In an attempt to deliver more tangible returns from their social media investments, brands are falling back on tried and tested methods of 'pushing the needle', most often using the familiar tools of advertising.

This partly stems from the misuse of 'proxy' measures in determining social ROI, such as followers, likes, shares and fans.  None of these deliver value and are easily abused - with many marketers seeing them as just another contact list.

However, advertising and social media are like oil and water and should never be mixed, here's three reasons why.

The struggle for power which brands are destined to lose

Advertising grew up in an era of the 'captive audience', where large numbers of people were repeatedly targeted with a killer sales message until they succumbed and bought a product.  

But media in the 2010s is increasingly atomised, consumed on-demand and discussed within peer groups.  No longer do we consume together or willingly submit to the Mad Men's interference. 

Brands respond by trying to corral, contain and control audiences, often using their social media pages as a contemporary media ecosystem.  But who are they kidding?  

According to a study by Napkin Labs just 6% of fans engage with a brand's Facebook Page via likes, comments and polls, while thanks to Facebook's EdgeRank algorithm, only a fraction of those will actually see a post on their news feed during a given day. 

The vast majority of engagement will stem from super-advocates who deliver significantly higher levels of engagement (retweets, re-posts and comments) than the brand itself, which begs the question: why drive more people to a page, if you're not interacting with them?

Consumer marketing used to be defined by the targeting of large groups of people through mass media.  Success in future will be driven by the brands who embrace the empowered customer and understand 'social' as a network (with its own intrinsic influencers) rather than merely a medium in which to target. 

Relevancy and purpose versus yield

In the next three to five years advertising will become predominantly a sales tool, used to steer already-informed prospects towards a final transaction. 

Advertising works best within a context where customers perceive it to be useful, which is one reason why Google's advertising yield is ten times that of Facebook (customers who are searching are more likely to welcome a promoted solution). 

Social will evolve to encompass the mainstay of consumer marketing: brand building, influencer outreach and relationship management, but rather than be measured by yield, the goal of social media marketing (or just consumer marketing as it will eventually return to be called) is to build positive experiences with a brand's target audience.

These experiences will form the foundation of a brand's influence over its audience and enable it to wield a superior competitive advantage in its sector.

In this ecosystem the value of a brand will be measured by its relevance, its contribution to people's lives and its utility in their relationships.

A real world example of this is Nike+, which has empowered its fan base through products such as FuelBand, morphing from a footwear and apparel business into a digital gaming brand bringing runners together into a motivational self-support network.  

In the automotive sector, Volkswagen is perhaps the most consistent in providing good engaging content that triggers conversation and debate with their audience.  

Together with Chrysler, their Super Bowl videos are among the most shared of any branded content, inspiring parodies and witty responses from the media and even other brands.

The clue is in the title - 'Social'

When we accept that a strong brand is the result of an engaged audience, this opens up a whole new world of opportunities for the neuromarketer - those who understand the cognitive relationships built between people and the ways in which brands can contribute.

The fine line, which brands must carefully tread, is to participate and empower their customers while maintaining respect for their wishes.  Like a BFF who makes an unwelcome advance, the moment that line is crossed, trust is broken - yet another example of the difference with social where the quality of experience outweighs the short-term result.

GoPro MontageThere's plenty of evidence about the science of sharing, recognising the virtue of stimulating people's interest through strong positive emotions.  

In response, brands will become content providers, blurring the line with traditional media, providing marketing products (both their own and from third parties) which deliver a more compelling brand experience than their competitors.

GoPro, makers of those tiny HD cameras, has turned its customers into an evangelical sales force - showcasing their videos in a series of 'Videos of the week'. 

It's a masterclass in brand building - real people, doing amazing things with GoPro cameras and showing how 'great' the brand is. 

The first rule of brand promotion in a social environment is to make heroes of your customers.  There's no better example of why advertising, in many respects, is becoming 'so' last decade..

Advertisers talk about 'making memories' and 'brand recall' - their goal being to profoundly affect people - note 'affect' meaning impact or causing change. 

But in social media, the strongest cognitive response comes from 'relating' to people, being part of their lives and connected with them through their peer groups.

Sure, you don't sell product off the back of such a relationship, at least not directly, but this is how a brand (and its inherent appeal) is formed in the 2010s, without attempting to 'fleece' those very same customers just because you've got them in your sights. 

Christine Looser, a researcher at Harvard Business School, has been trying to determine whether we’re more likely to retain and remember information if it's paired with the picture of a human face. 

