“Social” has been the word in marketing for the past few years. Industry conferences that once focused on marketing in general are now dominated by sessions specific to social media strategy, tools, and techniques.  Soon, it’ll be tough to imagine marketing that isn’t social. And once all marketing is “social,” the word becomes superfluous, like the “personal” in “personal computer.” In 2011, we’ll just call it “marketing.”

A few brave brands

In the beginning, marketers began to relinquish some of their tight control on brand sites by engaging in conversational activities like corporate blogging and brand-centric communities. The adoption of social commerce tools like customer reviews and Q&A followed, aiming to turn these conversations into sales. These brave brands gave their customers a voice on their sites, facilitating both customer-customer and brand-customer dialogue.

The eruption of social networks like Facebook changed the context of the internet, transforming a broadcast medium into an inherently conversational one. Our own interconnectedness to each other online has made us…

  • less reliant on authority (advertising, celebrity endorsement, professional reviewers) for opinions, since we can get them instead from people we trust: people like us.
  • …less trusting of brands and advertising, since we can fact-check anywhere with real people who have used the product or brand.
  • …more reliant on each other, since it’s now convenient to seek the opinions of others no matter where we are.

Social for all mediums

For too long, advertising was an intrusion into our lives – as our Austin neighbors at GSD&M like to call it, an “uninvited guest.” Our advisor Andy Sernovitz is a little tougher: “Advertising is the tax companies pay to sell poor products,” he says.

Online. With social marketing, our “guest” now receives invitations more often. We Like brands on Facebook and follow them on Twitter, inviting them to our digital cocktail party that is social media. If they follow the rules – keep us engaged, create value through our mutual conversation – they get to stay. But when they break them – flood our social feeds with ads, treat the medium like a broadcast – they quickly get bounced. 96% of Facebook users have never clicked an ad; people are there to talk, not to be talked at.

Offline. User-generated content on these networks and on brand sites has leveled the playing field between brands and their customers: our collective word of mouth is louder than a pushed brand message. Our newfound power over brands online has made us hungry for this same power offline. We’re tipping all media to the same recontextualization as the internet – slowly beginning to expect conversations rather than broadcasts, interaction rather than advertisements. Smart brands are taking the first steps to build conversations into traditional advertising by including things like customer reviews and stories in print, radio, TV, and mobile ads. Innovations like Hulu’s Ad Tailor offer us some level of control, allowing us to self-select advertising more relevant to us.

Once this tipping point is reached, it will be hard to imagine marketing that isn’t social, in some way. “Social” will cease to be a type of marketing; it will simply be marketing.

Social for all purchases

As consumers, we are never alone. The increasing ubiquity of the internet’s presence in our lives – through social networks, smart phones, always-on communication – has created a world where every decision (and every purchase) can be crowdsourced and polled.

Across industries. As a rule, retailers are the most responsive to new marketing trends. Retailers were the first to sell online, offer UGC on their sites, and join social networks. Learning from the successes and failures of retail, manufacturers, travel, and entertainment followed. Today, even highly-regulated industries like automotive, financial services, insurance, and healthcare are beginning to adopt social commerce. Basic social tools like reviews are becoming ubiquitous – we’ll soon be reviewing pharmaceuticals, governments, educational institutions, you name it. No matter what we’re shopping for in 2011, other shoppers’ opinions will be there to help us buy.

Across channels. One in five mobile phones sold today are smart phones. Mobile internet access means UGC is available everywhere – “people like me” are never far away. Whether we’re shopping online or in-store, customer reviews and Q&A are just a click away. 60% of in-store purchases are now researched online, and for every dollar spent online, the internet influences $3.45 of in-store sales.

This fusion of our digital and actual worlds marks the end of siloed “social” marketing. As Philipp Schindler, Vice President of Google, puts it, “It’s time to stop differentiating between the online and the offline world – your customers don’t see it that way – everything is integrated.”

The word “social” appears 20 times in this post. If 2010 is its last hoorah, we may as well start wearing it out.

10 Responses to “2011: The end of “social” marketing”

  1. Hi Chris, you’re definitely right. I said something similar in another post: people are talking about your brand and products online. If you want them to talk about how awesome you are, you have to actually be awesome.

    Thanks for commenting!

  2. Gwenm Sandiego

    Question for you… when you say 60% of in-store purchases are now researched online, how is this information broken out by product category/price? For example, I would imagine a big screen TV purchase is more likely to be researched online than say a pair of cheap jeans. What insights might you be able to share on this?

  3. Tara. I really like the diplomatic tone of the conversation, because it shows that you’re confident that Bazaarvoice is helping its clients, and, given its client list and growth pattern, I’m confident of that, as well.

    It’s just that some potentially harmful statements pop up, like Andy Sernovitz’, “Advertising is the tax companies pay to sell poor products.” A fellow named Bill Bernbach took the opposing view, saying, “Great advertising will only make a bad product fail faster,” and, sources aside, I have to agree with Bernbach’s statement on that one.

    Similar is your “Marketers have long recognized that good word of mouth is more effective than advertising.” To prove that, why not try this simple test. Go to any Inc. 500 company that’s grown by doing a great job, which generated great word-of-mouth, and, subsequently, sales and growth. I think you’ll find, as I have when I tried it, that Inc. 500 CEOs tend to be great at delivering a superior product or service, but don’t have to, at that point, know a thing about marketing or advertising at the Fortune 500 level.

    Then give GSD&M, Wunderman and bazaarvoice $1MM each for three years to take that exceptional service-product provider and build sales and profit in three new geographic markets, and see where you stand after three years.

