Social media 'wars' are irrelevant: it's sales that matter

08 Dec 2014  |  Dominic Mills 
Social media 'wars' are irrelevant: it's sales that matter

While it would be glib to completely dismiss social media as a measurement tool, there is still very little evidence to prove its effect on business, writes Dominic Mills.

Not in a good way, here's a headline/story from last week that caught my eye: 'Brands that put social at the heart of campaigns winning Christmas ad battle'.

According to the PR agency (who'd have guessed, huh?) behind the report, and based on some utterly spurious calculation, John Lewis tops the list with a score of 44, ahead of M&S on 42, with Iceland trailing along the bottom.

To which the only sane (and printable) response is: who cares? What difference has it made, or is it going to make?

It's the sort of headline/story that makes me want to explode. For a start, it conjures up visions of legions of 'socialitas' getting hysterical - practically wetting themselves with excitement.

Second, it illustrates the lazy thinking that is now becoming the norm in this area, and which seems dangerous to me. It concentrates on the battle, when what everyone should be thinking about is the war.

The most successful ads are defined by their performance in the marketplace, not as viewed through the narrow and incomplete prism of YouTube views/likes/shares."

Third, it is far too early to say which advertiser has won Christmas. The only true test of 'winning' Christmas is sales, which you can measure both in absolute terms - volume or revenue - and in relative terms, such as market share. We won't know these figures till January when the main retailers report their results.

I cannot imagine Sainsbury's executives, or any other for that matter, consoling themselves by saying: "Well, we may have lost out in sales, but at least we did better in social media than Asda/Lidl/Tesco."

And yet this kind of thinking is ubiquitious. Google put out a short report last week showing the most-viewed ads on YouTube (no surprises for guessing John Lewis tops the list, followed by Sainsbury's), with this inane statement: "Social is at the heart of creative process behind this year's most successful ads [my emphasis]."

Wrong. The most successful ads are defined by their performance in the marketplace, not as viewed through the narrow and incomplete prism of YouTube views/likes/shares whatever.

A Guardian feature last week quoted a Sainsbury's executive saying: "A person that has a positive social experience will be more likely to shop with you."

Which they may do, but so is the consumer whose nearest store is a Sainsbury's. My weekly shopping basket with Sainsbury's is a fraction of what it was since we moved house, and even if I have a "positive social experience" of Sainsbury's I'm not going to schlep across town to buy the family turkey.

I can like/share the ad all I want, and so can my friends, but it isn't going to make a sodding difference to my shopping behaviour. And that's before we get to all the other considerations: prices, parking, wonky trolleys and so on.

So, if social media might have a positive impact on propensity to purchase, where's the evidence? I'm prepared to believe consumers say good social media makes them more likely to buy, but I'm still waiting for the proof.

Now that is not to say social media has no effect. The issue is that we just don't know what the effects are. Few clients/agencies/researchers are taking the trouble to find out. And you can't trust the media owners to do it alone.

I won't go as far as one of my heroes, the inestimable Bob Hoffman (aka The Ad Contrarian), whose loathing of social media is utterly visceral. He describes the 'socialistas' as an "ever-expanding species of jabbering baboons". I wish I'd thought of a phrase like that. You can read one of his milder diatribes here.

Most of the current econometric modelling tools were designed pre-social media, and aren't set up to deal with the current eco-system."

So what's the answer? It's glib to dismiss social media. But at the same time, there is a lack of serious work trying prove its effect on business (and yes, I know sales is too much of a blunt instrument by which to judge effect) and to disentangle its contribution from all the other activity a brand engages in.

I have no doubt that this is extremely hard to do. Most of the current econometric modelling tools were designed pre-social media, and aren't set up to deal with the current eco-system. It's also expensive to do this work, yet if clients and agencies think social a burgeoning area, they should be putting budget behind measuring it.

That is not to say there is nothing out there. The IPA began a project called #IPASocialWorks designed to create a knowledge bank. There's some good stuff there, including a clutch of case studies including BT, Iceland (the country), TfL, Onken and Mattesons.

Nothing motivates agency folk like a bit of glory (and maybe some cash), so one answer is to launch a social media prize where the criteria demands some proper measurement of business value.

There is, of course, the IPA's Effectiveness Awards scheme, but it's interesting to note that, while many of the 2014 winners used social media, none based their case on it.

One organisation that has done this is Warc. The prize - and a generous $10,000 - was won by Doritos.

But perhaps the most interesting findings come from Peter Field's 'Seriously Social' analysis of the shortlisted entries for Warc, a proper effort to pull the relevant themes together, the most significant of which is his suggestion that social really works best as a support channel.

Intuitively, this feels right to me. And while it would no doubt cast a pall of gloom over the socialistas who think social is the be-all and end-all, it would no doubt cheer up Bob Hoffman if it helped the 'jabbering baboons' control their bladders better.

If they're serious about social media, then they need to be serious about measuring it. That way they'll get taken more seriously...(maybe).

(Disclosure: I edited some of the IPA Social Works case studies.)


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Drayton Bird, Chairman, Drayton Bird Associates on 9 Dec 2014
“What an excellent piece! Is there any chance we can now have some light shed on the guff about "Content" Marketing - as opposed, one assumes, to marketing devoid of content. Then we can move o to discern the difference between "native" advertising and advertorials.”
Jeremy Swinfen Green, Director, Mosoco on 8 Dec 2014
“I'd agree that the Christmas winners can only be determined by sales. But I wonder whether the PR agency hasn't muddled cause and effect - in other words the "winners" are simply the retailers who have delivered great advertising which in turn stimulates social media conversations, rather than the winners being retailers who put social at the heart of the campaign. Of course that wouldn't be such an interesting story.

I do wish people wouldn't treat social media as though it is one thing to all brands e.g. saying that it needs to be at the heart of a campaign in some way. That's a bit like saying TV works in the same way for all brands. In my view some brands can use social to support their brand, some for insight (and to watch for monsters on the horizon), some for customer support, some for lead generation. Some lucky ones (but not many) can use it for all of these reasons. It's not the same for everyone.”
TIM BARBER, Reserch Director, BDRC Continental on 8 Dec 2014
“Interesting (but not unsurprising) to see such diversity of opinion about how key Social is to a brand's success.

We've just conducted some mystery shopping research (which included Sainsbury's) that makes it apparent that some brands (and some sectors as a whole) have a very good handle on how to use Twitter to their advantage, and wield it effectively as part of their branding toolkit.

It's also very clear that some brands and sectors don't...

Search for "Twystery" for a free summary of the results (including some NON spurious calculations!).”
Vic Davies, Course Leader & Senior Lecturer, Bucks new University on 8 Dec 2014
“Is part of social's apparent ability to claim victory in being the most successfully marketing communications tool down to the tangibility of the numbers it produces, namely the infamous 'click', which when amassed, results in so called 'big data'? 'Look we have a body count' might the cry go out, which is more than old style opportunity measurement delivered by the JICs.

But as Dominic states, and the US found in the Vietnam War, body counts do not mean your are winning. But neither does having just the potential to win. All media needs to get better at devising systems that move from data, and towards information, knowledge which agencies can then use to deliver insight.”


24 Jul 2017 

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