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.
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?