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The Case for Realigning the Role of Social Media

If you ask any marketer to tell you the one thing they would like to achieve, the majority of answers would fall under the category of “get better results.”

Most surveys and reports about marketers’ goals and challenges show similar findings: marketers want to get better results, prove that their results matter, be smarter about their field, and be more efficient.

Take, for example, Webmarketing123’s annual State of Digital Marketing Report.

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Source: Webmarketing123

Each of the top five objectives ranked by B2B marketers in the report can be mapped back to “get better results.” When asked about challenges, the answers were similar and involve either proving the value of their results, increasing their efficiency, or, again, getting better results.

This is not a huge revelation. Who wouldn’t want better results? The desire to constantly improve is human nature, especially in a competitive environment like the business world. However, in the case of social marketers, this goal brings up some unique challenges.

Let’s start with the problems that stem from the syntax of “get better results.” There are two words in this statement that require some definition work: “better” and “results.” I’d like to start with the latter.

Results = ?

In most marketing disciplines, the meaning of “results” is fairly clear. Marketing, as a function in a business organization, has existed since…well, since businesses have existed. The desired results of any marketing function depend on its role in the marketing department and for the overall business. Demand generation in B2B (business to business) companies is tasked with generating leads. Brand teams, in any business type, build and maintain brand awareness. Customer marketing is responsible for driving adoption, retention and advocacy, and product marketing is responsible for successful go to markets. All of these, no matter how difficult they may be to measure, are clear.

The Case for Realigning the Role of Social Media

Social media, on the other hand, is so new that its role in marketing (and in the organization as a whole) has yet to be clearly and consistently defined. Is social media part of a bigger function? Is it a distribution channel or perhaps a function on its own right? Is it part of the brand team, digital team, or customer support? These questions have no industry-standard or broadly-accepted answers. As such, they prevent social teams from clearly defining their role and, therefore, the results they aspire to achieve. So, when asked what results they need to drive, social marketers tend to provide a variety of inconsistent answers; from brand awareness, to lead generation, to share of voice, or even customer support.

Better = ?

The difficulty with defining “results” leads us to the challenges with the second word: better

Without a clear goal, the idea of “better,” which inherently requires a baseline, becomes as elusive and undefined as the social media function itself. It’s no wonder that the concept of social ROI has been a point of contention among the “thought leaders” of the social space, as it requires a clear definition of what it is we want to see in return.

In 2011, Altimeter’s Framework for Social Analytics stated, “ROI is just one metric in the social business toolkit. Rather than focusing on social media as a monolithic entity, businesses should evaluate it based on its contribution to a range of business goals.”

A 2012 study from MarketingProfs posited that focusing exclusively on ROI might lead to ineffective social media strategies: “The recent focus on measuring ROI in social media appears to have driven some marketers to place direct sales at the top of their list of priorities.”

More recently, Forrester released a brief named Stop Measuring Social Engagement, calling marketers to “break their addiction to engagement data” and start to “measure loyalty and lifetime value.”

The Chronicle of a Failure Foretold

With this confusion among thought leaders and organizations alike, social marketers have thrown themselves into the world of unachievable social media performance. It’s not because they are incapable of achieving the results they set for their campaigns and programs, but because their function lacks business context. Nevertheless, they create social profiles, post regularly, hire community managers and social media marketers, fight for budget, and try relentlessly to justify their existence.

When surveyed by TrustRadius, social marketers rank “measuring ROI” as the most challenging aspect of their social programs, followed by “tying social activity to business results” and “developing a social media strategy.” But, when asked what the number one goal of the social media program is, an overwhelming 71% ranked “brand awareness” as the top goal. Interestingly enough, 80% of social marketers also ranked “Engagement” as their most important metric for evaluating the success of their program. And while engagement as a metric is provided by all the social networks and thus became a very popular metric for measuring social media, the same marketers that state its importance also claim to be incapable of measuring return.

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Is the confusion around objectives the sole responsibility of social marketers, or perhaps is it an indication of a systematic failure in the way companies approach the purpose and role of social media in their organization?

Yet, with all this confusion, marketers continue to make the case for more social ads budget and flock to social publishing solutions that offer better, more efficient ways to spend money, resources, and efforts on publishing social content. This commitment only continues to widen the gap between return and investment. Marketers ask for a stronger engine but fail to recognize the need for a clear direction or a GPS.

In a recent Forrester Wave™ report on Social Relationship Platforms (SRPs), the firm stated that “every social marketer needs a social relationship platform” and that SRPs “are technologies that help marketers publish organic posts to social networks as well as monitor and respond to customer posts on social networks.” However, when asked about their biggest challenges, more than half of the marketers surveyed said that performance measurement is the top challenge.

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Moreover, the report states that SRPs haven’t kept up with marketers’ needs, indicating that, “SRP clients say measuring performance is their biggest social relationship marketing challenge — and they tell us their vendors do little to provide solutions. Marketers also receive little support in creating effective content and choosing the right time to schedule their posts.”

But can you really blame the SRP solutions for not delivering on a promise they never made?

Ass Backwards

What prevents marketers from achieving better results for their campaigns and programs? Most of them would say that they just don’t know what is working or what will resonate with their audience. However, social media is the most public, data-accessible channel available to marketers. So, is that really the case? Is it the inability to tie social activity to business impact that prevents marketers from knowing what truly “works” for their program? Or perhaps it’s the lack of strategic direction and clear definition of the role of social teams in the organization?

Whatever the reason may be, marketers’ solution to this challenge has been to focus on the most available metrics as a proxy for success. Until about two years ago, it was audience growth, and most recently it has been engagement. I am not opposed to engagement as a good metric to measure success. I am opposed to the idea of using a metric to measure success just because it’s the easiest one to collect. Just because something is measureable doesn’t mean it should be measured. In addition, the notion of a one-size-fits-all measurement seems flawed to me. How can we say that engagement is the only important metric if social media serves so many different functions and teams? It’s like deciding horsepower is the only metric that matters when designing performance cars, and ignoring torque, shift speed, alignment, and the countless other aspects that need to be focused on for a car to reach peak performance.

Have we given up on revenue? Are we no longer interested in leads? Are we done with share of voice? My point is that until we fix the fundamental issues with social media role definition, no metrics will be the right metrics.

Better Social Media Starts Here

In a social world that makes engagement the be-all goal, regardless of strategy, role, and objective, brands will continue to “spam” audiences with increasingly more efficient systems, only to see their results drift farther and farther from what their business really needs.

The path to better social media results runs through better definitions. The best social brands have a clear, agreed upon social strategy that includes set objectives and well-defined social metrics. They also have a measurement plan and they dedicate time to plan and measure every campaign. They prioritize planning over blind execution and they invest in smarter decision-making.

In the TrustRadius study, marketers who defined their social programs as “mature” (self assessment) state that they effectively use social data in defining their social strategy. Not surprisingly, that figure is almost 50% higher than marketers in less socially mature companies. What is surprising is that those marketers also claim that social data has an impact on the company’s overall strategy.

What’s Next?

Is social analytics the solution to all these problems? I wish I could say yes, but the truth is that technological solutions do not answer to systematic problems. They can play a role as a forcing function and highlight the challenges the organization has, but throwing money at a problem rarely proves solves everything.

The first step is to admit that we have a problem and then make a commitment to resolve it. We should start by spending time defining a clear role for social media in the organization, and only then decide on the objective and goals. Once those are set, the path to better results will be much clearer.

Better social starts with better alignment on the role of social media. Before you jump to execute your next campaign, ask yourself this: what purpose is this campaign going to serve for the business, and would your boss, and your boss’s boss, agree with you?

Uri Bar-Joseph

VP of Marketing at Simply Measured and the designated punching bag for the marketing team. I believe in marketing through data, but love the creative elements of marketing. I write about strategy, decision making, the future of marketing and how social media is reshaping marketing. I'm on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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