Social Media is Good For Consumers and Here is Why

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For the last two years, social media has been the #1 online activity for US online adults and the fastest growing too. Brands have taken notice and have begun to turn their marketing investments toward the space. But, what’s in it for the consumer? Let’s start by addressing the consumer concerns around social media marketing.

Social Spam

Naturally, consumers are not thrilled about the idea of getting unwanted brand messages clogging up their social sites. In an attempt to exploit Facebook’s primitive search algorithm, Like Farms have exploded bringing hordes of like updates into our news feeds. But, Like Farms are relatively new to the scene. Social game companies have been using techniques like forced invites, opt-out notifications, required fanning, and more to fill our news feeds with messages aimed at getting us to play. Who hasn’t blocked app updates from MMO games like Farmville from news feed fatigue?

Violation of privacy

While less pervasive than social spam, privacy is a much more sensitive issue. Whether it’s concern for one’s safety or simply the desire to control who has access to your profile data, privacy is a strong concern for consumers. Facebook has a history of sparking privacy issues as they role out features in an attempt to increase the amount of public user sharing. And this has more than a few people on edge. There are more concerns about social media marketing, but these two issues: spam and privacy; sum up the major objections pretty well. So why would anyone want brands to market to them in social media?

More Relevant

The most common argument for why social media marketing is good for consumers is that the brands can improve the relevance of their messages to consumers. The idea is that with better targeting we’ll not only see less marketing that doesn’t pertain to us, but also see more offers that we actually want. I do think there is merit to this argument, but it’s still a hard sell to consumers. In fact, some consumers are concerned that improved targeting simply makes brands better at manipulating us into buying things we don’t need. I believe the improved relevance will be something we value, but I think relevance pales in comparison to the true consumer value propositions for social media marketing: social responsibility and consumer power.

Social Responsibility

Prior to the emergence of social media, marketing was not a many to many conversation. If a brand has an email list with 100,000 subscribers, none of the subscribers are aware of each other. If a brand advertised on TV, print, or radio; there were no mechanisms to reply. Frustrated consumers could write a nasty letter or call and vent to the brand, but no one else heard about it unless you were in that person’s gossip circle. But, social media changed all of that and gave rise to every brand’s worse nightmare: the social media backlash. Facebook fans are much like subscribers to an email list: self-selected, opt-in audiences that grant the brand permission to engage with them. But, unlike email, Facebook fans can interact with each other. And, they can do that on the company fan page. Or, they can even start their own. This is a non-trivial shift in the way marketing works. No longer broadcast, social media marketing messages are part of large-scale conversations that brands do not control. That is what ultimately makes social media marketing good for consumers. And brands. The reality is that brands got lazy from leveraging broadcast methodology. Brands thought they could dole out products to consumers without regard for their customer. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, put it like this:
Before if you were making a product, the right business strategy was to put 70% of your attention, energy, and dollars into shouting about a product, and 30% into making a great product. So you could win with a mediocre product, if you were a good enough marketer. That is getting harder to do. The balance of power is shifting toward consumers and away from companies…the individual is empowered… The right way to respond to this if you are a company is to put the vast majority of your energy, attention and dollars into building a great product or service and put a smaller amount into shouting about it, marketing it. If I build a great product or service, my customers will tell each other.
Social media is changing the balance of power toward consumers.

Consumer Power

As social media tools proliferate among online users and the maturity of the users grows, consumers will learn to wield their new powers in ways that shift the balance of power that has been in the brand’s favor since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Some of those early examples include:
  • The fall of media outlets. Napster forever changed the music industry by devaluing the market value of recorded media, an event that the music industry is still trying to recover from. Craigslist gutted the newspaper industry (many of those businesses well over a century old) by killing what no one knew was their cash cow: classified ads. And the evolution of the media landscape is not over, which is why major media outlets are working so hard to fight Net Neutrality.
  • The catalyst for social responsibility. When there were only a few media conglomerates, it was easier for brands to manage negative PR from undesirable business practices. But, social media properties allow consumers to ask for brand accountability in the same venue that brand is using to promote themselves. Nestle recently battled with Greenpeace taking over their fan page because consumers were upset about environmental impacts from their farming practices. BP has felt the sting from consumers making their own fan pages expressing frustration with the company that outrank their official corporate page in a search for their name (see the image at right). Domino’s has changed their TV advertising messages to demonstrate they are listening. Consumers told them their pizzas are terrible and they hate when pizzas show up in smashed boxes. Moms can talk with each other about finding a Motrin ad offensive and have that lead to the company pulling the ad. Twitter is a force to reckon with for customer service and brands have taken notice. Comcast Cares has spawned numerous customer care accounts on Twitter that provides consumers with a more accountable, public venue to get issues resolved faster and better. The reality is, consumers are just learning how to use social media to their advantage. Look for more powerful trends to emerge over the next 5 years.
  • Group buying power. Recently, a woman in China was planning to buy a car. She asked her online network if anyone else planning to buy a car was interested in going in on a group purchase. Fifty-five people later, they all bought brand new Toyotas at a steeply discounted price. That inspired sites like Groupon, LivingSocial, and more that give groups of buyers incredible discounts of half off or more. This trend is barely more than a year old and growing rapidly. Look for ad hoc group buying sites to spring up soon.

Looking Ahead

We’re in the early days of social media, and even earlier days of marketing in social media. As the industry grows and evolves, concerns like spam and privacy will be critical issues to resolve to ensure consumer confidence. In the end, its consumers who win from social media marketing programs from reaping the benefits of increased marketing relevance, accelerated social responsibility, and a shift in the balance of power toward consumers. When enough consumers hone their organizational skills, business will hit a critical tipping point that will likely make marketing a thing of the past. If enough customers join car buying clubs, do you think it will matter what a manufacturers say on their TV ads? I sure don’t. Enter VRM and reverse marketing (or should I say “demanding”). Social media marketing puts the demand back in the law of supply and demand giving consumers the power they deserve.]]>

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