game was now Engagement.

Beyond the short-lived turmoil that this change created in the industry, more than anything it kept pushing the media-buying marketer and the direct marketer closer together.

Brands had to work extra hard to drive organic (owned and earned) engagement, as it became much easier for brands to drive paid engagement. However, “closer” didn’t mean “better,” and the clash of AdTech (media buying) and MarTech (direct marketing) started to raise its unavoidable, ugly head.

Clash of the (Marketing) Titans

What did social media do that is so revolutionary that most businesses still can’t quite grasp it? It brought together the ad (media-buying) marketer and the direct marketer. But, in doing so, social networks failed to realize that these two personas, while both part of the marketing sphere, could not be more different. One is interested in optimizing media buy at scale and getting in front of as many eyeballs as possible; the other is interested in segmentation and targeting as a way to tailor and personalize campaigns. Success metrics, for each of these personas, are almost exactly opposite.

Early on in this pursuit of social relevancy, brands thought that driving value meant creating special offers, discounts, and updates on events and activities. But very quickly, two things happened: brands realized that they needed to focus on delivering real value and driving engagement, and consumers realized that they can actually interact with a brand and get a response.

As minor as this seems to the untrained eye, it was a tectonic shift in the relationship between brands and consumers, and one that contributed to the ongoing confusion about the role and ownership of social media in business.

For the first time in history, marketers had a way to have an actual conversation with their audience: their ENTIRE audience.

TV, Radio, Billboards, print ads, direct mail, display ads, PPC, and press releases, are all designed to give brands a megaphone (or a slingshot) to broadcast their message. Not one of these marketing formats is designed for audience response. It’s a broadcast system that is measured by lift and “responses.”

Marketing at its core — and it pains me to admit this as a marketer — is not designed as a conversational approach, but as a one-to-many or one-to-one communication system, where the only feedback desired is marketing results (or lack thereof).

Another note: Ironically, even email, a system designed for two-way conversations, is used in marketing as a broadcast system. Most marketers set their reply-to address to a “no-reply” designation.

Social as a Customer Support Channel

With social, suddenly marketers could actually interact with their audiences, respond to buyers in real time, and get immediate feedback from their buyers on how good (or bad) their campaigns were.

Consumers, on the other hand, inspired by the realization that brands were actually responding to them, started using social media to elicit those responses from brands, hoping (and succeeding) to influence brands on a micro and macro scale.

Last note: Check out these 14 amazing social media customer service examples and ask yourself: are these customer service examples, or just really good marketing?

These changes shifted the power balance between sellers and buyers even more to the buyers’ side, AND gave marketers direct, real-time access to “the voice of the customer.” But these changes also confused marketers. Almost overnight, marketers moved from having no immediate feedback on their campaigns and activity, to having the entire audience respond to them. They were drinking directly from the social fire-hose. Imagine someone being deaf their entire life and waking up one morning able to hear. The noise was too much to bear.

In a similar fashion to how businesses reacted to the advertising platforms, they reacted to this unexpected behavior: they assigned it to the only other department that handles conversations with consumers: customer support. Where else in the organization do customers have direct conversations with brands? If the characteristics are similar, it must belong to the same department, right? Enter social relationship platforms (SRPs).

SRPs promised to help businesses manage this new type of activity. And since SRPs were already doing some of the listening and publishing, it only made sense that they would do ALL of it. So SRPs started offering more functionality, like content management, scheduling, approval processes, listening, and even analytics.

SRPs used the confusion about the role of social media to sell an all-in-one solution. If you buy us, claimed SRPs, you can manage ALL your social in one place. It’s such a great promise to the executives, who know nothing about social media. It’s almost the same as GE coming to your house and telling you to buy all your electronic devices from them because they do “electronics,” and this way you can manage them all together. But do you really need your microwave and washing machine to talk to each other? And does GE really posses the expertise to make all your devices best-in-class?

Evolution or Revolution?

What I find most interesting, as I review this short history, is not what happened to social media and how it emerged in business, but what hasn’t happened (yet).

