The challenge of social

Every quarter, I fill out an online survey about digital marketing trends. One question always shows up: “Are you looking at social as a replacement for search in your online marketing strategy?” I always answer no, and to myself, comment that it’s a stupid question asked by someone who obviously doesn’t know much about online marketing. But I wonder – is it really such a stupid question? Aren’t many experienced marketers asking themselves exactly the same question?

The Social Graph – or Network – or whatever you want to call it – should be the single biggest opportunity in marketing history. But marketers are stubbing their toes by the millions in trying to step over the threshold into the golden glow of the online social party. It seems it’s incredibly difficult to figure out.

Search, on the other hand, was easily pigeonholed as a direct marketing channel. Search was so easy to “get” for marketers that Google turned it into a self serve model and became the fastest growing company in history as a result.

For marketers, I suspect, the very ease of search has caused it to be considered a limited opportunity. Social, on the other hand, seems virtually limitless. It expands into hundreds and thousands of fascinating, if somewhat cloudy, opportunities to connect with customers. Like I said, in theory, social seems like a marketer’s dream come true. But in practice, it’s an unwieldy animal to wrestle to the ground.

Here’s just one example of the challenges inherent in mapping the online social landscape. Pitney Bowes felt there was tremendous potential in social to foster deeper engagements with their customers, building long-term loyalty. But rather than jump headlong into it, Pitney Bowes decided to test their assumptions through a survey of those customers first. The result? Social may not be all it’s cracked up to be:

These findings will give decision-makers pause for thought,” the report (from the survey) stated. “Businesses can be forgiven for getting swept away by the hype of surrounding social media and wanting to invest in such activity as soon as possible. … But results show that those businesses tempted to lead with such techniques will quickly find themselves out of step with customer thinking.”

So why is social so awkward to leverage effectively? I suspect it’s because the exact same things that make social so promising also make it incredibly unwieldy to manage. It’s part of our lives, which means we’re engaged, but what we’re engaged with is rarely what an advertiser wants to talk to us about.

We get caught up in the concept of participation rates and usage. Facebook has one of the highest reaches of any online property, second only to Google. Alexa estimates that almost half of the total Internet user population (about 49%) uses Google regularly. Facebook is just behind at 43%. But if we look at time spent on site, Facebook comes it an about 25 minutes a day, compared to 13 minutes a day for Google. If we were using engagement as an indicator of marketing potential, this would have us salivating like a St. Bernard over a fresh bowl of kibble.

But the reason I don’t trust engagement as a metric is that it doesn’t consider intent. And intent is the key difference between social and search. The reason search excels in marketing is that it’s all about intent, and what’s even better, it’s about identified intent, neatly labeled by the search query. In the history of marketing, it’s never been easier than this to intercept a motivated buyer. I don’t mean to minimize the value of a well-managed search campaign, but compared to other channels, it’s pretty difficult to completely flop on a search campaign. The same is not true for social. To illustrate, let’s step back and look at this from another point of view – one that removes some of the hyperbole that surrounds online social.

Let’s say you’ve just decided to sell your 2007 Honda Civic. As you’re backing out of your driveway, your neighbor flags you down and asks you how you like your Honda, and if you know where she could buy a good used one? From your perspective, this aligning of the planets seems too good to be true, but it’s similar to what happens on a search engine millions of time every day. It’s the power of alignment with purchase intent.

But let’s take a different tack. Let’s imagine that as you drive down the street, you see that one of your neighbors is having a party. In front of their house, there are at least 12 cars parked, including 4 Hondas. “A-ha, “ you say, “a perfect gathering of potential Honda buyers, with at least 33% of them showing a preference for Hondas” (note: if this is what your internal dialogue actually sounds like, you should consider an extended leave from work). You ring the doorbell and begin to work the crowd. The only problem is, no one came to the party to buy a Honda. Not to mention the obvious question on everyone’s mind, “Who the hell invited you?”

If your goal is to unload your Honda, I know what scenario I’d be betting on. It almost seems ludicrous that we’re even considering Scenario B as a substitute for Scenario A. Yet, every 3 months, I get that survey asking me if I’m thinking about it.

I know – it doesn’t make any sense to me either.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider December 1, 2011