How to Save Social Media Marketing from Itself

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Social media marketing is broken. It’s broken for several reasons. Some we can control. Many we can’t. The main challenge marketers have in creating a long-term, coherent social media marketing program is that the social landscape is chaos personified.

There are many drivers for this (and we explore those below), but chaos represents both opportunities and challenges. The first step is understanding why there is chaos. The next is understanding what we can control. The final step is creating a strategy to help navigate and thrive in the ever-changing social realm.

However, let’s start with some of the main reasons the social sphere is in disarray.

Social Media is Fraught with Misaligned Incentives 

Social Platforms are incented to be evil—or at least not penalized for bad behavior.

A social platform’s entire business model is predicated on selling their users as a product. And despite consumers’ growing awareness of and discomfort with Facebook, Twitter and the like selling their data, they choose to stay. Why? Because the cost of change is too high for consumers.

Take Facebook for example. For years, the social media monopoly has been making design updates that leave users complaining. And this year, the Cambridge Analytica data fiasco shook the country and left people wondering whether their privacy was safe. And yet, their users remain loyal. Somehow Facebook hasn’t gone the way of Friendster or Myspace. That’s because it has created an environment on which its users depend. We need our Facebook accounts to keep in touch with family and friends. Changing to a new social media platform means losing those connections we care about the most.

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The same goes for LinkedIn — whether we like how their data is handled or their UX is designed, we need LinkedIn to network and boost our credibility. Imagine migrating to a new career networking platform. Applying for a job with a link to a networking platform that’s unheard of may turn off potential employers and make you look less credible — the cost of change is simply too high.  

Compare this to Google. Strictly speaking about Google as a search engine, the cost of change is low for users. If users are unhappy with Google, it’s easy to switch to Bing or other search engines without much loss. Because of this, Google has been forced to optimize for its users, constantly creating new ways to streamline and add value to people’s online lives.

In the end, social media creates an environment in which users are dependent, even when they don’t want to be. They sell users’ data to brands, despite knowing that unwanted ads and shady data sharing make their users unhappy.

And that’s just on the users’ end. Social media platforms are shortchanging brands, too.

The Elephant in the Room 

Let's just admit it: people are not on social media to interact with brands.

People use Twitter to follow their role models and read jokes about dogs. They log on to Facebook to see their sisters’ graduation pictures, or invite their loved ones to their baby shower.

They’re certainly not there to download a whitepaper. And they don’t want to see creepy retargeting ads.

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Herein lies the catch 22. Social media platforms need people to work — that’s the point. But to do this, they need brands to monetize them.

At the end of the day, both brands and users end up with the short end of the stick. Brands are paying to advertise in a space where people don’t want them to intrude. Meanwhile, people’s social experiences are interrupted by ads they don’t want.

And so, we end up with an inverse relationship between consumer engagement and marketing tactics.

The Race to be Present 

So, why are brands so desperate to be present in a space where they're not really wanted? Why do they feel “being there” is so important? Why is there such an intense pressure just to be present?

This might not be so bad if brands were present in a way that respected user intent. For example: Wendy’s and Moonpie’s recent interactions, which played to the witty content Twitter users love. Or Oreo’s infamous dunk in the dark tweet.

But all too often, the pressure to be present leads to a host of issues.

To begin with, marketers tend to homogenize all social media platforms, ignoring the fact that user intent is different for each platform. One person has many different online personalities and intentions, depending on which platform they’re using. They may turn to Twitter for their news, Snapchat to interact with friends, and Facebook to stay connected to old friends. A brand’s presence on one platform may be out of context in another. Should Preparation H have a Snapchat filter? Absolutely not. But with a sense of humor, they might be a contender in the Twitterverse.

The Fall of Organic and the Rise of Paid Social Has Consequences 

Moreover, in an effort to prove the value of our presence, we often mistreat social media advertising as direct response marketing.

It’s understandable. Because of the lack of organic reach and rise of paid, there’s an increasing pressure for marketers and brands to see a direct correlation between their ad spend and their directly trackable revenue. Hence, social starts to get treated like direct response, which usually means that selling comes first, and adding value to people’s lives comes second.


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Lastly, brands often spend too much time trying to gain new customers, while failing to nurture, listen to and learn from their existing customers.