There are parallels with the theory of peer persuasion - which posits that we're more likely to share something posted by our peers - and also the experiences of customer call centres, where we've learned that people respond better to contact with real people.

It's a new world order that's evolving each and every day.  Some brands already get it, while others try (and fail) to apply old-school advertising and PR to an audience who no longer trust, or particularly want the brands they use each day.

In summary

Advertising faces its own nascent struggle, as newer data-driven offerings displace the traditional siloed agency model. Rather than messing around with social platforms, the industry needs to concentrate on the challenges of viewability, value-based pricing and devising a workable solution for mobile devices.

In a recent interview with Harvard Business Review, WPP's Martin Sorrell spoke about Twitter and Facebook being a 'PR medium' and not really an advertising one.

He went on to say that 90% of car purchases in the U.S. are search-influenced, citing a number one rank on Google as being more important than a Facebook like. He didn't deny the potency of Facebook or Twitter in the long-term building of a brand, but ads are about yield whereas social is about people.

It's about recognising the virtue of each environment and playing to their strengths.  Social Media is a private space, receptive only to those with something to offer, but it can be united with other mediums - TV, gaming and even print media.

Marketing will always target the places where people are, but the art of consumer marketing is matching the right solution to people's needs at the right place and the right time. None of that changes with digital or social media, but as the opportunities increase, so do the chances of making horrendous errors.

Steve Davies

Published 1 March, 2013 by Steve Davies

Steve Davies is a media, venture, and technology advisor and former Partner at KPMG Consulting, as well as being a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (18)

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Thanks, Steve. What the article says is true, but then there are many business enterprises that regularly spend time on Social media, and are hugely successful, today.

over 5 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

@Nina - there are two problems; one of trust and the other of motivation - trust in a social environment must be earned and requires that a brand stay true to the values and interests of its community.

Advertising, as opposed to the wider skill set of promotion, is about getting people to buy a product or service - which is in direct conflict to the rules of engagement within social communities.

While many of us might have friends involved in pyramid selling, you'd soon kick them out of your house if they paid you a visit and started selling the latest moisturising fad. Instead a venue is agreed, people are invited along and everyone knows the deal.

The problem with many brands is they approach social media as a captive audience, with pressure applied by senior management to 'get value' from that audience. That's simply not how we humans work - the moment we smell a snake-oil-salesman, the barriers go up and open minds become closed. Trust and loyalty, which is expensive to earn, can be flushed away in a heartbeat.

Of course there's nothing wrong with promoting a social media activity, but you've got to work twice as hard in ensuring your audience sees it as being to their benefit.

For social media marketing to mature as a service, practitioners need to free themselves from the tangible safety net of likes, shares and followers – this merely encourages a harvesting mentality – instead the measures and focus should be entirely engagement and value-added based. Don’t waste time bragging about the size of your Facebook followers, focus on how you’ve empowered them to achieve great things with the support of your brand.

over 5 years ago

Andrew Keyes

Andrew Keyes, Director, Marketing at Armantus Inc.

Steve, you say there is "pressure applied by senior management to 'get value' from that audience." In my experience senior management has not been asking for "value from that audience", but rather for "value for that spending on social media". It has been the junior marketing people that have been pushing the idea that social media changes everything, and that they must build likes and followers. Management simply wants to see results in the form of increased sales. In fact, in my experience, upper management has been scratching their heads and wondering precisely what value there is in a "Like" or a "Follow".

I am squarely in the camp that sees social media as an extension of traditional PR. In other words, the only thing that has really changed is the means with which corporate PR messages are distributed, and the way crisis is managed. The principles are the same once you peel away the technology and slow down the pace.

over 5 years ago


Liza Smith

Hello Steve, the points you have mentioned in the article is true. But Social media can popular a brand or a product very easily without spending a penny. In a way I think social media is also doing a kind of a advertising.

over 5 years ago

Tim Aldiss

Tim Aldiss, Consultant/Director at ThinkSearch

Brands spending time in social media isn't the point. the point is that in this unregulated space (same as SEO has been) anyone can sell anyone anything and there's been a lot of snake oil being sold. While no one understands the difference between a metric and a Key Performnace Indictaor it will continue.

