Marketing, community, support or all of the above?

Something has been gnawing at me for a while, and after a great conversation over brunch with Ferg Devins today I’m feeling inspired to throw this out there.

“When I was your age…”

Source: halfpastawesome.com

Source: halfpastawesome.com

I first got into “social media” somewhere around eight years ago – first for my own interest and then – soon after – as part of my job. Like many other people at the time, I was interested in the humanizing effect that social media could have for companies. While companies were previously faceless, anonymous entities, suddenly they could have a face, and interact with the people who cared about them.

Over the last few years, social media has evolved away from this – away from personal interaction, and towards what is increasingly push marketing.

Is this a good thing? Let’s take a quick look at the differences before making that call… (warning: hyper-generalized summaries ahead)

As I mentioned earlier, many of those of us who got into the social media space early did so because we appreciated the opportunity to help companies connect with people in a meaningful way. Sometimes that meant interesting conversations; sometimes it meant helping them with a problem; either way it meant interactions with substance. This early focus on relationships, reputation and engagement led social media to naturally lean towards driving loyalty and affinity with brands over time.

Marketing Funnel

Source: adamhcohen.com

While public relations practitioners were early out of the blocks on social, the last few years have seen a shift of budgets towards marketing organizations, and money talks – their role has become increasingly prevalent in social for many companies. That’s not surprising, nor is it an inherently bad thing.

Marketing objectives generally focus on sales – demand gen, acquisition, etc. For consumer-focused companies, many of whom are the heaviest investors in social media, that means reaching people at scale and driving them towards purchase.

The easiest way to visualize this shift is to look at the traditional marketing funnel.

Early social media activities focused more on two areas of the funnel – consideration and – critically – loyalty/advocacy. Communities in particular were by their nature filled with people who already have an affinity or interest in your product, right?

Over time I’ve seen more and more organizations shift the focus from the latter to further up the funnel, primarily on consideration (still) but also awareness and conversion, as companies began to treat social networks as another sales and acquisition channel.

At the same time, the community-building interactions that drove many of us to this space have dwindled with a lot of companies.

Marketing, community or both?

I’m not sure that we should choose between the two, or that one is ‘better’ than the other. In fact, I would argue that organizations really CAN’T choose to only focus on one point in the funnel – and this is where a lot of teams fall down.

People don’t care what department runs social media. I couldn’t care less if you’re in PR, social, digital or anywhere else in the company. You know what I care about as a customer? I care about whether you can meet whatever need I have at that moment in time. In particular, if I need help, I want you to help me. I don’t give a damn about the fact that you’re in marketing – you’ve set up a presence in a two-way channel, and if you don’t use it as a two-way channel then I’m going to judge you accordingly.

I’ve argued many times over the years that customer service IS marketing in today’s environment. I even did an interview on City TV arguing as much back in 2010. If you do well, more people than ever will see it and give you credit for it. If you screw up, more people than ever will see it (just ask British Airways). This is leading more and more organizations to shift customer support into the marketing function.  

So, the problem comes when organizations decide to ONLY focus on content, and to avoid investing in/committing to community management. This happens a lot, as community management tends to get lumped in with content marketing when it comes to measuring social. The reality, though, is that “social media” encompasses multiple functions and while they need to integrate, we need to measure them against the objectives of each of those functions – sales, loyalty and advocacy alike. 

So, this shift towards marketing isn’t a bad thing – it can be a very good thing… unless it comes at the expense of everything else.

Only by recognizing the differences between the different aspects of social, and that we have no option but to embrace them, can we hope to get back to what got many of us into social media in the first place – meaningful, substantial connections with the people who care about the company, and who the company cares about in return.

What say you?

  • JeremyWright

    Agreed. In fact, I’ve often argued that there are cycles of consideration/reconsideration within the standard marketing funnel, and that effective content marketing can often sit at the top, but the lower you go in the funnel the higher the IMPACT is, but the higher the BARRIER is too. Bad example: loyalists will watch a 3 minute video, considerers will not (typically). But, the value of those down-funnel activities is higher on a per-interaction basis (so is the cost) than top of the funnel.

  • http://www.nithanbaby.com/

    I like your article very much

  • HillaryMcBride

    Fully agreed. I think many PR practitioners have gotten so carried away with the “newness” and practical applications/considerations of social media that they have forgotten best-practice models for how PR should be conducted (i.e. two-way, dialogic, transparent, customer-oriented etc.).
    I just read a 2009 article by Grunig in which he argues that digital media has the capacity to revolutionize the field of PR that is not being realized because practitioners are using the new media just like they used old media, “as a means of dumping messages on the general population rather than as a strategic means of interacting with publics and bringing information from the environment into organizational decision-making.”

    Social media enables all that to happen, and relatively easily, quickly and cheaply, so long as a competent practitioner is behind the keyboard/webcam/strategy document.

  • allpointspr100

    Indeed, many PR agencies have forgotten the biggest and best way to use social media; many have decided to solely focus on the less important uses of it rather than using it for dialogue and focusing on the consumer. That’s what my http://allpointspr.com/social-media-services tries to remember every day.

  • AlyssaKeala

    I agree. So many people are now using social media to purely market to users instead of developing relationships with users. But I think this can be a good thing for social media marketing. Content creators must now find a way to do both marketing and relationship building with customers and the great content creators will be smart and creative and the users will be able to tell the difference. The content that markets to users but also gets them involved and interacting with the brand will be better received than purely marketing material.

  • MJKern

    Therein lies one of the quandaries of handling — and maximizing the value of — social media. Dave Fleet accurately points out that many early social media efforts were geared toward building relationships, trust, awareness (and ultimately advocacy and action) with pertinent communities. And those efforts were best handled by competent, trained communications (PR) practitioners, who could correctly and deftly message and manage communications, dialogue and situations. Not unexpectedly — and not altogether a bad thing — organizations saw it as a way to push out marketing efforts on new platforms, reaching potential consumers on a more direct level. So far so good. But as we continue discovering and tapping into social media potential, too often marketers are not deft at messaging or reacting to feedback or, in the worst case, problems that surface. Actually, in the very worst case, untrained marketers can unintentionally create problems that a PR professional will then need to address on behalf of the organization. That said, we are all in this giant wave of evolution in digital communications. More will still change than any of us ever imagined. For the better and for the worse. In any event, we must learn to better integrate and collaborate as marketers and PR executives. We have to worry less about turf wars and more about process and end result and capitalizing on tremendous opportunities. It will happen. It has to.

  • SchmidFernanda

    Hi Dave,
    I find it really interesting how companies can’t decide on
    which department should be responsible for social media. In general, what I see
    is that Marketing wants to use it as a media channel, PR talks about posting
    content and Customer Service understands it as a new channel to solve
    customer’s problem. And while none of them are wrong, the internal indecision
    over who should run Social Media is sometimes very evident in tweets – like
    responses to customers, saying they should reach out to another department
    through another channel (website or phone or even another Twitter handle). I
    believe Social Media should be a department in itself, with people who can
    reach out to the different areas and fully integrate Social Media with the
    activities happening in PR, Marketing or Customer Service. That way maybe we
    would see a more integrated conversation, with branded content and customer’s
    problems being solved, all in one place.
    Fernanda