There have been some interesting studies recently about social media which raise some interesting questions for advertisers.
In late March came a study from Yahoo, which reported that 50% of all tweets come from only 20,000 users, or 0.05% of the Twitter universe. Far from a "flat" highly "democratic" means of communications, that connects everyone to everyone else, the Yahoo authors conclude that Twitter more closely resembles a traditional broadcast model in which a small number of "elite users" push out content, rather than a true two-way dialogue that many assume when they talk about Twitter. "Information flows have not become egalitarian by any means," say the authors. In discussing the Yahoo research, econsultancy led with the headline, "Twitter isn't very social: Study."
In early April came a report by Forrester regarding Facebook, which asks, "Will Facebook Ever Drive eCommerce?" The answer is not very positive for Facebook, according to Forrester: "In spite of the fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world have Facebook accounts, the ability of the social network to drive revenue for eCommerce businesses continues to remain elusive. eBusiness professionals in retail collectively report little direct or indirect benefit from Facebook, and social networks overall trail far behind other customer acquisition and retention tactics like paid search and email in generating a return on investment. For some companies and brands, Facebook promises to support branding and awareness (i.e., "top of the (marketing) funnel") efforts, but for most eBusiness companies in retail, Facebook is unlikely to correlate directly to near-term sales."
At about the same time as these two reports were calling into question some of the magical powers that many in the marketing community have ascribed to Facebook and Twitter, my business partner Brad Fay gave a presentation at the ARF's re:Think 2011. With the same title as this post, "How Social are Social Media Audiences, Really?", the presentation shares research results that demonstrate that, when it comes to "social value," all media are social, and that in several important ways "traditional" media have a far more compelling story to tell than the social networking sites.
Our research finds the audience for social media like Twitter and Facebook do have some appealing qualities for marketers: They have larger social networks than the average American; they talk more about brands each week versus the average; and they are more likely to make recommendations about products, services, and brands across a range of categories. So far, so good.
At the same time, when compared to the audiences for "traditional media," the research shows that Twitter and Facebook do not stand out as leaders. Looking at the audiences of over 100 media (both "traditional" media in cable, print, and the internet, as well as social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook), we see compelling evidence that "traditional media" offer considerably more "social value." When it comes to which audiences have the largest social networks, wsj.com is the leader by a wide margin; neither Facebook nor Twitter is in the top 10. When it comes to which audiences have the most brand-related conversations per week, Vogue's audience is the leader; again, neither Facebook nor Twitter break the top 10. The same pattern holds when it comes to which media audiences are the most likely to make product recommendations, or which have the highest concentration of influencers – Twitter and Facebook frequently are in the middle of the pack.
Consumer decision making is fundamentally "social." Consumers value most the advice they get from other people, and are highly engaged in seeking recommendations. It is part of what makes us human, and it's always been an important part of how mass communications work. The lesson here is that "all media are social" and a wide variety of media are able to reach "social" consumers. By all means, use "social media" (and experiment with what works and doesn't work), but don't be insular in your thinking about how to engage in social marketing. You need to integrate these efforts into broader strategies for media, marketing, and advertising. People are what make brands social, not technology.
Ed Keller, CEO of the Keller Fay Group, has been called "one of the most recognized names in word of mouth." The publication of Keller's book, The Influentials, has been called the "seminal moment in the development of word of mouth." Ed can be contacted at email@example.com.
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