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?

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.