• Social media is losing its commercial value

    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    The strongest marketing imperative of the past few years has been that businesses ABSOLUTELY MUST HAVE a social media presence and strategy if they had any expectation at all of being able to compete effectively.

    Enterprises that overlook making “social media engagement” a regular part of their business processes are hopelessly out of touch with modern consumers, and by implication, probably are not the best at whatever their core business is. In other words, according to the Social Media Gospel, Mary the Dressmaker likely can’t sew a hem straight because she can’t be bothered to update the Facebook page and Twitter feed for her business. Caveat emptor.

    It seems, however, that the Marys of the world are making a conscious decision not to attenuate the limited hours in a day by pursuing a form of marketing engagement with rapidly diminishing returns, and instead are reinvesting the time into sewing laser-straight hems and adding a few pretty sequins. The value of social media as a means to reach an audience, particularly an audience willing to buy one’s goods or services, is still a long way from zero, but it is definitely headed in that direction, and businesses that are not already rethinking their “social media strategies” would be well-advised to start doing so.

    Of course, the proponents of social media as The Best Thing Ever, of which there are quite a few here in the Philippines, would stridently disagree with the notion that the usefulness of platforms like Facebook and Twitter is perceptibly waning. Simple logic and mathematical reality, however, are arguments that are impossible to refute.

    The biggest problem is one of sheer volume. According to Facebook’s own research (the various figures cited here have been widely published by a number of tech news sites and blogs and repeated in the mainstream media), the number of pages “liked” by an average user has increased by about 50 percent over the past year. That means unless the average user also increases his time spent on a Facebook by a similar amount—which he doesn’t; Facebook use as a percentage of all time spent on the internet is increasing, but at a much lower rate, about 2 percent per year—the maximum amount of attention the user can give to any one page representing a business, brand, product, or something else of interest to the user automatically decreases, perhaps by as much as 33 percent.

    This inevitably defeats one of Facebook’s “tools” for page owners, the option to “boost” page posts (for a fee, of course) to have them appear more frequently in subscribed users’ news feeds than organic circulation (i.e., ‘appears as posted’) or Facebook’s complex post-sorting algorithm allows. It has, in fact, gotten Facebook into some hot water with page owners, because the pay-for-exposure scheme cannot completely overcome the automatic erosion of a page’s reach; in effect, Facebook has been encouraging page owners to purchase a service with a diminishing value without telling its customers that is what it really is. Facebook has tried to adjust to some extent, but still takes the position that it is the page owners/advertisers who should tailor their content to the platform more effectively, or in other words, produce content better-optimized for Facebook’s algorithm—an algorithm which is proprietary, and is so complicated that it cannot be described or even understood in anything other than the most basic terms.

    To Facebook’s credit, the algorithm that determines what and in what order users see posts from friends or other pages is a sincere attempt—the effectiveness of it notwithstanding—to give users relevant content based on what the viewers’ usage patterns suggest their interests are. But the bigger reason for it is simple practicality: With something like 1.3 billion active monthly users, the sheer volume of data Facebook has to handle is enormous; the entire system would quickly collapse if some sort of limiting mechanism was not imposed.

    That is essentially the problem facing the other ‘vital’ social media platform, Twitter. Every Twitter user receives an unfiltered feed of every post made by everyone the user follows; while that is part of Twitter’s differentiation from other social media networks, it very quickly creates a great deal of “noise.” According to one statistical analysis done about two years ago, the “lifespan” of a Tweet is around 18 minutes; after that point, few if any Twitter users share the item by “retweeting” it, meaning it is probably not getting any more attention at all. And although the effect is yet to be quantified on a large scale, companies tracking their own social media traffic have found that website content is shared much less frequently on Twitter than on Facebook, and that incoming traffic originating from Twitter is also much less than from other sources. For some anecdotal evidence of this, if you’re reading it online, look at the numbers accompanying the social media “buttons” at the top of the articles in this very newspaper; Facebook activity typically outweighs Twitter activity by 10 or 15 to 1, even though in terms of overall users of the two social media platforms, the ratio is closer to 5 to 1.

    All of this does not necessarily mean businesses should completely drop Facebook, Twitter, or other social media platforms—yet—but that making social media a centerpiece of customer engagement efforts and banking on it to contribute significantly to the growth of one’s market is at best too optimistic. Social media is still part of the marketing toolbox, but one that is steadily becoming less relevant, and one that in any case should not be considered an end in itself, but merely just one more way to draw clients to one’s own online or offline place of business.



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