Three reasons to be skeptical of social media

Originally published in the Upstate Business Journal // November 4, 2016

1: Social media doesn’t have a return on investment for all businesses

An individual’s personal interests in social media rarely cross over to influence their business interests. Despite the belief commonly held by social media strategists (whose bottom line depends on the promotion of social media’s value), humans compartmentalize their use of various social media platforms. This is especially true in a B2B context where there is a lack of overlap between consumer goods and social media.

When you stop to think about it, it makes sense that the buying decisions of those in B2B would hardly be influenced by brand presence on social media. With the possible exception of LinkedIn, social media doesn’t allow for the transmission of desired trust or borrowed trust that is a primary ingredient in B2B transactions; price points are generally higher than consumer goods, and organizational risk is much higher than in the consumer realm. If I buy a pair of shoes online and they don’t work out, I am inconvenienced. If I am a buyer for a retailer and make a decision to buy shoes for my stores and that buying decision doesn’t work out, people’s livelihoods could potentially be at stake. 

2: Social media kills and fattens, most often in that order

 This observation could be its own exploration, but essentially social media tends to kill the unique perceived value of products and services by commoditizing them (“perceived” is a key word here because I don’t think the actual value diminishes per se, just the market’s perception of that value).

The double-edged sword of social media is that it allows brands to present to the world. On the other side, social media allows brands to see what every other brand is doing. Effectively, social media platforms have established a global scale environment for copycats to have free reign.

This is what causes the commoditization. Brands most often begin by imitating other brands’ content. That then often turns to imitating other brands’ products or services. Eventually, there are enough brands that so closely resemble one another that the consumer considers their offerings to be commodities.

Commodity status forces brands to sell on price or forces brands to adapt in order to no longer be perceived among the commodities. In this way social media can then benefit those brands as they differentiate themselves and once again use social media to communicate their brand presence to the world (again, mostly in the consumer world, not the B2B world). However, the cycle has a tendency to repeat itself, which depending on your perspective may or may not be a bad thing.

3: Social media is approaching the average life span of a mosquito 

The rate of social media innovation, adoption and attrition is steadily accelerating. It was once unthinkable for anything to match Facebook’s user growth. But then Twitter came along. Then Pinterest came along. Then Instagram. And just when you thought there was little left to innovate in terms of social media, Periscope and Snapchat entered the landscape.

Interestingly, it’s really only the early adopters of new platforms that generate the most return on investment because the white noise overwhelms folks very quickly as the adoption curve becomes shorter. The problem this poses for brands is the expense and risk associated with early adoption. No one can foresee which new platforms will hold true potential for return on investment. So, if your brand doesn’t have the deep resources to experiment like Coca-Cola or Nike or Procter & Gamble, then it can be a very risky pond to swim in.

So what’s a non-Fortune 500 brand to do about investing in social media?

1: Don’t buy into the hype of social media.

It’s not a panacea for a brand’s survival or expansion. Be cautious and perform your due diligence in determining what might make sense for your brand’s digital marketing efforts, especially in the B2B realm.

2: Potentially double down on what’s gotten you to where you are so far.

If your business is already established, then some combination of factors has led to that. Carefully and honestly assess those things. The time-tested truths that sustainable brands have depended on still apply. Lasting brands have compelling narratives. Tell that story whether on social media or not. Don’t assume you are missing the boat because of a lack of social media investment.

3: Focus on creating great online content and let social media organically compliment it.

Social media platforms are really just rivers that content travel on. The platform is not the thing that matters. Content is the thing that matters. And great content conveys little snippets of the broader brand narrative. Focus on that, and the strategic use of social media (if any) will then make sense.