Social media reflects a larger trend toward buyer empowerment that has changed not only the practice but the underlying philosophies of marketing over the past several years. Power has gradually shifted over the past couple of decades from manufacturers (e.g. HP, P&G) to the channel (e.g. TigerDirect, Wal Mart) to consumers and b2b buyers. Prospective customers are now using technologies like iPods, TiVo and ad blockers to avoid advertising messages. Interruption marketing isn’t quite dead, but it is no longer nearly as effective as it used to be. Marketers now have to work harder and smarter to earn the attention of potential customers, not just buy it.
While many if not most marketers have adjusted to the new practices required, one still sees corporate Facebook pages with few fans and no clear purpose, Twitter streams filled with nothing but obnoxious “Hey! Buy my stuff now!” messages, repackaged marketing brochures masquerading as thought leadership content and the like. B2c and b2b buyers alike are tuning out such messages; they increasingly listen to each other, to key influencers, and to marketers willing to add real value beyond just schlepping their own products and services when making their purchase decisions.
Just as social media has changed the sales practice, here are five shifts that savvy marketers recognize and capitalizing on to increase sales in an age of consumer empowerment generally and the rise of social media specifically.
Buyer control vs. vendor control: in traditional interruptive marketing, vendors produced messages (advertisements, direct mail, email blasts) and prospective buyers consumed these messages. Production was active, consumption was passive. That equation is now reversed. Buyers control which messages they want to see. Prospects seek out the information they want, and respond to messages that are entertaining, compelling and/or informative. They will help spread great content virally, while ignoring or mercilessly parodying what they don’t like.
Desired content vs. marketing messages: responding to the first trend, marketers are now challenged to produce helpful or interesting content rather than just brochures and marketing collateral. To be sure, marketing content still has its place, but that place is now when the prospect wants it, not at the front end of the consideration cycle. To earn a buyer’s attention up-front, marketers must produce attractive content, whether through entertainment or games in the b2c space, or problem-solving, research-oriented materials in b2b marketing.
Dialog vs. broadcast: in perhaps the biggest shift produced by the rise of social media, prospects now seek two-way communication with vendors rather than passively consuming marketing messages. In the early days of the internet, traditional forms of media (magazines, newspapers, marketing brochures) were simply moved from print to online; communication was still primarily one-way. Forums and blogs began to change that, empowering prospective purchasers to ask questions of vendors, and of each other. Now, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media tools have exploded this capability. Conversations are less expensive than broadcasting from a media standpoint, but much more costly in terms of time. Budgets consequently must shift from buying one-way media to adding personnel or supplementing staff with outside experts who can successfully engage potential buyers in product conversations.
Ongoing vs. campaigns: Traditional marketing often revolved around campaigns, such as a defined run period for a specific advertisement or series of ads, that had a clear beginning and endpoint. Social media marketing, in contrast, is ongoing. Try using a blog specifically for a campaign and you’ll end up with an abandoned blog and disillusioned readers. Traditional campaigns were about producing sales in the short term; social media is about developing relationships that lead to (increased and ongoing) sales over the long term. Well-crafted campaigns led to one-time buyers, who may or may not have returned. The successful use of social media produces long-term customers and brand advocates. This shift has also altered best practices for successful product launches.
Indirect vs. direct measures: Traditional advertising and marketing campaigns often lent themselves to convenient, direct measures of success (or failure), e.g.: 100 people saw our ad, 10 responded, and two purchased. ROI was a simple calculation. Social media can be measured, certainly, but the metrics are frequently less direct and ROI challenging to measure with any precision. While research shows that social media engagement increases revenue, direct tactical measurement is difficult. For example, while it’s generally better to have more Twitter followers than fewer, quality matters more; better to have fewer but more engaged followers than a bunch of spammy followers who inflate follower count without adding any value. Retweets are valuable, but exactly how much are they worth? What’s the value of engaging an influential blogger who may indirectly drive buyers your direction, even though he or she will never actually be your customer? What’s the value of answering a question or engaging in a discussion on LinkedIn? Certainly, marketers should measure what they can, such as website traffic driven by various social media sites and the quality (conversions, time spent on site, etc.) associated with that traffic, but beware the temptation of excessive “last click attribution”—just because a visitor who came from Twitter ended up buying your product or service doesn’t mean the microblogging service should get all of the ROI credit. They may very well have seen your messages and interactions in a dozen other social media and more traditional forums first.
The genie of consumer empowerment is unlikely to be stuffed back into the magic lamp soon, if ever. While the specific tools for engagement and social media interaction will no doubt continue to evolve over time, marketers who understand and adapt to the shifts produced will be well positioned for ongoing success, and unaffected by the continuing decline in the power of interruption marketing.