    I’m fairly certain you’ll find that great word of mouth is only more effective when it’s all you’ve got. If you can spend some money to put a better opportunity in front of a greater number of buyers, and get the story right, more conventional marketing communications (including, these days, websites and email) are simply the most efficient and controllable way to build awareness of a better opportunity, and sales.

    Maybe what we’re really discussing is that there is definitely a lot of bad “advertising” done that only delivers a generic, commodity message; that, more than being a tax, it’s tantamount to buying and using a lawn mower without a blade; and that, sure, if that’s what a company is doing, they’re better off being quiet, and letting their customers talk.

    So…I’d say that good word of mouth is more effective than 90% of websites that now exist. But a great website and traffic building program that presents clear benefits to the right audiences should still jumpstart (and then support) sales much faster than word of mouth will, and by the time word of mouth catches up, truly effective advertising will be 10 markets ahead and ready to launch new products. ; )

    Time will tell, though, Tara. We’ll all find out one way or the other. ; )

  4. Hi John–

    I definitely agree that the future of marketing involves a mix of media. My prediction is not that today’s “social” marketing (social network presences, customer reviews, other forms of UGC) will replace all other marketing media — rather, that these other forms of media will *become* social in some way. Becoming social here doesn’t mean joining Facebook or Twitter. It simply means that one-way broadcasts with no opportunity for interaction or dialogue (like a traditional banner ad, for example) are fast becoming as out-of-place as anyone who interrupts a conversation between friends with a sales pitch. So, it’s not a single approach to marketing; more of a best practice to apply to all future approaches.

    More than liking to be led, I’d agree with your second statement on humans – we like to feel safe. What makes us feel safe in our purchase decisions? Knowing that other people like us made the purchase and were happy with it. Knowing that it’s the right purchase for our specific needs. This used to mean relying on authority – like a professional movie critic. But now, it’s easy to see what large, aggregated groups think. If out of 100+ user reviews the average rating is 4.5 stars, we feel safer that the movie is worth watching, because people like us enjoyed it.

    I can’t agree with your assertion that reviews tell us what we already know about products — reviews often uncover things about products that the manufacturers themselves didn’t even know. See: http://www.bazaarvoice.com/resources/case-studies/ratings-reviews-uncover-product-improvements

    Marketers have long recognized that good word of mouth is more effective than advertising. Social marketing is just the online (and moving offline) version of something brands have always striven for. My company (Bazaarvoice) has case studies on the ROI of UGC, and some great stats around WOM’s effectiveness over traditional advertising. Check out these links:

  5. Tara…I’m really only asking because, you know, if you’ve been in marketing a while, you’ve become aware that clients (especially small business clients) have always been approached by the cable salesman telling them that cable advertising is the only way to go, the radio guy selling radio as the ultimate solution, the direct response printer, the community paper, etc. So it’s only natural and reasonable that the social marketing folks would present social marketing as the new opportunity that stands alone. But if you step back and try to take an objective look at companies that are driving new business through marketing, isn’t it still done, mostly, with a mix of media and a focus on active, not passive, techniques?

    But, again, your focus on the great advantages of a single approach is definitely consistent with that of others having to sell a single approach. I’m open to thinking that world of mouth marketing on the internet is viable and should be in the mix…which is why I do earnestly ask for white papers, and the like, detailing ROI.

    I passed an article on to a client the other day on how a B2B firm had used well-targeted FB ads to drive new business leads. (Anecdotally,) I’ve yet to see any one of my Facebook friends recommend any type of product or service in any way…dialogue-wise…but I’m definitely willing to think I’m missing something, and willing to embrace an additional tool. The thing is, I can’t get past my own experience that tells me that we humans like to be led, and then to travel in safe herds.

    Here’s the main problem that will always exist with the dialogue form of publicity: When a random individual writes a review of a Dell computer, it pretty much tends to tell us what we already know of Dell computers. When it goes off-track to any significant degree, we start to think, “OK, now you’re telling us more about yourself.”

    Us trusting ourselves more than the “experts” or the people “in authority” is an interesting concept. Now…are there articles providing evidence of it that we can pass on to clients who have dollars to spend?



  6. Hi Jverba, your comment made me realize I’d worded the stat wrong — it should be “96% of Facebook users have never clicked an ad” [fixed now]. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, and I’m sorry for the confusion.

    So to clarify, only 4% of FB users have ever clicked a single ad — the article (linked in post) doesn’t give any data on how many have clicked more than one ad or converted (presumably <4% of all users).

    Unfortunately the article doesn't give related data for other mediums. The point here is that within the conversational context of social media, one-way communication like ads isn't what users are looking for — FB is a dialogue, and the rest of the internet is becoming one as well.

    We'd love to see that data if you find it!

  7. You note that 96% of Facebook advertising is ignored. How does that compare with advertising in other media? How does it compare with most links that our friends post on FB? How does it compare with most blog posts, in general? And…if 4% is paid attention to, does that mean clicked on? That would be one heck of a good direct response rate for lead generation. And, lastly, what’s the highest percentage (or even actual quantity) of a product’s potential (or even user) market that’s “Liked” that product’s FB page? Well over 4%? (Just looking for context, so one can make objective decisions.) Thanks. : )

  8. Exactly. I love Schindler at Google’s quote around that. Customers don’t shop in isolation from channel to channel — those boundaries don’t exist for them anymore, so they shouldn’t for marketers either.

    Thanks for commenting!

  9. Tara, you make a great argument here; marketers & corporations have all embraced social to varying degrees, now it’s time to understand that no one department or internal resource is your social media team, everything is social, social is a part of everything. Building a better understanding (and I’m not just talking about what employees say that could be blogged about) throughout the corporate culture is a “must-do” for 2011, after all, the customer is expecting an integrated experience whether we’re ready or not.

    [4 more mentions of social for the post]

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