Jul 03 2012

Bob Garfield Goes Rogue on Social Media ROI

Published by at 3:42 am under Idea Driven Marketing

Love him or can’t stand him, media and marketing critic Bob Garfield always tells like like it is (or, at least as he sees it). I have always been a fan of Garfield’s candor in his media and advertising industry criticism. His recent trenchant commentary on MediaPost is consistent with all of that.

Here, in its entirety, is Bob Garfield’s commentary on what social media are really all about when it comes to marketing:

The Throne Behind The Power

KOHLER, Wisc. – The answer was all around them.

Five panelists sat onstage considering the problem:  “Proving Social ROI to the CFO.” The occasion was the MediaPost Brand Marketers Summit.  The venue was The American Club, a resort where the WASPy tradition infuses every cubic inch of the sprawling campus, like the fireplace smoke that clings to the leather chairs in the hoary library.  Compared to this place, the Ritz-Carlton is a kibbutz.

The American Club is the palace that plumbing fixtures built in the town that plumbing fixtures built. Teeing off at Kohler’s Whistling Straits, one of the finest golf courses in the world, it’s hard not to wonder how many urinals underwrote the experience.

But back to the panel. There were five experts onstage, mulling over the problem of proving social media’s value to Chief Financial Officers, who tend to view even advertising as expensive smoke and mirrors of dubious benefit to shareholder value. Thus have CMO’s been obliged to fixate on ROI metrics that often are themselves dubious, and in any case do not conform with any standard accounting notions of return on investment. The quants say these modern metrics can somehow isolate a correlation between a given piece of spend and sales lifts. And maybe they are right, but the CFOs of the world would be forgiven for rolling their eyes.

So now comes social media and the justification exercise gets genuinely absurd. What a scene: five very smart executives sitting in comfy executive chairs uncomfortably – if not embarrassedly – invoking such fuzzy “metrics” as engagement, awareness, shareability, recency, sentiment and KPI s. A KPI, of course, is a key performance indicators,  i.e., a factor so obviously without statistical basis nobody can bring themselves to even call it a metric.

Some scary things were said, such as the repeated references to social “campaigns.”  Social, of course, is no place for campaigns. It is no place to drive brand messages, or to excessively dangle brand offers or to in any way be nakedly transactional.  It is a place to cultivate relationships with people who, for whatever reason, have an affinity for your brand. Social is a place for sharing, helping and seeking common cause with individuals who relate to you.  Mounting campaigns there is like handing our business cards at the neighborhood picnic.

Unfortunately, the obsession with metrics leads directly to exactly the sort of heavy-handed  campaign mentality that denudes the social space of the very authenticity and spontaneity that makes it so special. Jim McCain, manager of global customer relations management and social for Amway, spoke eloquently about the value of ongoing dialogue to direct-selling organization, but then made my heart sink by speaking of data-informed posts: grading response to various social content so as to later, “replicate the tonality or topic of successful posts.”

No. No. No. That is not social. That’s direct mail.

Erica Barth, vice president products and partnerships at Resolution Media, was as close as anybody to articulating the central fact the C-suite needs to understand:  “It’s not just another line item I’m putting in a media plan,” she said. “It’s a lot of small interactions that can add up over time.”

Just as ordinary human relationships add up over time. Social is the place where there can be segments, but there cannot be targets. It is not about conquest, any more than friendship is about conquest. It is about shared interests and shared values that can be the basis for priceless but utterly immeasurable lifelong relationships. Customer relations management fits in, the odd offer fits in, but manipulation has no place. And if you do it right – on the subject of “adding up” — the resulting trust and loyalty increase your lifetime customer value and reduce your promotional spend dramatically.

Grant Munro, managing director for strategic accounts at Syncapse, spoke of a Coca-Cola initiative called Coca-Cola Rewards, in which Coke drinkers could take a bottle-cap code onto the brand’s fan page and register for a prize. This created tracking data so the brand could model the relationship between social behavior and purchasing behavior.

That’s fine; it’s always good to know what’s happening out there. Yet, in a way, the deep dive into behavior is irrelevant — just as the question addressed by the panel is irrelevant.  Proving social ROI to the CFO? Nobody needs to do that, because no brand can opt out of social. Every brand is in social, whether they spend a penny there or not. It is a fact of life forevermore.  The only question is how thoughtfully you will participate.

Which gets back to the venue for all of this: Kohler. The five-star resort, the four golf courses, the spa, the beach, the restaurants, the dead-animal skins, the smoky libraries –  they are all here because the company  recognized existing technology and brought it to the world. That technology was indoor plumbing. This palace was literally financed by the throne.

As the children’s book sums up the marketplace so nicely, “Everyone Poops.” Even employees and customers and vendors. Yet has any CFO ever demanded the ROI on the men’s room?  Of course not. We need to have a place for our hygiene activities and that’s that. No key performance indicator necessary.

So when the CFO demands for justification for your output, just say, “Sure, if you’ll give me the justification for yours.”

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