Monday, July 12, 2010

Social Media: Beyond the Hype

The frenzy over social media has been fascinating. It seems to dominate virtually every conversation about marketing. But is it overhyped?

Clearly it's helped companies expand their marketing bandwidth. But what about bottom-line results? That's the one aspect of social media that doesn't seem to be getting a lot of attention, at least with regards to our profession. I think I know why.

For one thing, most A/E firms have never been inclined to measure marketing results. The reason I hear most often is the difficulty in linking marketing activities with tangible outcomes. No doubt that can be challenging, but low expectations probably also come into play. Firms don't expect tangible outcomes from marketing, so why bother trying to measure them?

Most firms do track marketing activity, and social media can amp up the activity meter. That's where I suspect much of the excitement comes from. When you read about the phenomenal growth of sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, it's hard not to get excited about the potential for reaching a lot of people.

And in that sense, I suggest that social media is much like trade shows a decade or two ago. We set up our exhibit booth and waited expectantly as hundreds strolled past. Several, in fact, stopped to talk with us. We left enthused because we had engaged in more conservations with potential clients in two days than two months of sales calls could have produced.

But the shortcomings with trade shows were much the same as they are with social media. You see, most firms failed to do the hard work to turn those conversations into sales. And most firms will fail to do the hard work to make social media actually generate new business. But enthusiasm will run high, at least for a while, because of all the connections (the modern substitute for conversations) being made.

Come to think of it, the lack of conversation is one of the primary reservations I have about social media. There are many online forums for posting questions, sharing insights, and meeting new people. But folks in our industry don't appear to be using them much.

Take LinkedIn, for example. There are many groups there related to our business, but little discussion associated with them. Among the several groups I have joined, I would expect members of the Society for Marketing Professional Services group, in particular, to be talking to each other. But there are only 17 discussions currently listed, some posted months ago, and a relatively small number of people who have provided most of the posts and comments. This is a group with 1,893 members.

I checked several A/E firm Facebook pages and found a similar trend. While some have attracted an admirable number of "fans," the back-and-back forth postings generally don't come close to that seen on the average personal profile. Twitter, of course, is not the best site for conversation. It seems largely ignored by A/E firms anyway (although there are many individuals from our industry posting there).

While admittedly only a cursory review, I've seen nothing to make me think that social media will displace face-to-face networking any time soon. Networking involves conversation, not just connecting. But what about social media for supporting other marketing activities? A few key questions come to mind:
  • Are clients using social media in significant numbers?
  • Where will you get content to support your social media activities?
  • Is your firm prepared to make the necessary investment of time?
  • What specific objectives do you have in mind?
Let's consider each of those questions:

Are clients--specifically decision makers--using social media?
You can certainly raise your firm's visibility with social media, but are you reaching the right audience? That's the question that has dogged me and I've yet to find the definitive answer. I will say that I've personally found little evidence that executive decision makers are using social media in significant numbers. When I've asked my own clients--typically CEOs and principals--the usual answer I get is, "I don't have time for that."

I've pored over several studies of internet use by B2B buyers, but I've not been able to connect these data to our own business. One trend is clear: The use of social media by B2B marketers has exploded in recent years. One study found that B2B use has actually surpassed that of B2C marketing, although social media is arguably better suited for the latter. I assume that means it's working for B2B enterprises? Again, that angle is less clear.

Another data point you should know: One survey found that 54% of companies prohibit the use of social networking sites for any purpose by their employees during work. That number is likely to increase as use of social media while on the job grows (according to another study). So will the exponential growth of B2B marketing through social media continue? Or is there another reality lurking beneath the surface?

Where will you get content to support your social media marketing? Not long ago, content marketing was the rage among professional service firms. Except in the A/E business, where most firms generate little in the way of articles, white papers, webinars, videos, podcasts, etc. Why did we bypass the last wave--the efficacy of which is better demonstrated in the research--only to jump enthusiastically on this one?

