Advertising on Social Media is Like Instant Messaging on a Billboard

It would be silly to try to do instant messaging on a billboard. Why? Because the medium doesn’t effectively support that activity. Instant messaging requires extreme interactivity. It’s also an extremely personal activity—generally, one-to-one—and the medium is one-to-many.
Billboard fail

Since there’s no interactivity with a billboard, there’s little value in using that medium for that task.

It’s similar when brands try to do advertising on social media. Unlike IM on billboards, advertising is possible; it’s just not very effective. Banner ad clickthroughs average around 0.1 percent. Native ads—content developed by a brand that appears like a real article—are ten times as effective, yielding a 1 percent clickthrough rate.

Yet advertisers accept this dismal performance and keep blasting away, like a flower blasting millions of seeds into the air, with the vast majority falling on fallow ground. Advertisers hope that by embedding their ads in social media, and annoying or interrupting those with no interest in their products, they can eke out a few percentage points more in clickthroughs.

How’s that going for them? Organic reach on Facebook has declined to 2 percent according to an Ogilvy report. The only thing that makes social media advertising work is scale, pumping out millions of ads to get a small return. In this it’s like direct mail, without the cost or waste.

So why do brands continue to invest millions in trying to make their old paradigm work on social media? Because they think of social media as just another channel for advertising. That’s like a billboard owner thinking instant messaging would work on their medium. I addressed the fallacy of using the old way of advertising on social media in a previous series of posts, beginning with, Social Media is Not Advertising. Duh!

Social Media is about Relationships

Social media is the greatest opportunity advertisers have ever had.  But advertisers need to understand a fundamental truth about the medium: Social media is about relationships. It’s about creating trust, brand loyalty, and evangelists by initiating and nurturing relationships with people. Social media is the first truly interactive way for brands to get to know their supporters/BFFs, to know their likes and dislikes, desires and passions, and to use this information to better delight them.

The least important advantage to understanding the relationship power of social media is: You get to know where the fertile ground is, where your brand will be accepted and nurtured, enthusiastically. In other words, the things that brands now pursue with relentless vigor—increased clickthrough, numbers of impressions, CPMs—are easy to attain when you use social media properly. What’s a bit harder is identifying and empowering your advocates—which we call evangelists—so that they can spread the word throughout their social community.

Leveraging evangelists is actually the only way that social media can scale: by deputizing your fanatic fans to convert their friends. We talk about this in the post, Scaling Social Media with Infinite Touches, and in our book, Infinite Pipeline: Social Media for B2B Sales Success.

It’s clear that to succeed on social media you need more than just interactivity. You need relationships and you need to be able to scale relationships to thousands, millions, billions.

There’s really only one way to do that: Develop a network of rabid evangelists for your brand. Enable them to spread their enthusiasm. Maintain mutually productive relationships with them. The good news is, if you don’t suck, people who are passionate about your brand are already out there. The trick is finding them and arming them with the tools to tell their friends, make new friends, new relationships, and tell them too. And create another, and another, and another evangelist.

Don’t sell your brand short by jamming an analog paradigm down the digital channel. Broaden your thinking to really understand what people are doing on social media—creating, nurturing, and sustaining relationships—and tailor your social media approach to leverage the real strength of social media.


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