Marketing expert Brandon Mendelson had amassed nearly a million Twitter followers when he partnered with Dunkin’ Donuts to lead a breast cancer–awareness tour of the U.S. in 2009. His wide reach led him to believe the campaign, which was promoted by Tweets, would raise big money for the cause. It raised nothing. “It was a complete failure,” he says.
Mendelson’s experience probably seems rare. Over the last decade, companies have come to believe that failure to market with social media begets obsolescence. In a 2015 Fortune op-ed, Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes argued that forgoing social was “backward-looking, blinkered, and above all, a serious business liability.” That’s certainly true for many firms, but as the beta period ends and the cost of participation becomes clearer, others question whether they really need to be active on the likes of Facebook and Twitter. In many cases, the answer isn’t what Holmes and his ilk would like.
Bart Egnal admits he blindly accepted the idea that social media would help his business when he took over as CEO of Toronto-based executive coaching company The Humphrey Group. “We thought we’d get on Twitter to ‘start the conversation,’” he says. A few years on, the firm is considering abandoning the platform: “I can’t point to one moment where I feel like we built business because of it.” Meanwhile, almost all of the company’s recent growth has come from traditional word-of-mouth marketing.
Similarly low-fi tactics—trade shows, cold calling—work for Marja Hillis, who, as CEO of Molok North America, has never felt compelled to go social. Hillis says her clients (typically governments, architects and city planners) simply aren’t going to Facebook or Twitter to seek the underground waste containers she sells. “What would I tweet about?” she laughs.
“So many companies are on social media without any return,” says Marc Gordon, a Thornhill, Ont.-based marketing expert and public speaker. “When I say that, people think I’m crazy.” While he acknowledges that companies can achieve tangible results using social platforms—by, say, promoting a coupon code—their efforts more often support softer PR or customer service goals. And the latter does not always lead to the former.
Recent research suggests that the link between social audiences and paying customers is disjointed. Consider a 2015 Forrester report, in which 50 top brands saw followers more than double on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and quintuple on Instagram, in the previous year. But at the same time, user engagement rates dropped almost across the board. Meanwhile, Digiday research found that click-rates on posts by the top publishers on Facebook dropped 42.7% between January and October of 2015. “There really is no direct correlation between your social media audience and your customers,” says Gordon.
“A lot of people jump in thinking it’s going to be a quick, easy fix,” says Lowell Brown, CEO of Toronto-based marketing firm Going Social. He adds that companies often misread how—and, indeed, whether—their clients use social, causing them to spend time and money chasing business that might never materialize.
Following Mendelson’s disastrous 2009 campaign, the New York-based marketer did another trans-U.S. tour—this time to raise money for the families of people wounded in combat—in a red, white, and blue Mustang, doing T.V. and radio interviews on the way. It raised $1 million. He’s since written a book called Social Media is Bullshit, in which he trumpets real-world experiences over virtual ones: “The idea that you’re ‘leaving money on the table’ by not using [social media] is patently false.”
In a post announcing the deletion of his social accounts, renowned marketing expert K. Scott Davis argued for in-person contact: “If you ask most people they’d profess that they’d rather have [a] genuine interaction”
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