I suspect it's a matter of convenience. It's easier for marketers to create a presence on social networking sites than to try to extract useful content from their technical colleagues. Yet we need to recognize that content marketing hasn't gone away; it has spread to the internet and social media.

A recent study by looked at business usage of social media and confirmed that content is still king. The most common business uses for social media were: attending webinars, listening to podcasts, reading user ratings and reviews, subscribing to feeds from business information and news sites, reading articles and blog posts, and searching for business information.

With so many firms staking a claim on social networking sites, the question you should ask is: Why should folks pay attention to us? It's obvious that good content is the key. It doesn't necessarily have to be your own (although I strongly recommend creating some of your own content). You can link to others' content if your cupboard is bare. But that still takes time finding it, which leads to the next question.

Are you prepared to commit the necessary time and resources? A little more marketing is certainly better than a little less. So if you find social media a convenient and efficient way to broaden your marketing efforts a little bit, so be it. But if you want to have some real impact, it's going to require substantial effort. How much is it worth?

I confess to being only a casual user of social media (oops, there goes my credibility). I dabble in LinkedIn and Twitter, and only recently created a Facebook business page. Of course, I blog. I follow what others are doing, leave comments, exchange occasional emails with my peers. As a sole proprietor, I have limited time for marketing. I don't engage social media more because I'm not fully convinced yet that it's worth more of my time. Maybe it's a chicken-and-egg sort of thing.

But I'm still much more active online than most of my clients, including some rather large firms with substantial marketing resources. The big difference? I have content and use social media primarily to distribute it. So what's your plan? Dabble or dunk? The important thing is that you align your level of activity with your expectations. Social media hasn't made effective marketing any easier; it still takes a substantial commitment to do it right.

What specific objectives do you have in mind? Marketing needs to be more than enriching the atmosphere with positive vibes about your firm. It should deliver tangible, measurable results. The truest test that marketing is working is when clients are contacting you in response. So surely you should be tracking who contacts you through your social media marketing efforts. Even better, how many sales does it lead to?

But I'm also an advocate for tracking leading indicators, results that you can reasonably expect will eventually deliver to the bottom line. Some leading metrics to consider:
  • Google PageRank
  • Traffic (visitors, followers, fans, etc.)
  • Interactions (comments, discussions, messages)
  • Mentions (use Google Alerts to track when your firm's name is mentioned on the web)
Obviously, your objectives and level of effort go hand in hand. That's why it's important to weigh both together. Many firms have dived into social media without clear objectives in mind. So how then do they measure success?

Regardless of the size of your marketing budget or staff, you have limits just like I do. Ideally, you're allocating those resources to the best possible use, to the best of your ability. Where does social media fit into that equation and how much of your resources does it deserve? That I can't answer. I can only hope to ask the right questions.


Mike Plotnick said...

Thanks for your thoughtful post, Mel. No doubt, there IS a lot of social media hype, including "results" that don't connect to bottom-line business objectives. Keep in mind, however, that the whole platform is still very much in its infancy. Much like the dawn of mainstream commercial websites a couple of decades ago, it will take a while for the hoopla to translate to obvious marketing benefits.

As a communicator at an architectural firm that has embraced social media, I must tell you that our new connections already have opened numerous doors, including a couple with dollar signs on them.

Mel Lester said...

Thanks for the response, Mike. I'm glad to hear that your firm is benefiting from your social media efforts. I don't discount the potential, but thought it worthwhile to offer a more measured assessment of where the medium seems to be today. I hope to hear many more success stories like yours.

cadee said...

I'm really impressed that there's so much about this subject that's been uncovered and you did it so well, with so much class.
Leadership Styles

Anonymous said...

Excellent and thought-provoking comments Mel. This subject is near and dear to me (AEC industry and social media).

You've touched on critical topics that need to be addressed. Social Media is here to stay and can be powerful tools at our arsenal for marketing and being relevant and competitive in the fast-moving information world we live in.

I added your post to an on-going Google+ discusssion that I started related to this subject " Engineers & AEC industry professionals and their love-hate relationship with social media".

Here it is: