The Death Of Social Media Marketing

Social media is a popular subject in marketing, and has been for a while now. As we see usage of Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and similar sites rise, people can’t help but see opportunities for advertising and marketing in general.

In many ways it would seem to be ideal. We’re trying to build relationships, after all, and these sytems embrace relationships – actually they depend on them. They are measurable in many ways, viral, or potentially so, and are cheap.

The problem is that their success is their downfall. As they become more popular their use is increasing limited in business environments.

As the economy crumbled and people feared for their jobs social networking has become more popular to build an insurance policy against a layoff. Folks who have ignored networking for years are suddenly getting interested. Of course in tough times companies work harder to eliminate waste, and activities like social networking are often viewed as waste. It’s silly, as networking can be very powerful, but we’re dealing with perception here, not reality. Apparently when a company networks it’s powerful, when an employee networks it’s waste.

The ironic part is that the same companies that are banning these sites are probably starting social media campaigns. They hope to woo customer personnel to join their networks, read their tweets, and generally be good pals, all to the benefit of the bottom line while at the same time they’re denying their own employees the ability to do the very thing they ask of others.

How long do you think this will last?

Social Media Has 18 Months…

I predict that within 18 months the use of social media on company networks will be banned by most of American business, and the participation by business people during working hours (and thus the 80-90% of the marketing value of social media) will collapse.

When this happens, it will change. It will become far less focused on companies, and lot more focused on individuals. As people lose the ability to administer their networks on company time or with company resources, they will also lose the urge to use their networks to company benefit. If you’re busily trying to keep your Linkedin page up to date at 10pm, are you going to worry first about how you’re representing your company, or yourself? When you’re sitting at your desk you’re far more likely to keep the company’s interests in mind.

Similarly, when your participation in these sites comes purely at your own expense, are you going to follow your vendor’s or customer’s pages, or stick to family & friends?

I hope I’m wrong.

An interesting Linkedin question

An ex-colleague of mine asked an interesting question today:

What are your observations regarding AEM member companies’ 1) attitude toward social media 2) adoption rate of social media 3) ‘wiifm’ based interest in social media?

This was interesting to me because when I listen to Total Picture Radio, or read many blogs, it’s easy to get the idea that only a few gnomes living under rocks have yet to get onto Linkedin. Everyone else has been indoctrinated that social media is a Must Do, therefore the adoption rate is exponential, and of course ‘What’s in it for me?” is a punch-line.

The people on TPR and on most blogs are enlightened, web-savvy folks who’ve been using social media since its birth. It’s second nature, and we’ve all been using this stuff for so long it’s easy to brand the folks who haven’t as backward.

The problem is that the ratio of us to ‘normal’ people is still 1:50,000 or so if you consider the whole population. Normal people look at us as, well, hobbyists. Over enthusiastic technophiles. Maybe even cult members – which is easy to understand when you listen to the most vocal zealots for social media. Normal folks don’t quite get social media yet. They hear about a lot of not-quite-tangible benefits, but hard evidence that being on social media is a must is not easy to come by. I even know a Gen Y’er who didn’t really know what Linkedin was, even though Facebook was old territory.

It is easy to see how social media carries risks. We are drowning in stories of teenagers posting stupid things and getting in trouble so bizarre our legal system doesn’t quite know how to handle it. It’s easy to see this stuff as scary. With no clear upside, it’s easy to see the people who are deep into it as a bit reckless.

So, while the questions asked above might seem a little silly, I don’t think they are. Most of the working world still doesn’t see social media as a Must Do, and that’s a fact that all of us enlightened web savvy folks need to keep in mind. For every dot-com startup or tech company there are hundreds of small manufacturing and service companies. Internet use is widely restricted, and many social media sites are blocked.

In answering the questions I will first state that AEM (my employer) has nothing to do with my replies, although they have a social media effort underway. I will also restate (as I do in the ‘About’ page) that these are my views, not my employer’s.

The attitude about Linkedin seems to have shifted from ‘What’s Linkedin?’ to ‘Yeah, I heard about that. You aren’t actually on that, are you?’ to ‘Yeah, I probably need to get on that one of these days.’ Maybe it’s more accepted lately. In the current economy, everyone will flock to anything that might give them an edge in the job market.

I see the adoption rate as generally inversely proportional to age and level within the company. Older folks higher on the ladder arguably have less need for social media, and they certainly have more to lose. They do have a lot to gain, but most of them didn’t get where they are by being stupid, and social media isn’t yet something all smart people do.

