People have 87 hard questions about social media marketing

One of my favorite tools is AnswerThePublic, which builds simple visualizations of data provided by Google autocomplete and Bing autosuggest results. Built in the U.K. by the team behind CoverageBook, AnswerThePublic leverages Google’s search predictions, which are based on factors like what people are searching for, and Bing’s suggestions, which are based on the patterns and behavior people use when searching, to provide you with relevant and valuable insights into consumer intent.

So, before writing this article, I entered social media marketing into the tool’s search box and within seconds discovered that people have 134 questions about this three-word term. Now, as my mother used to say, “That’s more than you can shake a stick at.”

So, I download all 134 questions into a spreadsheet, removed 47 duplicates, and winnowed the remaining 87 questions down to a dozen that people are hoping their search engine can answer:

  • How did social media marketing start?
  • What is social media marketing and how does it work?
  • Why is social media marketing so important?
  • Which companies use social media marketing?
  • What is social media marketing strategy?
  • Is social media marketing effective?
  • Is social media marketing worth it?
  • Is social media marketing successful?
  • Is social media marketing a good career?
  • Is social media marketing the future?
  • Will social media marketing die?
  • Is social media marketing dead?

Now, that’s still more questions than I can tackle in a single article. So, I’ll pick three. As for the others, I can always tackle some of them down the road in other articles on this topic.

 How did social media marketing start?

I know the answer to the first question because I was having lunch with Chris Shipley when she coined the term “social media.” In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that I tried to talk her out of it.

Here’s the backstory: Chris and I had worked together at PC/Computing magazine from 1988 to 1991, when she was the executive editor and I was the director of marketing. In 2004, she was the co-founder and CEO of Guidewire Group and I was the co-founder and President of SEO-PR.

In the spring of 2004, she told me about her plans to launch BlogOn 2004. This two-day event would be held July 23-24 in Anderson Hall at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. She wanted to position BlogOn 2004 as the first “social media conference.” And she wanted my help with optimizing her press release so it would be found in news search engine results.

As an old friend, I told her that “blog” was a search term, but “social media” wasn’t. And to illustrate this point, I told her the story about some SEO work that we’d recently done for the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, California. The dean of the school had recently created an LLM program in Transnational Business Practice, but students weren’t signing up. At a meeting in her office, I had to explain to the dean that “transnational business practice” wasn’t a search term. And I asked, “What does that three-word phrase mean in plain English?” She shot back, “International Business Law.” And I said, “Now, that’s a search term.”

Nevertheless, she persisted. So, I suggested a workaround. She could coin her new term and I’d add a parenthetical phrase that defined “social media” using keywords that people were actually searching for. And as you can see from the copy of the press release below, the headline ended up reading, “Chris Shipley Announces BlogOn 2004: The Business of Social Media Conference to Explore Raising Business Opportunities in Blogging and Social Networking.”


In the release, Chris said, “Blogs, social networks, RSS readers, syndication and powerful new search mechanisms are creating tremendous opportunities for new companies, new revenue streams, and new investments.”

What were the “powerful new search mechanisms” that Chris was alluding to in the press release? Well, I could argue that doing keyword research to discover consumer intent before optimizing her press release for news search engines was the first example of “social media marketing.” But, others could argue that this is just a play on words. We were merely marketing the first social media conference.

To resolve this issue, just look at the agenda. At the beginning of the conference, Michael Sikillian of TerraLycos was on the panel entitled, “Defining Social Media.” Other members of the panel were Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News, Jim Spohrer of the IBM Almaden Research Center, and James Currier of Tickle. So, a representative of a search engine participated in the first discussion of the topic, “What is social media and what is the market opportunity?”

There was also a panel entitled, “Social Media Transforms Corporate Communications.” The presenters were Greg Jarboe and Jamie O’Donnell, the co-founders of SEO-PR, and the responder was Buzz Bruggeman of ActiveWords. So, two representatives of a firm that provided search engine optimization consulting to public relations agencies and departments as well as PR strategy to SEO companies and their clients participated in the discussion at the first social media conference, too.

So, I think it’s fair to say that we were into social media marketing right from the start.

Is social media marketing effective?

Now, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since BlogOn 2004. Today, many marketers think that “social media” is an umbrella term that covers social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. For some reason, they frequently forget about blogs.

And they’re shocked, shocked to see charts like the one below from the Pew Research Center that shows the most widely used social media sites among adults in the U.S. Look closely and you’ll see that 73% of adults report using the video sharing site YouTube, while 69% use Facebook.

