Does Social Media Marketing Really Work?

To paraphrase Zoolander, social media is so hot right now. Businesses large and small are jumping on board. Marketing directors must now agonize over “fans” and “likes” as well as SEO, paid digital advertising, and online PR efforts. Sure, there’s plenty of lip service being paid to the potential of social media, but is it just a bandwagon effect? Is there any evidence that social media marketing actually works?

The answer is yes…and no.


A Look At The Numbers

There’s a general feeling of conservatism toward social marketing. Pagemodo reports that 64% of business owners are optimistic that social media will eventually generate returns, but remain unwilling to invest bullishly. Only 20% believe it is already producing measurable return on investment.

What else can the numbers tell us? According to research by ForeSee Results, fewer than one percent of website visits come directly from social networking sites. Compare this to email marketing, which influences 32 percent of purchases. Additionally, 57 percent of Facebook users say they never click on ads or sponsored content on the site, and only 12 percent would feel comfortable making purchases through Facebook.

But wait! Are these numbers misleading? Perhaps after interacting through social media, the customer thinks about it for a few days, then locates the advertiser’s site through a search engine and completes the purchase. All of the credit would go to Google, Bing, or Yahoo, despite the fact that the social media interaction played a crucial role.

This is a major problem for digital marketers. It is difficult to determine where the interaction originated because sites like Facebook and Twitter are closed ecosystems, making it nearly impossible for advertisers to obtain information about users’ interactions without the consent of either the user or the site. Therefore, it remains difficult for social marketers to prove that their efforts are producing returns, if in fact they are.

It’s also quite possible that social interactions do not directly lead to sales at all. Perhaps they merely raise brand awareness and drive customers to the top of the “sales funnel” – an important role, to be sure, but one that makes it impossible to accurately measure return on investment.

What Social Marketing Needs

In the blogosphere, it’s sexy to take an extreme stance at one end of the spectrum. “Social media is the future! Ignore it at your peril!” screams one end; “Social media is a waste of money!” screams the other. Francisco Diaz-Mitoma, CEO of social advertising company VIRURL, takes a more moderate stance, arguing that social marketing needs the same amount of attention and craft dedicated to other marketing efforts:

“The industry is beginning to realize that spending millions of dollars for ‘Likes’ is very much like buying random email customer lists on the internet – unless there is an ingenious content strategy, those users become stale and useless. … The future of brand engagement will be unlocking the power of fans on the strength of a good character. A character that makes them laugh, think and maybe, just maybe, cry.”

It’s a simple argument, but I think one that cannot be overstated. Just because your message is amplified through social media does not mean that it is more effective. You still have to engage the consumer.

Consider this argument:

“Today’s marketplace is no longer responsive to the strategies that worked in the past. There are just too many products, too many companies, and too much marketing noise.”

With over 900 million Facebook pages, groups and events in existence, and 400 million new tweets per day, this statement should ring very true. But it was actually pulled from Al Ries and Jack Trout’s 1981 marketing book, “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.” Clearly, the basics have not changed. In an overcrowded marketplace, argue Ries and Trout, the key to winning hearts and minds is to differentiate yourself from the competition, something that is sorely lacking in the social media marketplace.

The key to making social marketing effective is simply to apply good marketing strategy: know your customer, know their needs, and speak their language. Content without aim or substance is meaningless. What good does it do to gain a million fans if only a few hundred are actively engaging with your brand?

Certainly more tools are needed to measure the actual monetary value of a social media follower. And even once social ROI can be measured with any degree of accuracy, the results may be disappointing. So to get back to the original question of whether social marketing works or not: yes, but only sometimes. Social marketing is not an end in itself, but should be considered part of a company’s overall marketing strategy. Without a unified message and a deep understanding of the customer’s needs, social marketing is no more personal and effective than shouting aloud in a crowded shopping mall.


Image by Rosaura Ocho.