Social network marketing isn’t evil!

Social network marketing isn’t evil!

There has always been some ‘tension’ between marketing and social network advocates. One side sees major business opportunities and a large audience ripe for persuasion. The other wants to preserve the innocence and non-commercial nature of these communities. Kate Carruthers (@kcarruthers) recently blogged on the issue of Twitter users continually spruiking how to get thousands of followers or how to make money from Twitter.

I hate this approach to social networks. To me they are community gathering places not centres of commerce. Sure asking people to take social or charitable action fits in. But commercial exercises feel very unnatural.

It feels like it is almost time to throw the ‘money changers’ out of our social networks. Is commerce the only truly valuable thing we can do with social networks? How can we fund social networks so that ‘commercialisation’ issues are not a problem?

Stephen Collins (@trib) added his voice:

Let’s stop thinking about using social networks to sell stuff! Rather, let’s use them to create, build and nurture powerful, connected, creative and engaged communities that help each other, that bring humanity to the connections made there, and, if we’re using them for business, at least have a modicum of altruism about them and consider being of use to the customers of that business rather than sucking additional dollars from them.

Is marketing really becoming a dirty word in these online spaces?

Altruistic marketing (not)

I don’t think it should shock anyone that I come down on the side of the marketers. Of course marketers should go where the people are. They’re far less likely to come to us begging to engage with our brands – we need to make the first move. But marketing within social networks needn’t be as intrusive or as irritating as suggested. Social network marketing can be noble, valuable and highly engaging, despite the best efforts of some get-rich-quick-but-doomed-to-fail wannabes to represent themselves as the the devil’s personal spambot. Don’t confuse these idiots with genuine marketing.

Stephen suggests altruism as a marketing strategy. Certainly, the best marketing uses of social networking are those that tap into a customer’s needs and add value – but I would say that was a pretty central plank to any marketing approach, not just a social networking one. But it would be wrong to claim this was altruistic. After all, the end goal is still to encourage a financial return for the business – either through additional sales, or an ongoing customer relationship, or wider customer acquisition though positive reputation and brand recognition. A marketer’s goals should always be attuned to what is best for the company. It just so happens that when applying this approach to social networks, it is most effectively achieved by providing a service that is best for the customer. It is therefore a sort of false altruism – it’s about you, but it’s really about me. But it’s really, really about you. Except that it’s about me. It’s like trying to do something for a stranger not because you are genuinely being unselfish and altruistic, but because you want your karmic reward.

Not as easy as some people suggest, is it. We’re trying to be self-centred, goal oriented and business focused while at the same time being open, giving and focused on your goals, needs and desires. No wonder some marketers fall at the first fence and make a complete hash of it.

Advertising versus marketing

Sales advertising is only one aspect of marketing, but it is the aspect most people seize upon as characteristic of the industry. I am a marketer who uses social media as a tool in building relationships that – in turn – can benefit the company financially. Often indirectly. That, to me, is marketing. Putting up promotional link after promotional link is merely advertising and I may as well change my role to sales manager if that was what I did.

However, some companies have made the sales based social media advertising model work; Dell is the most obvious and well publicised example. Should they be criticised for adopting a strategy that works extremely well for them and provides value to those that obviously follow Dell for those specials?

The problem with case studies like Dell and other notable brands such as Vodaphone, is that it encourages smaller brands to attempt to replicate their strategy. It worked for them, so why shouldn’t a small business adopt the same approach? The real mistake is for smaller businesses to assume they have the same brand recognition and loyalty to be able to get away with such a strategy. People follow Dell or Vodaphone or any other major brand because they have an existing awareness and relationship with them. A person will have already made a value judgment of the brand and will follow the Twitter feed to be apprised of promotions they might be interested in.

This relationship is very, very different to a small business, like a coffee shop or beauty parlour. For the smaller businesses, the brand awareness is pretty non existent and there needs to be a lot of relationship building before people will willingly sign up for non-stop promotion. At this stage of the relationship, people want to hear from you, swap ideas and treat you as an equal in the conversation. If you merely advertise to them, you’ll be skipped like the irrelevant commercial break you are.

Kate laments social networks being seen by marketers as a centre of commerce. I would suggest this is unavoidable and is certainly not a negative trend. A centre of commerce is always going to be where the people gather. Google is a centre of commerce – hence SEO was born. Town centres are a centre of commerce which is why shops charge more rent there. Television broadcasters are a centre of commerce for advertisers because they have the audience.

Social networks are no different. Marketers are not wrong for describing networks as a business opportunity. Some are just misguided in how they exploit that opportunity.