Do Social Media Conversation, Engagement & Sales Suck?
Some self-proclaimed social media experts try to get noticed by questioning the obvious!
They declare all the social media best practices we take for granted to be nonsense or choose to ignore them.
Do social media really suck when it comes to
Spoiler alert: No, they don’t. Don’t believe me? Read the whole post then! Also visit the sources I cite. I don’t make things up.
Social Science vs Social Media Science
I haven’t finished college but while attending it I was partly a so called social anthropologist. These social scientists are dealing with small groups of people and their behavior.
Unlike statisticians who mostly count people and their traits we didn’t practice sociology. Instead we were dealing with the people directly.
We performed interviews and were mingling with the people we studied. It was the perfect preparation for social media in a way.
Many people on the Web seemingly mistake statisticians for scientists.
You get statistics shoved in your mouth all the time and they are meant to prove or disprove something.
One statistic from 2012 says that only 1% of online purchases “are influenced by social media”.
I have no idea how they measured that but I have seen other statistics over the years that proved the exact opposite. A 2021 study from the US says that 78,6% of purchases are influenced by social media.
Another study from 2015 is roughly in the middle of those two saying that it’s around 32%.
Which one is right then? Does it even matter?
Are You Solely Relying on Statistics?
Statistics are not scientific. They in most cases just prove a thesis by those who created them. Also in social science there is no objectivity.
The scientists themselves influence the statistics with their bias by asking the wrong questions, the wrong people or looking at the wrong metrics. Even Web analytics are not really trustworthy.
That’s why you need to have at least two of three tools running to compare the numbers. Therefore a statistic is no more than a hint.
Just imagine a scientist who would have taken a statistical approach to prove the importance of social media or rather the lack of it in 2000.
The study results would be clear: there is no social media and 100% of people don’t need it. Unless of course they would have counted mailing lists, web rings and forums as social media.
You see statistics can only show you part of the picture. They never show you the “why”. The end result of a long chain of events is often used as proof though despite this.
For example you could assume – like many racists do – that African Americans are natural born born criminals! Just take a look at the prison inmate statistics in the US.
There is a significantly higher percentage of people of color, especially “black” people aka African Americans among inmates.
Confusing the Results with Reasons
In case you don’t ask “why” you can just victimize people of color once again by stating that obviously it must be the color of their skin. Never mind slavery etc.
One day a self-styled “social media scientist” who went on to work for one of the most prominent marketing startups said that social media conversation and engagement suck.
According to him they are just clichés and any serious business person has only to “measure Dollars and Cents”.
It’s true, social media conversation and engagement are not the only key metrics to find out how your campaigns perform.
They only show a small part of what is considered the ominous social media ROI. Can you drop them altogether then? No. They are the foundation of any other activity on social media.
Without conversation and engagement you are just using social media like TV. Why not give it up altogether then and stick with TV?
The “social media scientist” goes on to say that you can’t deal with “superstitions” about social media. The “social media science” allows him to see the underlying truth.
What he means by that is that he looks at statistics and tries to interpret them. That’s pretty subjective don’t you think?
Let three different people interpret the same statistic and they will draw three different conclusions. Returning to my example from above:
- The racist from Arizona will clearly state that “blacks are evil” by birth and genetically more likely to be criminals
- The historian from Harvard will tell you that due to the desolate history of the US population of former African slaves the crime rate is higher.
- The social worker from Chicago’s inner city will tell you that due to the disproportional poverty among African Americans crime may seem the only way to earn money to many.
We learned this during one of the first seminars in cultural studies. There is not even one truth. All of the above interpretations have some truth to it, even the racist one.
Ask What Led to a Particular Number
When people live in catastrophic conditions for centuries some things they learned can even become part of their genetic heritage.
Also children learn early from adults and when they see crime as a way of life they will adopt it. Thus it may seem as if they were natural born criminals.
On the Internet there is a lot of prejudice as well.
I don’t mean the “unicorns and rainbows” theory of the “social media scientist” though. My theory states the opposite: there is wide-spread prejudice that everything which is not measurable in Dollars and Cents is a waste of time.
Still it applies only to some things not others. Nobody seems to question the ROI of web design these days but the ROI of social media is the number one topic for business people.
Still I haven’t seen a study or even statistic that can prove the fact that social media engagement or conversation doesn’t deliver results.
We do not even have the tools to measure the influence correctly. Social media is not a sales channel, it’s an awareness channel.
Nobody can buy your product if s/he doesn’t even know it exists. People won’t find out about it through search in most cases. They will buy it after they search for it though.
Thus unless you buy a lot of TV advertising and the likes these people must have read or heard about your offer. Most probably they did online or more specifically on social media.
You can measure or test awareness though.
Just make up a new product with a unique name and only spread the word about it using social media.
Then after a while run a survey and ask people from your preferred audience whether they are aware of it. When they remember your product name they know it from social media.
Are You Ignoring Potential Customers?
Now let’s take a look at engagement and conversation, the “unicorns and rainbows” of the “social media scientist”. Imagine a real life store. A potential customer enters and asks a question.
The salesperson does not react. After all engagement and conversation does not pay! There is no direct ROI in it. Why should s/he reply?
The only thing the sales person does is opening the cash register and taking the money from those customers who
- enter the store
- take what they want
- pay immediately.
All the others get ignored. As if they didn’t even exist! Even complaints remain unanswered. Is this a good sales person? Of course not.
The one that engages the potential customer, convinces the yet undecided one in a conversation is the good sales person.
The one that converts the people who are not yet sure whether they want to buy something. The other customers do not even need a salesperson. An automated cash register or card reader is enough.
Unless you have a full-fledged surveillance system that allows you to track the complete sales funnel from first touch to the to payment you miss out!
You must be able to attribute the conversion to the several factors that have impacted it along the way through the sales funnel.
Instead you can listen to your gut feeling that says customer service and also engagement and conversation are needed.
Please do not listen to statisticians who pose as scientists. In social science there is no one truth and no statistic can express it.
You need to care for your customers even long before they pay you or they won’t care about you and your product.
In case you don’t your competition will. You may have a higher ROI because you invest less but the others will have more sales and customers.
* Creative Common image by George Hatcher
Nicely written article, with some great examples.
I also consider social media more of an awareness channel than a sales channel. Which is exactly why it’s so hard to determine how much time should be spent there when you can’t fully measure it. I doubt we’ll ever be able to fully quantify its ROI.
Wes: A few years from now social media will be so self-evident that nobody will question it. Just like nobody asks today for the ROI of web design these days.
At least a web designer doesn’t have to prove the ROI before he even starts.
Tad, I adore this post. I’ve been ruminating on some similar social media ROI thoughts for a while now, and you touched on almost all of my frustrations! It’s definitely an interesting time for social media practitioners and marketers in general. Not everything that counts can be counted…
Courtney: Thank you for the kind feedback!
Indeed it’s still the early days of the Internet. It’s like living in the days of the Ford T series and black and white silent movies. Everything is still new and exciting but very primitive.
I bet a few decades from now social media ROI calculators will either be extinct or everyone will have one implanted.