Why marketers need to wean themselves off social engagement metrics

I’ve been doing this a little while now and I’ve seen it time and time again.

The insatiable appetite for meaningless reports and dashboards.

The constant chasing of love hearts over dollars.

The thumb-twitching angst whilst watching the likes roll in. One. By. One.

All tell-tale signs, folks. The diagnosis is clear. The marketing industry has an addiction problem.

The allure of sweet, clicky and most importantly immediate ‘success’ metrics of reactions, retweets and comments is muddying our perception of ROI. And we’re hooked.

It’s no surprise really, our poor little lizard brains are wired to chase popularity and fame, both so easily and immediately measured in the currency of likes, shares and laughing smiley faces.

As marketers this has made it too easy to hide. Engagement myopia has set in and we’re quick to blame the external market factors rather than question our work when things go wrong.

But it has to stop.

Fortunately rehab is free, data driven and about a four minute read.

The first stop on the road to Damascus? Menlo Park, where Facebook has confirmed that the delicious, addictive goodness of likes and shares can only ever be a proxy for interest, “not reliable indicators of persuasiveness”.

Moreover, “more than 90% of offline sales come from people who don’t interact with the ads during the campaign” (Facebook & Datalogix, 2012).

The simple truth is, content doesn’t need to be persuasive to elicit engagement online, or vice versa. Whilst there is often correlation, causation is far from guaranteed.

Cold turkey continues by checking in to the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute to meet with Prof. Byron Sharp.

As Sharp’s ‘How Brands Grow: What marketers don’t know’ is a book many marketing practitioners are familiar with I’ll just call out one of the most important rules touted: that you need to “continuously reach all buyers of the category and avoid being silent” to achieve brand growth.

Social communication has to be geared around this, building cumulative reach as part of a mix of channels — that is, as one component of a larger content strategy.

Too often though, the focus is on lightly boosting a stream of posts in accordance with a monthly calendar, which serves only to echo around a minor percentage of a fan-base in isolation of the wider mix. Just to be clear, you’re not ‘always on’ if you’re only on for 2% of your target.

The question to ask is this: what’s more important? Fresh new content for your fan-base and that quick, clicky fix, or actually reaching more of your target audience with commercially compelling content? Clue: your fans and your customers are not always the same people.

Still not sure? The top performing campaigns (that’s penetration, sales and new buyers) on Facebook and Instagram have had nearly twice the reach of the bottom performing. (Reach Matters, Facebook 2016)

In practical terms it’s all about building saliency by refreshing and creating memories that can be activated in buying situations — the persuading bit. This means creative has to:

1. Be novel
2. Deliver ‘affective impact’
3. Be relevant.

For example, a recent study from TNSGlobal mapped the shape of some of the largest social media campaigns of the past couple of years and the effectiveness of each, including Budweiser’s infamous 2015 Super Bowl ad, the ‘lost puppy.’

At the time the fluffy lab was immediately and universally acclaimed to have won the battle of the Super Bowl advertising for Bud, but later the campaign was shown to be ineffective when measured against hard metrics, which is also reflected in the pattern of Twitter conversations after the event:

”The ad generated a high volume of activity, reflecting the initial excitement and emotional impact, but this activity added up to little more than an ‘echo chamber’, with people simply retweeting the promotional tweets from Budweiser’s official account.”

The retweets, whilst a proxy of interest in the campaign, were not an accurate reflection of its impact. The initial buzz wore off, sales were flat and the marketing team at Bud left with a very expensive hangover.

Engagement myopia strikes again.

If a message has been designed and paid for by a business, it should aim to achieve some form of commercial goal.

Take this little number for Slurpee, a campaign we delivered that had an immediate return for client 7-Eleven. No doubt much of its success in that campaign period can also be attributed to the emotional priming carried out during the months of prior social comms too. Don’t get me wrong, great to see all the social lurv on the content but we were much more excited about shifting product.

So yes, delicious, addictive engagement metrics. A nice to have, sure, but on their own, about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Social is all grown up people, and it’s time it started paying some rent.

Stephen Graham, Senior Content Strategist