Overall though, the adoption rate is higher now than it was before. I see people joining Linkedin now who never would have a year ago, and many seem to be paying attention and doing it with their eyes open. I see less dead accounts than I used to, but part of that is less usage of Linkedin on my part (I don’t do as much research as I used to) and that I shrank my network a while back.

The ‘What’s in it for me?’ attitude is there, but it’s there in smaller quantities than you might expect. Unless you are a spammer it takes a lot of work to be a visible pain on the internet, and it takes a lot of effort to get a network large enough to really cause annoyance. Most WIIFM people aren’t so industrious, and even so once they make it clear they’re in it only for themselves, they’ll see their network shrink faster than it grew. The good news is that for anyone who wants to make an extra buck or two coaching people, these folks will be easy customers who probably won’t require much after-sale support.

In my experience, the benefits from blogging and social media have been totally unexpected and unpredictable. Along with persistent effort, social media and networking take a lot of faith. The lazier folks just don’t stick with it.

This also makes social media in general a hard sell for some people. They want to know what they’re going to get out of it – that’s only logical, right? The idea of putting personal info on the web seems crazy, and therefore the payoff must be immediate and huge. When they hear that it isn’t, they balk. It’s not hard to see it from their point of view, but it can be hard to get them past that.

Did I answer the questions?

Firewall Jail

The other day I tried to click on a tinyurl.com link while at work. I was surprised to see a site-blocked message from our SonicWALL firewall. Why block tinyurl? All it does is let you take a very lengthy URL (which are increasingly common for a lot of reasons) and convert it into a very short one. This is very useful for putting URL’s in email because some email readers break URL’s in half if they are longer than one line. This of course renders the URL useless, unless you take the time to paste it back together.

I did a short search, and it turns out that tinyurl is one of the sites that firewall companies have decided we don’t need to see. Actually, they classify it as a proxy bypass tool, but the net result is that they’ve decided tinyURL is guilty until proven innocent. Like the extra ounce of shampoo in the TSA security line, because it could be dangerous, it is dangerous.

This is fascinating to me because it creates a huge gap.

You see, tinyURL is blocked by default. You can unblock it, but the interesting part is that must be done by IT. IT, who has just about everything else to do but answer requests like this, and has a built-in defense against spending any time on it: It’s a default setting on the firewall, and we trust their judgement.

The employee probably isn’t motivated to get it unblocked, because going to some IT departments with a request like this is a great way to ask for trouble, even if you’ve got some ironclad business reason for needing it unblocked. Never mind that the tinyurl you can’t read may be pointing to a relevant article on a blog; It ain’t the Wall Street Journal or a company memo.

That leaves tinyurl.com. Or Facebook. Or Linkedin or a ton of other quasi-business sites to find a way to get firewall companies to not block them by default. They end up blocked in the first place at least partly because the firewall users block them, or some of them do.

From SonicWALL’s site:

SonicWALL CFS categorizes millions of URLs, IP addresses and domains in a continuously updated, dynamically rated database. CFS rates over four million URLs, with hundreds more added daily. Because the ratings are determined both by artificial intelligence and human observation, the database is highly accurate, and the instance of false positives is minimized.

I think it’s safe to say that part of the process is measuring how much time people spend on sites, so, ironically, the usage a site promotes might just be what gets it blocked.

Consider Linkedin and Facebook. Facebook is blocked, but Linkedin isn’t. I think that’s because Facebook came from the non-business end of the social networking space, but Linkedin came from the business end. Facebook can be a sinkhole for time. Between the applications, the photos, the groups and discussions one could really spend all day there and some probably do. Linkedin was the stoic busienss site. There wasn’t much to do except invite people, process requests, or tweak a rather limited profile. Linkedin has since tried very hard to become a lot more like Facebook. My prediction is that very soon Linkedin will cross the threshold, and will become a site that chews up so much time that companies block it.

The firewall blocks a site because a segment of it’s customers decide to, and by automation. The customer company probably has no way to check the list of blocked URLs in any reasonable way – it’s got to be in the millions – so probably has very little understanding of what they’re missing, so to speak. The user has the ability to lobby with their local IT group to get a site whitelisted if they choose, but that still leaves the site blocked elsewhere the firewall is used.

Here’s the gap: Suppose a site that started out blocked turns out to have a lot of value – does it’s rating ever decline? Automatically? Hard to say. SonicWALL doesn’t mention that, and I’m guessing that there’s only one way it ever happens, and that’s by people asking them to re-rate sites.

YOU can ask for SonicWALL to re-rate a site here.