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Over the years, I’ve developed a kind of reverse allergy to the term “brand awareness”. If someone near me justifies a marketing tactic with “brand awareness”, they inexplicably seem to break out in bruises.

But, dear reader, I was once the same. I would rely on vague metrics and whiffle dust to argue that this or that tactic was about increasing brand awareness. And the sales director would mercilessly shoot me down every time.

He was right. It’s lazy to argue that social media marketing is about brand awareness. And it’s often unprovable.

Brand awareness by the numbers

According to the 2020 Sprout Social Index, 69% of social marketers say brand awareness is their primary objective for using social media. This is way ahead of other goals such as increasing web traffic (52%) and growing an audience (46%).

Driving sales appears to only be a concern for 40% of social marketers, which I suspect would be enough to raise the blood pressure of many a CFO.

Sure, not everyone’s business model is about selling. And not everyone uses social media to promote products or as another e-commerce channel. But ultimately, marketing is about moving people from awareness to consideration and eventually to a sale – usually somewhere else beyond those social media pages.

Saying that brand awareness is the primary goal suggests that marketing stops at awareness – and whether anyone goes on to buy anything is in the lap of the gods.

Of course, if there is an uptick in sales, marketers are often quick to argue that correlation is causation. But if there is no significant change, then clearly it must be the sales team’s fault, “because look how many followers we have”?

Yes, I know social is just one step in a longer marketing journey. There are other tactics such as email lists, adverts, promotions, and so on that should work together to gradually move people closer to an outcome that will benefit the bottom line.

But if social media is a part of that journey, then what really matters is how effectively it can move people to consideration, not merely awareness.

How long is a piece of awareness?

Another reason I get ranty about brand awareness as a goal is that goals have to be measurable. Yet the same Sprout Social Index shows that 48% of social marketers measure success with engagement metrics such as likes, shares and comments. Soooo not the same thing!

Relying on such metrics places far too much weight on user actions that require little more than a split-second tap of the screen before the thumb continues its eternal scroll.

26% of social marketers do measure some slightly more useful metrics such as amplification, reach, impressions and share of voice. But reach still isn’t the same as awareness. The reach of a mail drop can be measured by the number of flyers delivered. But awareness would need to measure how many people remember the flyer and the brand that sent it days, weeks or months later.

I can promise you I’ve probably liked or retweeted thousands of posts over the years (engagement and reach) where, if you were to ask me ten minutes later, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which brand page or account it came from (brand awareness).

Be honest; you have too.

Crikey, 59% of links shared to social media aren’t clicked. People will reshare or retweet based on the headline or post alone. Great for the engagement numbers, not so good if the goal was to actually get people to the website.

So, yes, brand awareness isn’t easy to measure with any genuine rigour. Most businesses can’t afford to run regular surveys, focus groups and industry research to quantify a meaningful before-and-after awareness of the brand. And there are far more important things to measure anyway.

But any goal that isn’t matched with appropriate KPIs or measurement isn’t a goal. It’s lip service to a lazy idealism, common in the industry, which assumes marketing is by default beneficial. Greater awareness must produce a corresponding return to the business, right?

Except, of course, when it doesn’t.

The view from the C-suite

Ultimately, the client, boss or CFO is usually less interested in how many people liked a meme and more interested in the ROI and how it connects to the bottom line.

80% of CEOs don’t trust the work of marketers, while 90% do trust and value the opinion of the CFO, according to research carried out by The Fournaise Group in 2012. The same research revealed that 69% of B2C CEOs believe marketers focus too much on engagement metrics – “the very parameters they can’t really prove generate more (business-quantifiable) customer demand for their products/services”.

Eight years can be a long time in the world of polls and surveys (I keep hoping they’ll conduct an updated version). But as marketers continue to rely on the same metrics today under the banner of brand awareness, I’d wager the opinion of the C-Suite won’t have changed that much.

Is your audience inside or outside the tent?

Claiming brand awareness as the goal is like a carnival barker constantly shouting “roll up, roll up” to attract a large crowd, without caring if anyone decides to check out the amazing and exotic sights inside the tent.

When the big boss comes around, it’s the number of people inside the tent, not outside, that will determine whether the barker still has a job.

Brand awareness is just the beginning. The goal of a social strategy should be about what happens next.