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In a recent Forbes opinion piece entitled, “The Truth About Social Media,”  the author states that the first truth about social media marketing is that it is a “long game.”

The long game theory is common rhetoric in social media marketing discussion.  According to legend, if you stick with your social media marketing long enough money will start to roll in. The problem is, I don’t think that there is any evidence to support this. 

The Waiting Game

In the Forbes piece, the social media marketing “long game” is described like this:

“It takes time to build a following on Twitter or Google Plus or your blog. Time and a lot of effort…. you have to stick with it not for months but for years if you’re to realise the full benefit of social tools….”

Let’s take the example of Twitter.  You should be able to get 2000 followers pretty quickly if you want to, and then maybe you could make a good effort to add 1000 per year after that (I know more is possible, but not everyone is going to live on Twitter).  In the first year you would have 3000 followers, thirty of whom might actually read (and not skim) your tweets.  Of those thirty, twenty-nine are probably weak-tie acquaintances and one is your mom.  Unless you have a very wealthy mother with a penchant for whatever you’re peddling, you can see that 3000 Twitter followers has nowhere near the impact of 3000 actual prospects.

Because content is time-sensitive in social media, there is an inherent inefficiency to it.  To imply that social media is a long game is simply to say that it takes a longer period of time to compensate for the inefficiency of reach and the ambivalence of a weak-tie audience.  This is probably one of the reasons that email lists and AdWords have been shown to be much more effective to drive sales than social media.

Which is not to say that social media is not valuable.  Simply that the strategy and measurement for social media shouldn’t be to do work that email and AdWords could more efficiently.

Benchmarking who?

If social media is inefficient by design, then what is the “long game” strategy?  It must be bench-marked against some businesses who through tenacity and time have increased their follower count and are now seeing sales that exceed their investment in social media.

But who are these companies?  I harken back to Ragan Publishing’s “Structuring a Social Media Team” study to understand what social networks businesses are playing the “long game” with:

91% use Facebook.  Facebook has 15% reach and had 1% engagement on each post (before EdgeRank decreased brand reach – so I presume this is now lower).

88% use Twitter.  Twitter posts are time-dependent and have less than 1% engagement on each post.

73% use YouTube.  I can’t find any stats on engagement percentage, but find that most tips for increasing views include engaging on Facebook and Twitter, so assume that organic fan engagement is worse than 1%.

69% use LinkedIn.  ?????

The point is that none of the top social networks indicate that they would be more or less effective in the long term.  Extraordinary scale is probably important in every one of these cases – scale that most businesses are not going to be able to accomplish.  Even then, Facebook’s EdgeRank shows that a platform can nullify earned audience with a change in their terms of service or algorithm.

Ragan’s study also points out a lot of other issues with social media marketing, but the key takeaway should be that the vast majority of businesses don’t have it figured out.  Like so many other people they are playing the “long game” in theory but without any tangible examples of its success.

There is a reason that huge corporations don’t participate in personalized D2C social media engagement with their followers.  It would be expensive.  It’s why their social care is oftentimes augmented by auto-responders.  For a small business, the costs are presumably even more expensive (especially as a proportion of their marketing budgets).  The idea that businesses should engage in a long-term campaign of expensive D2C engagement with some opaque profit at the end is reckless…. or visionary?

The value of social media marketing should be present from the get-go and increase as audience increases.  Otherwise, how do you measure intermediary steps towards an end goal?  And how do you compare whether one strategy would be more effective than another?

What do you think?  Is social media marketing a “long game” or are social goals more accessible than this?

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Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at leaderswest.com
I aspire to give people something to think about rather than tell them what to do. My favorite Google Alert is "social media research," I am increasingly compelled by Gen Z, and I appreciate good writers agnostic of where they write. At one time I was Kred's 12th most influential social media blogger and Klout's most influential person on the topic of David Hasselhoff. Transplant from Seattle living in Cincinnati. Haven't entirely adopted the local sports teams yet.
Jim Dougherty
Jim Dougherty
Jim Dougherty

I disagree with you a bit here, Jim. I think there is actually something refreshing in calling social media the long game, because for the past 3-4 years it’s been treated like a silver bullet.

Let me give you an example. You say it doesn’t take long to get your first 1,000 followers. Well, it took me about 6 months to get my first HUNDRED followers. But I stuck with it, and I have been very fortunate to earn some clients and experience some personal success. That all took 2-3 years, however.

The differentiator is whether you have a plan. Whether you are networking with the kinds of people who ultimately will buy from you. If you’re just waiting for serendipity to kick in then you’re right 100% – it’ll never work in a million years.

Just my 2 pennies.

January 31, 2013, 8:09 AM
jimdougherty

You disagree with me? I thought us Ohioans stuck together? :)

I don’t think we disagree a whole lot. If you’re investing in anything, you would look at the interest that you were gaining and the profits you were making as an indication that your strategy was working. You’re working towards a goal. I know you are immersed in this space far more than me and probably are even more sensitive to these “if you build it they will come” promises.

My issue with the long game mythology is that social media is resource intensive, and I don’t think that many businesses understand the scale that they need to accomplish what they need to, and I think that there are many promises of end returns that an investment is social media will yield that aren’t consistently substantiated.

If this leaves us in disagreement, then so be it. Us Ohioans are resilent. ;)

January 31, 2013, 11:25 AM
Robin Thornton

I have to weight in with Marjorie here, Jim. I may be oversimplifying, but Marketing is about relationships and any strong relationship takes time to build, never mind how you choose to build it, via traditional means or social media.

