Monday, November 3, 2008

The brave new world of social network marketing: Part 1

The following is a reprint of the Ad Nauseam column which appeared in the November 4, 2008 edition of the Metaverse Messenger.

I have a confession.

For the past few months I’ve had a growing suspicion that much of the “new” marketing innovations employing social networks and virtual worlds just don’t work.

It started when I wrote an article back in July about the problem marketers face in Second Life due to its lack of real mass media (“Second Life circa 4 BC,” July 15, 2008). In it I noted that not only does Second Life not have any form of medium that reaches a majority, or even a large minority of residents, but that such a medium was unlikely to ever appear.

As time went by I began exploring the many claims being made for “social network marketing” through such media as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. On the surface it made sense. Certainly there are a lot more people involved than there are in Second Life, and the idea of creating a marketing buzz through a network of people is unquestionably appealing. Furthermore, there appeared to be a number of marketing success stories — a rarity for Second Life.

But then the novelty began to wear off and before long I found myself noticing some of the same problems I’d seen for virtual worlds. While a company might find it advantageous to set up a presence on Facebook in which contacts can be kept informed about the latest products and improvements, it really amounts to little more than a sim capable of handling a larger number of people: if you don’t belong to the group, you’ll never hear from them, and if you do belong, it’s because you’re already a fan.

Of course the idea is to create “brand evangelists,” customers who feel so included in the existence of a brand that they proselytize it with an evangelical zeal. This way, while your brand may only have 500 “friends,” those “friends” are going to tell their “friends” and so on and so on.

Nice idea, but the more I looked at the “success stories” the more my suspicions grew. Take this case of MySpace marketing held up by Dave Balter of IMedia Connection back in the summer of 2006.

“Recently,” he says, “in a campaign for the blockbuster film Superman Returns, MySpace was hired to create a Superman Returns profile, and then engaged users to share with friends through simple activities like adding the Man of Steel as a buddy or posting a comment on their new Superfriend's page. The cornerstone of this promotion was to find people with vast networks who could spread this message to more people, faster and more effectively.”

And how well did it work? It’s true that Superman Returns debuted to the number one spot on the Fourth of July weekend, but considering that it was a revival of a previously successful movie franchise, I suspect it would have done at least that well even if advertising had been restricted to posters plastered on telephone poles in all the major cities. The fact is, Superman Returns earned a disappointing $84 million during its first five days (the traditional time period for measuring a “weekend”), and only $250 million for its entire run. As openings go, especially openings for the Fourth of July weekend, it really wasn’t anything to write home about. Three years earlier the much-maligned X2: Xmen United beat it by a million, and only a year before War of the Worlds brought in $100 million over the same period.

For its overall run, Superman Returns comes in about even with Night at the Museum. This is not good company to keep. But the real question is this: did having a few hundred “friends” on MySpace increase the bottom line by so much as a fraction of a percent?

Somehow I doubt it.

Yet that’s one of the big success stories. The rest look like testimonials for the classifieds of a neighborhood newsletter.

Consider the examples offered by Social Media Optimization in an article boosting the advantages of social marketing. Having already featured a bicycle shop in Texas that was using MySpace to reach potential customers, they wrote about an ice cream company, Cold Stone Creamery, which created a kind of ad for YouTube in order to publicize a new flavor. In the video two ice cream flavors are joined in wedded bliss. A special profile was created for them on MySpace. “I think the power of YouTube and MySpace and the connection it’s made with young people is important for not only Cold Stone, but for every company to investigate,” said Kevin Donnellan, senior director of advertising and public relations for the company.

And then there’s the example offered by Stephan Spencer, who bills himself as a “scientist turned web marketing virtuoso.” On his website, Stephan Spencer’s Scatterings, he waxes poetic about Weird Al Yankovic’s use of MySpace to revive his flagging career. Over a few months the has-been singer had already gained 219,033 friends!

So tell me. Do you have Weird Al’s latest records? Didn’t think so.

After a while it became obvious that the success stories all view increasing numbers of “friends” as the sole criterion of “success,” while quietly ignoring the issue of whether they’ve actually had any increase in sales. Those who legitimately seem to have experienced measurable gains tend to be independent musicians, for whom any exposure is better than none, and small to middle-sized businesses which use the social networks to keep in touch with already-existing customers.

This is the brave new world of social networking?

* * *

Next week — social marketing continued in “Hell hath no fury.”


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