With so much confusion over precisely what the umbrella term, “social media,” covers, it’s no wonder that it’s hard to get everyone on the same page if a senior business executive or an important client asks, “Is social media marketing effective?”

Well, advertising on Facebook still seems to be effective, but the same can’t be said for posting organic content on a Facebook Business Page these days. So, ask yourself: “Do you consider Facebook advertising to be part of Facebook marketing, or is that in someone else’s budget?”

And Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn appear to be effective, but the only person who seems to be using Twitter effectively these days is the current occupant of the White House. And what about blogs and YouTube? Do you consider them to be social media? I do, and I think they’re effective.

And there’s another reason why it’s hard to get a straight answer to the question, “Is social media marketing effective?” What do senior business executives and important clients mean by “effective”? And which metrics to you use to measure effectiveness?

I recently wrote an article for Search Engine Journal entitled, “Two Social Media Vanity Metrics You Need to Stop Tracking.” They are Facebook’s Page Likes and Page Followers. So, what’s so wrong with these metrics? Well, these numbers invariably go up in bad months as well as good ones. Which is why most social media marketing managers use these vanity metrics to measure their effectiveness.

And, unfortunately, far too many marketing executives mistakenly assume that the number of Page Likes and Page Followers are the number of people who see each and every one of their Facebook posts. Well, if you aren’t an exceptional brand or a top influencer, then I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings: You’re lucky if .0035% of your Page Fans and Page Followers even see your posts these days.

So, if these are vanity metrics, then which ones should you be using?

Well, back in October 2011, Avinash Kaushik wrote a post in his Occam’s Razor blog entitled, “Best Social Media Metrics: Conversation, Amplification, Applause, Economic Value.” Here’s how you calculate each of these metrics and what they mean in plain English:

  • Conversation Rate = # of Audience Comments (or Replies) Per Post. “Is what we are saying interesting enough to spark the most social of all things: a conversation?”
  • Amplification Rate = # of Shares Per Post. “Is what we are saying so remarkable that people will stamp their name on it and forward it to everyone they know?”
  • Applause Rate = # of Likes Per Post. “Do users think the content we have posted is interesting, even if they won’t bless it with their stamp of approval and forward it on?”
  • Economic Value = Sum of Short and Long Term Revenue and Cost Savings. “Do we make any money from engaging users on social media?”

Now, Avinash is a friend and a former colleague of mine at Market Motive. So, I may be biased. But I think that his metrics are significantly better measures of the effectiveness of social media marketing than Page Likes and Page Followers. So, why aren’t more social media marketing managers using them?

Well, In January 2018, Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook, announced “a major change to encourage meaningful social interactions with family and friends over passive consumption. As a result, you’ll see less public content, including news, video, and posts from brands.”

Adam Mosseri, the Head of News Feed for Facebook, also published a post that month which explained, “Today we use signals like how many people react to, comment on or share posts to determine how high they appear in News Feed. With this update, we will also prioritize posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people. To do this, we will predict which posts you might want to interact with your friends about, and show these posts higher in feed.”

How did this “major change” impact Brands? Well, in August 2018, Brian Peters of Buffer wrote a post entitled, “We Analyzed 43 Million Facebook Posts From the Top 20,000 Brands.” Buffer and BuzzSumo had partnered on this project, which found that top business pages had increased their output from 72,000 posts per day in Q1 2017 to 90,032 posts per day in Q2 2018. At the same time, the average engagement per post had dropped from 4,490 engagements per post to 1,582 engagements per post. And we’re talking about the world’s top brands!

And it’s worth noting that engagement on Facebook posts had dropped for all types of content. The average engagement per image had dropped from 9,370 per post in Q1 2017 to just 3,454 per post in Q2 2018. The average engagement per video had fallen from 5,486 to 2,867. And the average engagement for links had plummeted from 2,577 to 763.

So, organic Facebook marketing is facing an existential crisis. Now, would you want to report that to your boss or to senior business executives and important clients?

This reluctance to use the social media metrics that matter also explains why the average tenure for CMOs has dropped to 43 months, according to a report by Winmo. And CMO tenure is just 29 months at Digital Business Providers (online-only businesses), according to the same report.

Is social media marketing dead?

The existential crises facing organic Facebook marketing has prompted many people to ask, “Is social media marketing dead?”