January 31, 2013, 11:25 AM
jimdougherty

Et tu, Robin? :D I don’t disagree with your premise, but I haven’t seen a lot of data that substantiates that social media is ideal for that purpose for most businesses.

January 31, 2013, 12:07 PM

I’m with Margie too. Certainly its a great medium for business — allowing companies to communicate directly with their customers and prospects — but it isn’t magic. We have earn attention and that takes consistent, long-term, and hard, work.

January 31, 2013, 2:51 PM
jimdougherty

Thanks Frank. I guess I’m a little confused about the premise of the argument. I don’t think I’ve made an argument that social media is magic. In fact, I pointed out that email and search ads are more effective for repeat sales and prospective sales respectively. I get the sentiment that you’re sharing, but I want to who has accomplished this? Gary Vaynerchuk has 900K+ followers, and his example seems unlikely to be replicated. The point isn’t that social media is a silver bullet, but if businesses can accomplish what they want to more efficiently with email and AdWords – that’s where they should be. And if they have a social media strategy, there should be something measurable commensurate with the scale of the network IMHO. That said, I would love to be wrong on this point.

January 31, 2013, 4:16 PM

Hey, Jim, what I’m reacting to, and obviously did a poor job of conveying it, is Margie’s point that social has been touted for so long as this magical medium. The hard work that goes into it has been glossed over. I’d agree it’s very difficult to replicate Gary’s success at this stage in the game. And certainly, I’m not arguing that businesses should jettison paid search or email — but I think that’s a whole separate blog post! Often, these tactics work better when they work together!

January 31, 2013, 4:24 PM
jimdougherty

Well, when you put it like that I’m prone to agree with Margie! :)

January 31, 2013, 5:18 PM

I tend to agree with @MargieClayman:disqus on this. It *is* kind of a long game. If you put in the time and develop the relationships, it is extremely valuable. There are many examples of YouTubers who mention a brand and the brand posts record sales of that product, or of harnessing the power of your Twitter or Facebook friends/followers to get a response to an issue. I’m not going to link to all them here, because they’re all over teh Google.

The point is, if you put in the time (and if you’re getting 3K followers in a year, you’re spending a lot of time on Twitter or buying them), you can develop amazing relationships that bear fruit. Those engagement numbers you quote above are so low because most people and brands *don’t* put in the time. They treat it like a short game. And it DEFINITELY is not a short game.

February 1, 2013, 6:07 PM
socialmediadds

I am going to tiptoe into the fray here and sort of whisper my comment because, I am just a dentist with no marketing education and I may sound naive and silly. What I have “coached” other dentists on is that social media’s value is similar to what @google-33d814941ca4deb3986a95a67f43ca83:disqus said…it creates relationships. These relationships may not always translate into patients (or dollars) but they do translate into increased credibility and that translates into brand credibility and that translates into recognition. And while follower X may not ever need your services themself, somewhere down the road, follower X may be at a party and be talking to someone who needs the service you provide and follower X is going to remember you because you engage and you have developed a genuine relationship with them. So, at the end of the day (sorry, I hate that expression) isn’t it more about the quality of the relationships, even if you have only a small number of followers?

February 1, 2013, 6:51 PM
jimdougherty

Thanks Claudia, I don’t think you need to whisper those comments at all – I think they’re spot on. I love using social media and I know that nearly everyone in their heart of hearts does as well. I don’t mean to state an opinion on the quality of relationships and the potential for these. What I am saying is that there is a lot of data suggesting that there are more effective means to get new and repeat business than social media, so the hypothetical of a playing “long game” either implies that there is a tipping point where social channels become more effective than email or paid search, or that Facebook, Twitter and the like will increase the effectiveness of their platforms (non-advertising). I don’t think either of those is plausible. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t inherent value to social media tools, and as more of them integrate into CRM platforms the lines may be sufficiently blurred to make mine a silly argument.

February 2, 2013, 6:04 PM
jimdougherty

Thanks Amy for reading and for taking the time to comment. I appreciate your insight and I’m not sure that we disagree, except that the YouTube examples that you cite are outliers and I don’t think that’s replicatable by most businesses. I agree with you that the reach and engagement statistics can deviate some, but again what is achievable for most businesses?

I probably agree with your point that social media isn’t a short game. My argument wasn’t that it was. My argument was that the promise for a huge return for years of unyielding investment in social media is unrealistic, and that for most businesses (who on average are going to invest less than $1000 per year in social media and will make social media an additional duty for themselves or someone on staff) it’s unrealistic to implay that a larger investment in social media will pay off three years down the road. Is that consistent with your thinking?

February 2, 2013, 6:15 PM

I think we’re pretty much on the same page.

First, those YouTube examples *are* outliers, in the sense that there aren’t many of these people (though any company that wants to pay for access to them can get it).

Second, it depends on what you mean by “pay off.” If your meaning is that it’ll start bringing in tons of money. It will, however, pay off in terms of visibility and marketing and branding and customer service.

No, social media isn’t going to, except for rare examples, bring in tons of cash. It *is* however, as vital as any other form of marketing/advertising/public relations (if not more). And that’s where it’s the long game.

February 2, 2013, 8:32 PM
jimdougherty

I can live with that. :D Thanks again for your thoughtful insights, Amy!

February 2, 2013, 8:41 PM

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