What most brands have been doing on social lately doesn’t work.

  • The median engagement rate on Facebook for brands is 0.16%. That's zero point one six. That means over 6,000 people have to see your post for you to even get 10 engagements, and with organic reach at 2% - that means you have to have 300,000 followers just to get ten engagements.

  • In a recent study, nearly half of people surveyed said they never interact with brands on social. 

  • One out of three said they didn't even know why brands were on social.

  • Moreover, when people actually want to interact with brands, companies ignore 89% of questions asked over social media.

Simply being present is not enough. We have to be there in the right way and at the right time.

We Have the Wrong KPIs Which Lead to the Wrong Actions 

Brands have more pressure than ever to measure the success of their campaigns. But measuring the wrong things leads to the wrong actions.

Being hyper-focused on sales is a sure way to lose in the social universe. Again, customers aren’t on social to interact with brands or go shopping. When we treat our social campaigns as direct response, we’re not respecting why people are using social media — which ultimately leads to a less successful campaign.

Social isn’t about immediate sales. It’s about playing the long game. And because of many of the reasons we mention before, we’re tempted to focus on conversions, engagement, likes, etc.  But what truly matters on social — and really, with all marketing efforts — is winning people’s hearts and minds.

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Confusing Tactics and Technology with Strategy 

We're all guilty of this mistake. It’s easy to get excited about new tech and tools, but a shiny new tool does not a great strategy make.

Sure, we’re able to target in ways we never have before or track and measure new KPIs.  But some of those ways are, quite frankly, pretty creepy. There’s a fine line between using new technology to inform our efforts, and making our potential customers uncomfortable.

Regardless, the tool does not make the craftsman. Tools are amazing when in the right hands and used wisely. But, simply using tools — however new or powerful — doesn’t create a sustainable competitive advantage.

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And yes- we can create memes, or be real-time, or have influencer outreach programs, but those are simply tactics that can be effective if aligned with a broader strategy that drives value to the customer. 

Viewing Social as a Channel

Viewing Social as a channel is a huge mistake in my opinion. Non-marketer humans don’t view the world through the lens of paid, earned and owned media.

Although, we do adhere to different social norms in different contexts. For example, we act in different ways at work versus in school versus at a football game versus on a date.

In the same way, we behave differently in different digital spheres. Who we are on a search engine is different than who we are on Facebook is different than who we are on Snapchat. If we as marketers don’t understand that, we’re making big mistakes. When marketers view social strictly as a channel, we ignore that we have holistic views and experiences with brands.

In short, we need to realize that social is a universe in an overlapping multiverse that spans and overlaps the entire buyer journey in a non-linear way.

This means there aren’t simple steps. It means we need a belief system. A commitment to the consumer. We can’t simply view them as a transaction. We need to be patient. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Context matters. Time matters. We need to understand the limits of a brand. We need to understand and strive to be an authentic, meaningful part of our customers’ lives. No more. No less.

So, How Do We Fix This? 

The Social Media Golden Rule 

There’s no such thing as a quick fix. But there’s a mantra that we can start with as the unspoken golden rule of social: Post unto others as you would have them post unto you.

In other words, use social to empower people. Don’t blast them with shares, ads, retargeting, or anything else unless you would find that valuable yourself.

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Regardless of whether you have the targeting ability. Regardless of what campaign metrics you’re trying to achieve. If it doesn’t add value to your customers’ lives, if it won’t make them like you more, just don’t do it.

The Art of Respect 

People are not just there for monetization. They have complex lives that matter. They also know when they’re being respected and when they’re not.

That means understanding and caring about their wants and needs is critical. That means paying attention to people’s intent — why they’re on Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter — and making efforts not to interrupt that experience, but instead give them a brand experience that aligns with their intent.

Respect also means using restraint. There are endless ways marketers and brands can disrupt people’s lives, or track their every move. But, just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.  

Learning from the Past 

Times change, and advertising mediums come and go. We can use this rapid evolution as an opportunity to learn from mediums that came before social. And the most important lesson we can learn? Acting natural.

