authenticity-and-ROI-in-social-media-are-both-possibleI stop to catch my breath. I can feel the fiery burn shoot through my calves and radiate in my quads. My shoulders feel as though they might collapse from this unidentifiable weight, pushing into my once strong and sturdy muscles. I gasp, hoping to coax all the oxygen I can into my raggedy, raspy lungs. I do all I can to stand, hands on my knees, face to the ground. There’s no way I can go on…

I must admit, with only the slightest hint of exaggeration, that this is how I feel when I wrestle with social media. It no longer reigns in my mind as a novelty, but rather as a wounded and abused, yet still ferocious, roaring tiger that just needs some real love.

Right? Or is that too far?

Social media, with its countless channels that seem to emerge every week, has become over-crowded, cluttered and, frankly, obnoxious. For what has the potential to be an honest platform for an authentic, two-way conversation between people and brands, social media has become a platform to shamelessly flog one’s services with little time or consideration left for listening. This tends to be especially frustrating for brands, as even when they attempt to engage with a community, they are often met with an exhausted audience that questions the intentions of their messaging.

Hope and High ROI

However, much to my glee, IAB UK released a new study on Independence Day that gives hope and relief – or at least the promise of a big ROI – to companies who engage with social media. The new study, conducted on behalf of the IAB’s Social Media Council and carried out by Marketing Sciences, focused on three FMCG brands’ (Heinz, Kettle and Twinings) social media strategies. Here are the quick-and-dirty highlights:

  • All three companies experienced “uplift in sentiment” due to their respective strategies – Heinz at 22%, Kettle at 17% and Twinings at 19%.
  • 4 out of 5 consumers said they were more likely to buy a brand more often in the future after being exposed to their social media presence.
  • 83% of consumers said they would trial a brand’s product after being exposed to their social media presence.
  • For every £1 ($1.28) spent in social media, a potential value of £3.34 ($4.27) could be generated.
  • Top-level awareness of brands was stronger and more stable among consumers exposed to their social media channels than that among the consumers who were not exposed.

Overall, the study, according to IAB UK, “demonstrates the effectiveness of social media for driving brand sentiment, enhancing consumer engagement and increasing brand loyalty.”

The Downtrodden Still Exist

This study may be a big pep talk for all those exhausted brands out there, but there are still naysayers, and respectable ones at that. Tech-god, founder of 50Kings, and PandoDaily columnist Francisco Dao recently wrote an article that tears apart the possibility of a world of sunshine, rainbows and brand advocates and online communities. I encourage you to read his article; it may come off a bit egocentric initially, but perhaps it’s the voice of a fed-up tech king who is tired of the falsity and shallowness that has engulfed the social world.

Dao makes an argument against the credibility and real value of a “brand advocate,” who is said to come from your social media following. He says, “It is highly unlikely that someone who is not a customer can legitimately identify with, or have any emotional attachment to, your product or service.” He, therefore, claims that there is no way for them to be knowledgeable enough about your product to be an effective advocate.

Dao’s advice: “the only community you need to worry about are the people who buy what you’re selling.”

Woah. He seems to be craving some loyalty, which no one can argue with, but his words question the role of social media in a brand’s marketing strategy. Are you only supposed to focus on your customers? Is there no room for customer acquisition and sentiment uplift in a social media strategy, as the IBA UK study found?

Spread a Little Love

It seems as though not all is lost when it comes to building brand communities. In a more optimistic approach to the nature of social media, there seems to be hope for authentic connection with consumers. It comes, however, from seeing your followers and friends as they actually are: people, not just measureable ROIs.

In a great article last fall with the Huffington Post, Chris Abraham provides an excellent exploratory approach to building an online community. He frames social media roamers as wounded soldiers with whom you must build trust.  Abraham warns:

“Communities are so used to being abused that you’ll be surprised and insulted by the level of caution, dread, and mistrust you’ll wander into, even if your intentions are pure and you’re just looking for ways to discover, engage, and help folks online.”

He advises approaching the attempt to expand your online presence as you would a dinner party you weren’t invited to. Meet the host, be honest and, of course, bring booze. Be upfront yet gracious. Listen 80% of the time, and you can shamelessly promote yourself the other 20% of the time.

I like your advice, Chris.

The Takeaway

We still seem to be in a bit of a conundrum when trying to understand the value of social media for brands. There’s the IBA UK study that claims that there is real ROI (for FMCGs) on a social media presence. From my own experiences with online retailer ModCloth’s social strategy, I tend to find some value and truth in this study.

On the other hand, are we, as a consumer public, too abused to trust another so-called online community? Can we be a brand’s advocate? Do they even want us to be? These are questions that I still don’t have answers to, but whenever I think about social media and social strategy I always come back to this:

Be curious and courteous.

This may be self-indulgent to end two posts with the same thought, but I think it’s true. In a realm so cluttered like the social world, it’s hard to make sense of the chaos in order to measure authentic connections. It’s times like these where I think returning to the simple philosophies such as this- be curious and courteous – do us marketers some good. If you don’t like my advice, then take the advice of Plato, Philo of Alexandria, Ian MacLaren, and the Rev. John Watson:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”