Every once in a while, a press release comes through that puts its finger directly on a pressing problem facing America’s growing, privately owned businesses. Here’s one:
“A few years ago, blogs were the social media of the moment for businesses. But, according to a Pew Research Center Survey, by 2005 only 27 percent of Internet users in America were bothering to read them. Today, according to Forrester Research, the numbers for adult blog readers have dropped to just below 25 percent. Now Facebook and Twitter are where every business thinks they need be. Despite a failing economy and tight budgets, companies are hiring consultants and even creating internal teams to manage and update their social media, believing that product announcement tweets and being “liked” on Facebook will somehow convert to sales and growth. In a realm ruled by celebrity gossip, pictures of weddings, babies and drunken antics, the question remains, though, are any of these businesses’ messages being heard through the noise and if they are, to what end?”
There are two burning questions businessowners need to ask when it comes to social media: How do people generate actual sales (as opposed to marketplace “buzz”) from these things? Who is looking at these things more than infrequently, and are they looking to buy stuff or just schmoozing?
The biggest way (at least right now) that businesses generate revenue from social media is from advertising. Basically, by posting lots of personal information to a social media site, you and your “friends” help that site sell ads that their “affiliates” (read: advertisers) put on your profile page, without your permission and with no share of the revenue going to you. You also help them create a huge database of information about you, which they can sell separately to their “affiliates” hoping to sell stuff directly to you and your friends. This can create problems. A few weeks ago, I visited one of my online profiles (I won’t say where) where I am listed as a “small-business attorney,” among other things. I was shocked to discover an ad next to my photo for a law firm offering to help people who are looking to buy franchises. Hey, I do that — this advertiser was a competitor of mine! I complained to the site, and the ad was promptly removed, but now I have to check my profile page frequently to make sure nobody is using my name to promote products, services and opinions that I don’t want my name associated with.
Now for the second question: Who really is buying stuff from social media Web sites? The plain fact of the matter is that most of us are just too darned busy or self-absorbed to read what other people are putting up online, much less respond to their postings or click on an ad. I’m not knocking social media as a marketing tool. I’m merely suggesting that once the novelty of social media wears off (and the press release quoted above makes me think the Web 2.0 “backlash” has already begun), only those businesses with a clear and coherent marketing strategy will be able to use it effectively. This means targeting online ads only to people interested in your products and services (preferably from your own profile page, not anybody else’s); ruthlessly managing your profile pages to keep them “on message”; placing ads on people’s profile pages only with their permission and endorsement, or some other meaningful “opt in”; and watching your Web metrics closely to see where (and if) your social media presence is leading to actual sales.