Great article. Couldn't agree more.

over 5 years ago


Natalie Taylor

You're bang on the money Steve! The Facebook mobile app particularly is going really overboard with ads now and it will drive users away. Engagement and endorsement when it ads value and is done in a timely fashion is fine, but constant pushing several times a day will result in users switching off completely. There is a fine and delicate balance to be struck.

over 5 years ago


Chris Wood

I'm with @andrewkeyes. Social is a great extension of PR and WOM. Anyway, Steve, I think you misunderstand the way advertising works on the psychological level. There have been many studies into how adverttising works. You're right, if the role for advetising in the customers buying process is to be a 'cause and effect' direct sell, then mixing it with social may not be right (take retail ads for example - very product/price/promo oriented). However, if the role is to affect attitudes, or address misconceptions, then advertising and PR have been successfully working together to achieve this goal for years - so why shouldn't advertising and social. Instead of telling us why they CAN'T work together - why not look at how they CAN work together

over 5 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

@Andrew, while I completely understand why you would consider social media as merely an extension (or re-platforming) of PR, I believe that is part of the bigger problem - namely seeing the social media audience as a volume of prospects to plunder or address.

It goes back to the fundamental expectation of that audience and whether they are likely to be receptive to a marketer's approach. Just because you can see (or segment) them, doesn't mean you can target them.

I would draw the closest parallel (old school vs new school) between social media marketing and customer relationship management (CRM) - they're both focused on managing a brand's reputation, building trust and de-risking income and therefore one of the first KPIs I would expect to see my teams focus on is retention.

over 5 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

@ChrisWood, perhaps the best way of combining advertising and social is when seeding and promoting viral content. Much of it depends on the content and the tone of voice used in promoting it.

During the last few years I've been publishing reviews of the Super Bowl video ads (pre and post game) to share insights into why certain brands repeatedly win. Without exception, the most virulent ads are those which focus from the outside-in (with a narrative that connects with the audience, and uses the brand as the glue).

In the same way that oil and water don't mix, they can be used together provided the right binding agent is used (in cooking). The reason why (good) content can act as a binding agent between the two is because it adds value to the audience (sharing it earns them kudos with their peers, or just makes them feel good because they enjoyed it).

You'll often find the same thing if you track the response to posts shared on Facebook, the highest levels of engagement follow the richest (most shareable) content - usually images.

So, in order for advertising to work within a social environment you'll need two ingredients - first some existing credibility for sharing useful content and to ensure the tone of voice used during a promotion matches the value offered by the content being shared. (i.e. don't say something is amazing, if in fact it's merely interesting).

It doesn’t have to be difficult, but there are boundaries and you do have to lay a foundation before you can truly gain benefit from your social audience.

over 5 years ago



Really nice article. I think social media is being overemphasised for promotional and advertising purposes. People are overloaded with too many requests for likes or shares and ultimately it will cause boredom.

I am, for myself, now fed up with seeing what my friends liked. Or being exposed to promoted posts all the time and it makes me hate the brand eventually.

over 5 years ago

Mike Wheadon

Mike Wheadon, Digital Sales Trainer at Trinity Mirror Plc

Great article Steve, what is clear is that advertising has to evolve, regardless of environment. Seth Godin had it nailed in his book about Permission Marketing. My time is valuable and I want to be rewarded for giving it to marketeers who are interested in talking to me. Red Bull give me uplifting content that demonstrates the nature of the human condition in return for my brand recognition. Advertising (and marketeers) will generally have to work a lot harder in the future to provide value to the audience in return for their attention.

over 5 years ago


Robin Bresnark

Absolutely spot on, Steve. The old ways of advertising most certainly don't work in a social context. But, as I'm sure you'll agree, it's naive to think that we're arrived at the end point for social.

Brands' presence on the internet amounted to little more than online brochures in the mid-'90s, then ecommerce came along, people saw that the internet wasn't merely a marketing platform but potentially a full retail *channel* and everything changed. Radically. Forever. Just ask HMV, who were far too late to learn the lessons.

Well, social in 2013 is exactly like the internet in 1995. There's no reason whatsoever why it shouldn't become a transformative retail channel but, just as early ecommerce attempts attempted to apply old paradigms to a new channel (remember those supermaket sites which attempted to ape physical aisles?), it won't work simply *selling* in social.

What you need to do is make the selling social in and of itself. There's nothing remotely alienating about giving your customers more choice, better value, earned rewards, more interaction with the brand, etc - and that's what true social commerce entails. Simply sticking up an ad and a link to your webste? Yeah, that won't work. Never in a month of Sundays.

over 5 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

@MikeWheadon - totally agree, it's all about Quid pro quo. The trouble is some marketers continue to believe that the individual customer is naive and easily manipulated.

The sad truth is that often they are, so what's a marketer to do?

Focus on sustainable management practices? Or hit their next target and reap the rewards in their annual bonus?