In the decade since Facebook opened its gates to the public, over 78% of the American population has joined social media, and over 27% of the world’s population is accessing social media. 2.1B social network users have been recorded globally.

In addition, time spent on social media has grown to almost two hours per day globally and in the U.S. some studies have shown that over 25% of this internet usage (which eclipsed six hours daily in 2014) is being spent on social media, with high-income, highly-educated adults spending more time than the average. Comparatively, the average American spends just over five hours per day watching TV.

Yet, with nearly half of the world population on social media and with daily usage that surpasses any other single “channel,” social media is still an afterthought for most businesses, or at best a secondary marketing channel that gets no respect or airtime in the boardroom. Its importance for driving strategy, identifying macro-trends, signaling business performance, and driving revenue has been ignored, or at least unrecognized.

For example, total global ad spend in 2014 was closing in on $540B, but social media saw only 3% of that spend. More ad dollars were spent on print, radio, and print directories than on social media! We must ask the simple question: Why? Why is social media not getting the attention it clearly deserves?

Is it just an evolutionary process? Do brands need a few more years to catch up with the market, or is the old regime which controls budgets and strategies still not sold on the concept of social as a serious marketing channel? Is a revolution necessary, or should we simply let time run its course?

The State of Social Confusion

My theory is that brands are confused about the role of social media in their organizations, and we haven’t done anything to help them figure it out. If anything, we, the social media marketing community and solution providers, have only been adding to the confusion. There are no standards, no playbooks, no best practices, no authority or centralized school of thought, and most importantly, no proof that social media as a marketing tactic actually works.

We are incapable of speaking the only language that businesses understand — revenue. So we came up with pseudo-KPIs that we can use as proxies for revenue. We justify them with hollow statements like, “It’s not how social media works,” or “What’s really important is engagement on social.” But let’s be real: If we had a way to show that it works, to really show that social media drives real results that move the business, we would f***ing show it. We would shout it from every rooftop.

As long as this confusion continues, social media will continue to be an afterthought and a secondary tactic in the marketing mix.

The Future Is Dark (Social)

The problem is that we’re running out of time. We are already blind to about 25–50% of the marketing results that social media drives (also known as “Dark Social,” content that is being shared on private social channels, like messaging apps). Soon it will become even harder for us to “listen” to conversations and glean the insights we need to drive the business.

What is Dark Social by @SimplyMeasured and Brewster Stanislaw

As consumers move more of their interactions to messaging apps and private interactions, the “traditional” social channels will become spam folders for consumers. It will not eliminate the need to prove business value from social campaigns on these public channels, but without capturing the results generated through digital word-of-mouth in the dark social sphere, it will become increasingly harder to convince any old-school executive to make social media a priority.

That’s why the recent trend in the market is insights. Social marketers are realizing that there are two major commodities in the social market — publishing and raw (unstructured) data. There is no reason to pay a premium for either of these. However, insights are a scarce resource and a true differentiator. Just like the old adage “Information is power,” in social media, “Insight is powerful.”

However, the current level of insights social marketers are getting, despite (and maybe because of) the unprecedented amount of available data, is almost insulting. Compared to the more mature digital channels like website, display, paid search, email, and even search, insights from social media are surface-level and useless. They are open-ended (not close-looped) and focus only on social media optimization for the sake of social media performance. Insights on social media today have no connection to business performance. In the evolution of social insights, we’re still in the dark ages.

With the advent of Dark Social and the continual growth of digital word-of-mouth, social media should be connected at least to marketing. Like every other marketing channel, social media marketing should connect the dots between channel activity and performance, and not just on paid social. The potential that a closed-loop system can unlock is unheard of.


We shouldn’t stop with generating insight from social. Our vision for social media should be to change the conversation in the boardroom. We should aspire to get actionable insight from social media that drives strategic decisions about the business. It’s time for us to rise to the occasion and make social media the driving force for business performance.

It starts with taking a hard look at how we communicate with our executives, how much we align with what our businesses need, and how well we utilize the unique nature of social media: bringing the crowd’s voice into our boardrooms. Above all, we need to start by figuring out the real business value of social media in our organizations.

Only after we do that can the social media marketing revolution begin.

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