Social media hasn’t failed advertising, we’ve failed ourselves.

29Mar11

So the other day I read with interest the AdAge article called “Do Campaign Failures, High-Profile Firings Signal the End of Social Media?” It chronicled the downfall of Pepsi’s Refresh Project and Burger King’s many failed social media attempts, and it was the talk of digital and social media agencies everywhere.

Now let me be clear – I do not subscribe to the conclusion of the article that social media is a failed experiment when it comes to affecting sales. However I do believe that these examples are case studies in where we’ve gone wrong as an industry.

But let’s back up a bit and talk about how we got here.

Back in the days of paid media, you forked out big bucks to get the audience you wanted – be it print, TV, whatever. You were guaranteed roughly 30 million households watching your commercial every time you bought the Cosby Show. That meant the number of eyeballs were not a metric, they were a given. The metrics ad agencies were actually held to were real business results. Did the client see a sales bump from the campaign? Did product move off the shelves?

However with the rise of social media, the audience was not a given. We had to build an audience from scratch – it wasn’t as simple as writing a check. And so suddenly, metrics for ad agencies went from hard, real sales goals to things that had no direct connection to selling.

Video views, “Likes,” number of fans or total reTweets became the ends instead of the ends to a means. We, as an industry, forgot what we’re really here to do – sell shit. And clients, in their attempt to quantify their efforts to their bosses, latched onto the easiest metric everyone understood. Both sides voluntarily lowered the bar and now we’re all paying the price.

Burger King has continued to fall behind McDonalds despite industry-lauded social media efforts. Diet Coke trounced Pepsi and knocked them into third place despite tens of millions thrown at Refresh.

Social media fansboys will shout “But Refresh was to build brand affinity, not sell more Pepsi!” If you can show me a company that is loved but doesn’t sell anything – I’ll show you a failed company.

I’ll also show you a failed industry.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as we’ve seen the rise of social media, we’ve also seen the rise of client dissatisfaction and the drop in marketing campaigns that have actually affected the bottom line. When we celebrate videos for hitting a million views instead of selling a million shoes, we’ve lost our way. When the number of “Fans” we get on Facebook is more important than the number of people who actually buy our clients’ products, it’s no wonder we’re seeing results like we’re seeing.

Now it might not be as fun to create some crazy video that millions of people will “Like” just to see… and then have them never think twice about buying your product. But there’s nothing to say that social media can’t be used in the same way all other advertising should be used: to communicate a consumer benefit, convince them why they should choose you over the competition and get them to actually buy your product.

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