“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:
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.