Social Arms Race

Social media. It's a phenomenon, the hottest product of the last couple of years, essential for any business and an insutry worth billions. With it, your company can get more engagement, more conversions, more uniques. Without it, you're not even worth bothering with - unless the person doing the bothering happens to be a so-called social media expert who wants you to pay them to spend the day on Facebook, something which would result in dismissal from any other job. Therein lies the first of our problems. Are all those over-hyper superlatives at the beginning of this paragraph just marketing of a more classical nature?

On the surface it does seem apparent that social media is part of a revolution in marketing; no longer does marketing just happen on billboards, or passive segments of television, or alongside our inbox. Now it's found its way into our social groups and our friends are even sending it to us with the promise of free kippers from the company who's products are being advertised. However the subsequent fact that things like this bring into existence new possible avenues to market seems a bit far fetched. Sure, we've seen this marketing have positive impacts on items that have used it, but not a significant departure from what we had before. Coke are still the biggest soft drink producer, McDonalds are still the largest cause of obesity and Carling/Fosters/Stella still all continue to make and sell s**t beer in enormous quantities. In fact that only brands that I can really think of that have surfaced over the past few years are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn - the social networks themselves.

Well, you may say, what about viral marketing, surely that works? To which I say consider it's name - viral. Not exactly a good word is it? Viruses spread maliciously and without concern for what's around them, which doesn't exactly make you feel amicable towards them. For every product that "goes viral" and gets a bucket load of users there are a few hundred that just mulch around in a petri dish and what people are quickly realising is that the ones who's use of "viral" marketing succeeds are ones which were good anyway. That is to say we can't prove they'd have succeeded without "viral" marketing but it's damn sure they'd still have done better than the one's that failed even with attempts at the "viral" effect. For the most part "viral" is just another annoyance, encouraging me to de-friend people who share every last freebie post in the hope of winning a year's worth of free kippers.

So finally on the marketing side we have that word engagement which roughly translated means "now you're aware that all your customers are bitching about you and have a life line to sort yourself out". I have only engaged with companies on social networks to complain about them; that isn't to say I do it a lot, but why the hell else would I (unless they're offering free kippers)? The fact that a company has a Twitter account means I can slag them off and someone sees pretty darn quickly - which is great from a consumer point of view, but it just rights a wrong that's gone on for far too long anyway. On that, unfortunately companies will eventually realise that just like letters appearing in Which? or on BBC Breakfast, it doesn't hurt their sales too much anyway and just stop bothering.

Worse are the companies that, generally on the advice of someone who's seen chance for a fast buck, decide their purpose in life is to post other websites' news stories in the vague hope of getting followers. The fact that people then actually follow these accounts does mystify me (if your Twitter account exists to post links to blog articles with only a summary of the headline I will unfollow it) but even if they do they will certainly not be "engaging" with you - they'll be off reading someone else's content.

The truth is that at best social media is an arms race; the companies that got their first got a short term benefit because they had an uncontested marketing space, but now that everyone's there it's the same old same old - tons of ads vying for your headspace and all you want to do is watch a video of your friends' baby toppling over. Just how we manage to watch thousands of hours of TV without rushing out every 5 minutes to purchase Bird's Eye's latest excuse to put a creepy polar bear on your screen we'll eventually resist sharing photos of a fat man doing a wheelie for the reward of free engine degreaser. Just like companies wanting better SEO are far better off just having a clean website with decent content, companies wanting to benefit from social media would be better off producing a product or service that people actually want to talk about, and shoving the free kippers up their a***.

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