Like any risk we take in life you've got to weigh up the options. I would argue that a successful business should treat its employees and customers with respect and avoid exploiting them just because they can.

If you look at it purely from a selfish perspective, social networking provides the opportunity for marketers to hand-off much of the promotional (and brand building) work to their customers, saving money, amplifying their actions and building barriers to their competitors. What's not to like? But in order to succeed in social, your actions need to follow your words even more closely than in other mediums.

over 5 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

@RobinBresnark - if you've been around as long as I have you’ve probably realised that there's no such thing as 'new'. Innovation is merely the assembling and constructing of familiar elements in a different context. Sometimes we don’t realise this at the time, but everything eventually fits one of several known patterns.

Social networking isn't new. We've been doing it for thousands of years. But now we have the technology to do so at scale.

Social will eventually be absorbed back into CRM and PR, in the same way as 'digital marketing' will just be 'marketing' and 'online' will eventually just be part of 'media'.

The trick is to rise above the jargon and recognise the root behaviours. Social media is as much a sociological trend as a technology one (probably more so), but the levers of positive/negative response in a social environment are far more sensitive than other mediums.

over 5 years ago


Paul Allen

Great article. I think users inadvertently 'advertise' their favourite brands, products etc. in the social environment quite naturally just by chatting about them (as you might over a beer with your friends), which is where the real power lies for me.

Liking it to this environment, I wouldn't personally like it if my social space (a bar in this instance!) started shoving ads all over the place. Of course a bit of ambient marketing is expected in such an environment, but could pop ups and banner heavy pages be considered an ambient equivalent, I'm not sure.

over 5 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

Spot on @PaulAllen - the best way of thinking about any customer behaviour is to start off 'conceptually' small, before scaling up.

So, think of social as being like a group of friends chatting in a bar - would you walk up to a bunch of people you didn't know and start saying "look at my stuff, isn't it cool?" No, you'd probably approach them, talk about last night’s football match, share a few laughs and then say "by the way, if you guys are ever in the need of a used car, I've got some great offers on at the moment".

When people say something is 'difficult', that usually means they've yet to simplify it down to its essential elements.

I actually see ad-laden pages in social media as being counterproductive to the aim of engagement. They're noise, which encourages people to zone out, which in turn means brands need to shout louder to get their attention. All of this pushes brands further away from being 'part' of the social conversation.

over 5 years ago


Yiannis Gedeon

I really love when I find articles like these going against the trend especially this period of time where I open my twitter feed and I know what the articles people share are talking about before even clicking to the link as everyone just write the same things over and over again.

GoPro is a great example of they made this happen but if you were into skydiving (as I am) you would know that they started by sending their stuff free to professional and VERY popular wingsuite and skydivers where loads of people were following everyday. As a result they had 100,000 likes (random numbers for the shake of the example) but from those 100,000 how many are actually into extreme sports? 4-5% which justifies the number of conversion/likes you mention above. So what happens with the rest 95%? They simply act as viral marketers of the brand, sharing the content they like. For example I will share a very cool quality photo of surfing if I like it even if I do not surf myself. Most importantly I do not even realise it is advertising at that time! Just a photo I can enrich my Instagram/Pinterest tab with "things I love". That action itself has a great brand and marketing value. And before someone thinks I am wrong think of Porsche. 99% of the people who are ambassadors and fans cant buy one. Why is Porsche bothering with them? Because surely they dont mind these people hanging around in car forums defending the brand VS competition even if they cant afford one. I am sure you can see my point!

over 5 years ago

Steve Davies

Steve Davies, CEO at Fitch Media

@YiannisGedeon - I wasn't aware of GoPro's freebie approach to user engagement in the beginning, that's very smart. I remember around that time we were using Sanyo Xacti cameras to perform the same function as GoPros, but I paid £300 for each unit, which regularly got smashed or damaged (since we were strapping them onto the 'outside' of race cars).

We approached Sanyo several times to talk about a content partnership (our videos were gaining more than a hundred thousand views each), but nobody was interested - in fact they were thinking of discontinuing the cameras.

You're quite right about Porsche. We ran a brand immersion event for Porsche back in '09 and together prepared a segmented list of 120 invitees - more than half of which 'had to' be people who couldn't yet own one of their cars. They recognised that the highest levels of engagement came from those who 'aspired' to drive a Porsche, not those who were already at that stage in life.

There are plenty more great examples of brands who've recognised that good content + good experience equals opportunity to promote (advertise) in a social environment.

over 5 years ago

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