Well, maybe it is – if you think that organic Facebook marketing and social media marketing are synonyms. But, they aren’t. And before anyone else jumps to that incorrect conclusion, you should examine the engagement rates of all your social media accounts – including blogs and YouTube as well as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.

If you decide to do that, there’s a tool named True Social Metrics, which was inspired by the ideas of Avinash Kaushik. Their tool enables you to measure the real active engagement of users with your social media pages using conversation, amplification, and applause rates.

If you connect True Social Metrics with your Google Analytics account, then you can compare the performance and economic value generated by all of your social media accounts and identify the most effective social media for your business.

True Social Metrics enables you to find out which posts are engaging your followers: which are triggering a conversation, which are being shared, and which are being favorited. This enables you to conduct a best/worst post analysis to discover which topics and which types of content are the most successful. The tool can also help you discover the best time to post on your social media accounts, which is when your followers are the most active.

Since no login credentials are required to connect competitors’ social media pages, True Social Metrics enables you to compare your results against your competitors, analyze their posting strategy, and learn their best practices. The tool also lets you compare your social media performance with industry standards.

But, Avinash would be the first to remind you of his 10/90 rule.  If you have a $100 budget to “make smarter decisions”, then invest $10 in tools and $90 in people. In other words, the tool won’t magically tell you what to do if you discover that your organic social media marketing is deader than the Norwegian Blue parrot in the classic “Dead Parrot Sketch” by Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

If you discover that your organic social media marketing isn’t pining for the fjords, it’s passed on, no more, ceased to be, expired and gone to meet ‘is maker, then you have two options.

First, you can try to convince senior business executives or important clients that you plan to pay more attention to consumer intent before cranking out more posts in social media. I hinted at this at the beginning of this this article by mentioning one of the tools that I use to find out what people are searching for. This is a literary device called “foreshadowing.”

But, convincing the brass to make “a major change” won’t be easy. Why? Because somewhere along the way, far too many of these Baby Boomers started using demographics as a proxy for targeting people on Facebook and other social media. But demographics don’t help you understand what social media marketers really need to know – consumer intent. Understanding consumer intent, answering their questions, and meeting their needs are the keys to changing hearts, minds, and actions.

Avinash wrote about this in a post entitled, “Stop All Social Media Activity (Organic) | Solve For A Profitable Reality.” Yes, you read that right. Avinash said, “It is time to point out an ugly truth, and to be the brave person that you are, the intelligent rational assessor of reality that you are, and kill all the organic social media activity by your company. All of it.” And he wrote this post in June 2017 – more than 6 months before Zuckerberg’s announcement and over a year before the Buffer and BuzzSumo analysis was published. Boy, was he ahead of the curve.

Instead of exploring search trends and queries in their category to understand what consumers are looking for, Avinash said, “Businesses of all types, including Google…, got on amazing platforms like Facebook… and started pimping. All that their collective imagination could manifest in a Utopia-possible environment was: LOOK ME I AM SO PRETTY!! BUY NOW!!! Stuff that is a turn off.”

Avinash even took a closer look at Google’s Small Business page on Facebook and declared, “It is a complete disaster with not a single post in the last six months being of even five seconds of value to any small business.” He added, “You’ll have a hard time finding a single post that’s solving for Google’s human customers. Almost every single one is pimping Google (or pimping random research Google has commissioned – to pimp Google!). The non-value is so transparent, yet they post every single day.”

This tendency to ignore consumer intent and concentrated on cranking out corporate propaganda leads to what Avinash calls the Zuck Death Spiral (ZDS). He said, “Real humans on Social platforms quickly got turned off by these low-grade Social contributions/posts by companies. That meant humans (us!) refused to engage with them. This was noticed by Team Zuck, who started to slowly turn down the presence of company posts in User feeds. This lead to less Reach for brands. Which in turn lead to even fewer customer interactions for content posted by brands. Which was duly noted once more by Team Zuck. Which… you know where this is going, tightened the screws on organic Reach even more. And, here we are in a barren desert for brands on FB.”

So, you really need to convince senior business executives or important clients that you have to pay more attention to consumer intent before cranking out more posts in social media. If you aren’t successful, then you have another option.

You can rethink your career path and update your digital marketing skills. According to the headline of a recent article by Karen Weise in The New York Times, “Amazon Has 30,000 Open Jobs. Yes, You Read That Right.” Hey, it’s a viable option. Why? Because Amazon has some pretty amazing ways to gather relevant and valuable insights into consumer intent.

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