Is social media ultimately more an engagement platform or a traffic driver?

A couple of nights ago, I read this “It Takes 45 Days To Send A Single Corporate Tweet” article and thought to myself: Well, this won’t really engender much more respect to the social media process. Then I read this piece on “Confessions Of A Social Media Strategist” and then this reply on HubSpot. This is an interesting time for social media in terms of revenue-generation and tipping points, so here are a couple of thoughts on all this.

1. When social first became “a thing,” it seems that many organizations struggled with where to roll it up — after all, it’s important that each business function fits within some type of team (others might say “silo”). Some groups roll social media up with PR, some with corporate communications, and some with marketing. It’s an interesting space because it does overlap all three when used properly, but that’s also tough for organizations because said ambiguity can be confusing. The problem is this: when social becomes a part of marketing, the true ideas behind it can be skewed. Consider this interview with Scott Monty, who left Ford’s social media team:

Outside of Ford and looking at the industry overall, it saddens me how social has been co-opted by marketing to become just another mass advertising/marketing channel. I think the promise of social is about relationship development, and I have always said that. All the talks I’ve given about Ford’s progress has concentrated on attention and trust. While advertising can get you the attention by interrupting people, it’s more important to build relationships with customers and other people you want to reach.

That’s the essence of the whole issue — it ties back to what you’re ultimately trying to evaluate (metric-wise), but there’s a place where it seems marketers can be too worried about conventional engagement metrics or standard advertising/marketing techniques. I’ve had a bunch of interviews recently, and many for roles that contain a social media aspect. Whenever I get deep on things like that, I talk about how social is really just a scrolling form of human behavior/psychology (which it is); that’s almost the perfect place to foster relationships (in a superficial, digital way of course). But when you start forcing stuff on it like “RT if you like Peeps!” then you might be missing the point.

2. Goes to a bigger issue: what is social, when used ideally? It should be a lot of things, but people discuss it as an engagement platform often, as well as a traffic driver often. When people use the term “social media,” they’re inherently implying it is some type of “media,” hence … is it primarily a traffic driver? You often hear the “fire/gasoline” analogy, where content is the fire and social is the gasoline. That makes sense — and rolls up with the idea that the goal is to use social to get people back to your core pages and messages and calls to action. That’s what I think is important. Basically, you need a plan: what would success look like in this space? What are we trying to do here, and where do we want people to ultimately go / what do we want them to remember? Essentially: what’s our story, and how does social fit in to that story? What you want to avoid is this, via Digiday:

The underlying issue is that social departments place too much value on engagement. Those “likes,” “comments,” “shares,” “re-tweets” and “pins” are the metrics that social content creators use to 1) judge success and 2) dictate what future content looks like. Here’s the catch. The people who are engaging with that content are predominantly worthless. Seriously. That’s not to say that all users on social are worthless. But the ones who mindlessly “like” a brand’s Facebook post because an overt call-to-action told them to are. And wouldn’t you know it, those are the users who are dictating a brand’s social content strategy. This is why the last five years have brought an influx of mindless social creative like “SHARE this post!” and “RT if you love Brand X.” They get engagements, and engagements supposedly equal success. And the vicious cycle keeps on turning.

I had a boss a couple of years ago who was obsessed with re-tweets of articles he wrote. If it cleared 10-12, he was ecstatic. If it was under five, he was mad (usually at me). One time I asked him straight-up what he thought the re-tweets would ultimately mean for his overall business models; he had no real idea.

3. Everything you do in marketing/PR/advertising/corporate communications should, theoretically, have a purpose, right? A goal tied back to the bigger goals of the organization? Social is the same way. The exact number of “pins” means less than the creation of brand allegiance (hard to track) or direct conversions (easier to track). But there’s also a high value to using social for customer service, and/or to have organic conversations with customers/fans and potential customers/fans. While that’s harder to metrically evaluate (thus it scares people) and harder to monetize (ditto), it could end up being the true value of social — when the generic e-mail inbox or 1-800 number isn’t helping you, a quick FB post or Tweet can get you an answer in minutes? Yes, please. I’m bought in to that brand now!

4. Social as a traffic driver can be great, so definitely focus there as well. And focus on the engagement aspects (it’s just harder to track, but not impossible). And remember: content calendars and the overall notion of a plan are very important, but 45 days to create a single tweet about one type of cheese may be the type of overkill that’s hurting the overall industry.

5. Final thing: heard a talk this summer from a guy with a 20-year career in marketing. He says, and I’ll never forget this: “Don’t go after straight-up social jobs. In 15-20 years, those might not exist in the way we think of them now. Go after marketing jobs with a social aspect to them; those types of jobs will always exist.” You can debate the veracity of 2-3 different aspects of that quote, but … I think the overall idea is correct.

Ted Bauer