John Ritter Facebook Marketing Fail

Does Social Marketing Reward the Wrong Behaviors?

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

When The New Yorker published that cartoon by Peter Steiner in 1993, they were commenting on the anonymity of Internet users. 20 years later, social networks have greatly eroded our anonymity, but the joke is still on us. Because while we’re all demonstrably ourselves on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, the advertisers on these networks seem convinced that we’re actually all dogs.

What’s worse is that we’re proving them right.

“LIKE this Photo if You Have a Pulse!”

Social networks were built for people, not brands. But wherever large groups of people congregate, salespeople are sure to follow. As “social media” became “social marketing,” the needs of advertisers fueled a push for measurable data, resulting in the endless drumbeat of “ROI” to help us measure which of our marketing messages are “working.”

Unfortunately, we have a problem: we reward activity instead of impact.

For example, take this recent Facebook trend:

Radio station Facebook update asking people to LIKE if they're a fan of Three's Company, a TV show from the 1980s.

Majic 95.5 is a radio station in Austin, Texas.  To stay in business, Majic 95.5 needs to get people to listen to their radio station. The more people who listen to the station, the more money the station can charge for advertising.

How does asking people if they liked Three’s Company make Majic 95.5 money?

Directly, it doesn’t.

Indirectly, you could make an argument that widespread sharing of a popular image that was originally posted by the radio station increases the station’s brand awareness… except most people don’t live in Austin, Texas. So unless Majic 95.5 is trying to raise national awareness for its digital radio feed (which would allow it to court national advertisers instead of local) getting the attention of people outside of Austin doesn’t even have an indirect impact on its bottom line.

So why post this image at all?

Because a picture of John Ritter is much easier to “like” than an infographic of Majic 95.5’s ad rates would be. And so we’ll continue to see pointless pop culture references shared by brands all across social media, not because they’re directly (or even indirectly) effective, but because they trigger activity.

Ring the Bell and Watch Us Drool

A funny, touching or incendiary image is an easy thing to “like” or share on Facebook. That action requires no thought. It’s a reflex. And when you “like” or share that image, your friends also have a chance to see it, where they might also “like” or share it, and on, and on…

And because activity creates sticky repeat usage of these social networks (so that the networks themselves can sell ads), “activity” is grossly overemphasized regardless of whether or not it’s actually good for the businesses (and advertisers) themselves.

What kinds of Facebook posts generate the most activity?

  • Simple questions, like “fill-in-the-blank” sentences
  • Inspirational quotes
  • “Caption This” pictures

Of course these kinds of posts generate the most activity.  They require the least amount of effort on the part of the audience.  So now we’re creating a social marketing ecosystem built not upon valuable customer engagement but on triggering Pavlovian reflexes in our audience (“I love John Ritter!”), which tells us nothing useful about them or in any way elevates their interest in our brand or increases actual sales.

But, by God, we can tell our CMO that we had 100,000 likes last month on Facebook.

You Can’t Eat Compliments

“Even if a tweet can’t directly cause a sale,” we tell ourselves, “at least it can trigger a retweet, a response, a follow or a click-through.”

Well, sure. But that’s a bit like saying, “I’m in the business of selling pies,” and then measuring your success at the pie festival by how many people complimented your packaging.  Yes, compliments are an indicator that you’re doing something right, but they don’t sell pies.

Unfortunately, social marketing has become a business of compliments.  We spend time and money developing content intended to trigger the only actions we can measure, rather than content that moves our potential customers further along the path toward purchase.

This isn’t [entirely] the marketers’ fault, because they’re doing the best they can to measure what’s made available by the networks. And it’s not [entirely] the networks’ fault either, because they’re doing their best to provide any data that can be measured.

The rest of the fault lies with us, for rewarding brands that provide distraction, not value.

Think about that the next time a brand wants to know if you remember a certain ’80s TV show, or if you know the name of the unboxed vintage toy in their shared photograph. And then resist that urge to “LIKE us if you know what this is!!!”

Let the Internet know you’re not a dog.

Dig this blog? Subscribe and never miss a post. (Got email? Get my newsletter, too.)

  • Dennis Hong

    Well, this is an interesting dilemma. I like this post, but now, I don’t want to “like” it.

  • Justin Kownacki

    One thing I edited out of the final version of this post was a comparison of the value proposition between likes, comments and shares on social activity among friends vs. brands. If I like a photo posted by my friend, I have no problem “liking” it. If I see a photo posted by a dog rescue organization I support, I’ll “like” that or share it just to ensure it gets seen, because I believe in the organization’s mission. These actions mean different things, and provide distinct value, within a purely social or proactive context.

    But if that same foster dog photo were shared by a brand? That’s a different story.

  • Pingback: Does Social Marketing Reward the Wrong Behaviors? / Justin … | 99Covers Blog

  • Pingback: Overcoming the Cult of Easy / Justin Kownacki

  • Dennis Hong

    Ah, I see. So, what if the image the brand shares is tied into the brand somehow? Using the radio station example, what if the image were, say, of Nikola Tesla, with a caption to the effect of, “Today would have been the 200th birthday of Nikola Tesla, the first scientist to study the transmission of radio waves. Every radio station today owes him a huge debt of gratitude.”

    Would that be different then?

    Anyway, for what it’s worth, I shared this post, because it definitely resonated with me, and I think there’s a huge difference between “liking” and “sharing” (well, as far as Facebook goes, anyway).

    Thanks for publishing it!

  • Justin Kownacki

    Would it be more relevant? Thematically, sure, though I doubt the audience would care as much. And still, neither image is likely to sell more radio ads.

    There’s the idea that Facebook is where brands go to be social, and that’s fine… except I really don’t feel like socializing with brands, especially when I know it’s all a mutual lie because they just want to sell me something.

  • Dennis Hong

    True, true. I’m always suspicious when a brand out there does anything “social,” since I end up trying to figure out what their angle is. Guess I’m not the only one who does that.

    But then… here’s some more food for thought:

    Given what I’ve read about you on your blog, “Justin Kownacki” could be considered a brand. I’m a freelance writer/blogger. So, “Dennis Hong” could also be considered a brand.

    In that case, if we want to be suuuuuper-cynical, couldn’t we say that we’re both “marketing” in a way just by interacting with each other in this kind of setting?

    I guess my point is that the line between people and brands may get kind of blurry sometimes?

    PS: I am genuinely curious about all this and just enjoy these kinds of discussions. I hope you don’t think this is my insidious way of getting that $200 Lunch without shelling out the lunch or the $200…. :-)

  • Justin Kownacki

    I see every blog as a brand entity. The moment you go from “private journal” to “public blog,” you’re a brand, whether you’re blogging fiction, self-help, marketing tips, woodworking or anything else.

    That said, one makes anyone read anyone else’s blog. I don’t wake up in the morning and have the New York Times brought to me for my satisfaction; I have to choose to read it. Same with blogs. And, same with Facebook or Twitter; at some point, I had to opt in to receive those branding messages from [Person on Twitter] or [Brand on Facebook]. But while those are all network-dependent, and the interactions there can seem incidental after the initial opt-in choice, blogs and other destination sites are even less contextually connected to the rest of my day. I have to choose to be marketed to, every time I return; one-time opt-in after one-time opt-in, over and over… (Unless I subscribe, which — for blogs and newspapers alike — converts them into willing social contracts.)

    * Just because one is selling, it does not guarantee that

  • Bob Foley

    Have you seen the Condescending Corporate Brand FB page?