Why doing more social media is a dumb strategy

By Neil Patrick

Because it's not how big your numbers are, it's what you do with them that counts.

I think this year will mark a turning point for social media platforms. It’s a perfect storm which has been brewing these last couple of years. Consider this:

Teens are leaving Facebook in their millions. Why? Because their parents are there and they don’t want to be seen in the same place, or have Mum and Dad see what they are saying or doing. (‘twas always so right?) They are also fed up with online bullying, sexual predators and relentless advertising. The selfie generation are choosing to make their social networks private not public. So they have migrated to Instagram, WhatsApp and other platforms where they can retain privacy.

Brands are failing to get the leverage on social media they aspired to because they bought into the myth (literally investing billons) that social media would enable them to build a huge audience of committed followers for a fraction of what they were spending on old media. It didn’t work because old media advertising methods don’t work on social platforms where trust and affinity is created more by listening and engaging with people than telling them stuff about you.

The platforms themselves are under increasing pressure from the public and regulators alike to stamp out the activities of the undesirables, everyone from ISIS terror cells to child groomers and political extremists. In doing so, many people who express politically 'unacceptable' sentiments are getting their accounts suspended, while the real villains duck, dive and re-emerge under new names as soon as they are shut down. This builds resentment and alienation amongst people who place value on free speech.

Meanwhile the earnings by the platforms are in many cases getting nowhere near the level they need to achieve a sustainable business. Twitter made $91m profit in the fourth quarter of 2017 on revenue of $732m. The first quarter in their 12 year history they have made any profit at all. The market responded positively to this news, but I see little prospect of this being a mark of turnaround, because new users are not growing. Meanwhile operating costs look likely to increase as they have to apply more resources to regulating user activity. 

We are fast reaching social media saturation. For every PewDiePie millionaire teen YouTuber there are thousands of other wannabes. And the queue is growing every month. Just last week I encountered a YouTube star called Huw who has become the number one most followed YouTuber on organic vegetable growing. Huw has 75,000 channel subscribers. Building this following has taken him 6 years. And he’s earned just £12,000 from his success. That’s an average of just £2,000 a year, or £166 a month. Huw is a young man however and I am sure he'll succeed in his career. It's just that it won't be on YouTube.

Social media is starting to come of age and in maturity, the holes and shortcomings are coming into plain sight. The myths are being outed.

The myth for business users that creates the greatest damage I think is that success is rooted in big numbers. This is a case of the platforms believing their own hype. This deception carries right through to the analytics they provide to users. Look at your Facebook, or Twitter or Pinterest analytics and you’ll see what I mean. They focus on short term numbers – the last day or week or month. They also encourage us to strive to constantly get bigger numbers. More followers, more shares, more comments. More is always better right? No it’s not actually.

It is for the platforms because this increases the money they can charge advertisers. For content creators it’s a pyrrhic victory however. Why? Because whilst having 100,000 subscribers is great if you are a YouTuber, that audience creates (a smallish) ad revenue stream for you. But 100,000 Twitter followers counts for very little. 50,000 LinkedIn connections? Meh.

Just like the platforms themselves, the investment of work, time and money to achieve anything resembling a commercial success is just too high. And the hurdles are getting ever higher as the competition for eyeballs grow exponentially as more and more people pile in.

If you are using social media as part of your business strategy, the time has come to get real and face up to reality. Social media is still here and it is still powerful. But only if you go about it in the right way. Here are the things I think we should face up to:

A thousand or ten thousand or a million connections have no value in and of themselves. Sure they might make you feel good, but if they are not in some way making your business more valuable, they are worth almost nothing. If you see success as simply making these numbers bigger, you are chasing the wrong goal.

No one cares what you do. What they care about is WHY you do it. This is why most businesses large and small struggle to get social media working for them. Because what they do is simply to make profit for shareholders. ‘Buy my stuff because it’s great’ has no currency on the social web.

But we have a nice mission statement. So what? Does that mission live and breathe in everything everyone does everyday? And does it make people want to help you? 

The only way to have people care about us is to show we care about them. This means that we listen more than we speak. That we talk about what people care about – and usually that is not ourselves. And that we demonstrate our care for them through our online actions more than our words.

So a million follows or likes or whatever might be the result of years of effort. But it’s worth nothing unless it delivers a return. That return on investment is also set to decline. Unless we rethink what we stand for and why anyone else would give a s**t.

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