Take TV for example. People don’t turn on the TV to watch commercials. But the difference is, there’s the illusion of control. Users can “opt out” by changing the channel, grabbing a snack or taking out the dog. But more importantly, commercials are seamlessly worked in to the story. Television shows are scripted for commercial breaks. They build up the drama, then cut to break right before the big reveal. They pause at a convenient time in the story. Compare this to social—scrolling through your newsfeed to view friends and family updates, and suddenly seeing an ad for wedgie-free underwear. There’s no story there, just an interruption. In television, there’s a narrative arc that makes ads feel natural — one that social Is often lacking.

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From PR, we can learn that earning trust and changing hearts and minds are always more important than any short-term goal. The Coca-Cola Company has perfected this. Do we really need carbonated sugar water? No. But Coke sells its product by selling happiness, evoking nostalgia and creating joy for its customers. It doesn’t flood TV or the internet with direct response ads. Coke handles their sales with elegance by leaving hard-sell ads to the retailers, a natural location for customers looking for a deal.

And from search, we can learn that user intent is key. A search engine is a tool to decipher user intent—which means it’s always designed to deliver exactly what the user is looking for. Search allows users to get natural, organic and paid info — all of which match what the user is looking for.

What we can learn from those who came before us is that it’s all about being in the right places at the right times. A natural, elegant brand presence is not only more respectful to people — it’s more effective as well.

Better Measurement Means Better Social 

We become what we measure. Hence, we need to be mindful of what, when, and how we measure. And this is hard, because right now, there is no perfect way to measure the total end-to-end, lifetime value of a social campaign.

Sure, measuring engagement, sentiment and share of voice are important, but they’re not the only things that matter. At the end of the day, great social should make people feel something and build mindshare.

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In an ideal world, we would be able to measure the mindshare our brand has earned, the hearts and minds we’ve affected. We would measure the strength of our relationships with consumers. We would focus on lifetime relationships. A consumer may not buy your product today, but they may have made space in their mental universe for your brand.

How we affect users’ hearts and minds isn’t always easy or even possible to measure — but that doesn’t make it any less important.

This means something seemingly blasphemous.

Let’s admit we can’t measure everything.

This means we shouldn't let what we can’t measure stop us from doing the things that are in the best interests of the campaign.

Creating a New Mindset and Taking a Human-Centered Social Approach 

Like I said earlier, social media marketing is broken. Some things we can fix. Others we can’t.

The first step in creating a new mindset is incredibly simple, but it takes patience and discipline to execute. We need to understand and respect human motivations and needs (as opposed to our marketing or campaign needs).

We need to research, model, influence, co-create and optimize the buyer journey as a whole and as it relates to social.

We need to become part of our clients’ lives in meaningful and authentic ways. We help them solve their problems and make their lives better.

Social is its own universe. It’s not a channel. It’s a zeitgeist. It’s a philosophy. It’s a commitment to our world. This world. A commitment to the consumer. It’s about taking a human-centered approach and empowering and enabling. Solving their problems. Making their lives better. We don’t do that when we’re simply racing to be present on social. We need to take a human-centered approach. We need educate, inspire, entertain and ultimately enable in order to win trust, attention, hearts and minds.

There are so many things that need to be fixed when it comes to how brands and marketers approach social.

But if we start by being human-centered and putting people first? My guess is that we’d actually have better campaigns with better results. We’d also have more fun and would feel better about our work every day.

Marketing is a noble profession. Our collective job is to protect it from itself. It’s easy to lose sight. It’s easy to have a quarter-by-quarter or campaign-by-campaign mindset.

Let’s do great work. Let’s do cool shit. Let’s create amazing campaigns. But let’s remember there’s an actual human on the other end, and if we can make that person’s life better, we all win.


Written by Brian Easter on July 25, 2018


Add A Comment

Hey Brian,

I liked a lot how you said that social is its own universe and a commitment to the consumer, not just a channel. I agree with you on that!

Cory - thank you!

Cory Cox says:

Excellent write-up, Brian. Thank you for putting this to paper.

Kevin & Himanshu - thank you both for taking the time to read the post and for the kind words!

Kevin says:

Great read. Very insightful.

Really love the writing style.

Memes are used in the right places.

Kudos to the writer.

Thanks for the article.

Beaster 1 6apepxm
Written by
Brian Easter