September 29, 2022

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

“A” vs. “The”: Social is entering its awkward teen years.

“A” vs. “The”: Social is entering its awkward teen years.

Last Monday, I attended a PRSA “refresher course” titled Essentials of Public Relations. Although I’m up to my eyes in PR pretty much every day as it is one of the major markets we serve as a monitoring tool, it’s been a while since I was a full-time practitioner on behalf of clients. So I like taking these types of refresher classes every so often–to see what’s changed and what remains the same.

Of course, social media is now a constant in these types of courses. What struck me, and what I have remained stuck thinking about, was the role of research and how the shifting sands of social media fit into the PR picture. Research is critical to PR programs. You need research to properly design a program, and the validity of your measurement and analysis depends on good design.

Social media presents a problem. Participants are a self-selecting population, first of all. Then, we see posts like this one, showing that 20,000 people on Twitter–let me rephrase that–only 20,000 people on Twitter–are responsible for fully half the Tweets. Throw in the number of people on Facebook who keep their information private, and social media sampling starts to look a whole lot murkier. I’ve seen it suggested that social media will someday replace focus groups, and I cringe a bit. A lot of people are on social networks, but does it really follow that this population is a statistically valid one from which to sample?

This raises the question as to what kinds of decisions companies are making based on social media content. There was a bit of a kerfuffle online last week when sales figures showed that Pepsi lost its number 2 position behind Coke in soft drink sales to Diet Coke. The culprit, a number have speculated, was Pepsi’s decision to forgo traditional marketing and throw their lot in with the Pepsi Refresh project, an ambitious social media program. Ultimately we may never know what led to the slip from #2 to #3. Maybe it was the focus on the social project, maybe not.

We’re still in the sorting-out phase in social media. Let me be perfectly clear: I do NOT think social media is a fad. Monitoring to find and address content critical to your brand, positive or negative, has a proven track record. You need to do it. Addressing customer concerns is another given–mostly. (There are still–and may always be–people who feel as though they are just venting online and may find it creepy to have a brand respond to a mention they considered a toss-away comment.)

From there, things get a little less clear. The point of companies is to sell stuff, I think we can agree on that. Where social media fits into that picture is still a work in progress–does a person with 200 followers on Twitter who makes a passing mention of eating/drinking/wearing a product result in additional sales? What has the company gained by knowing this information? Is it actionable intelligence? Can a company extrapolate any additional information out to a broader audience by knowing about this Tweet? Does micro-targeting an ad or a coupon to this person make a difference? How soon will this person get bored with this social channel and move to another one, then another?

People have limited numbers of hours in their days. It is not just possible, but probable, that the intense participation in networks like Facebook and Twitter will level off in time. Twitter already is well on its way to being an information stream rather than a conversational tool. People have repeatedly indicated that they don’t think “liking” a company on Facebook should give the company license to turn their feeds into marketing walls.

When I worked as a lobbyist, I witnessed a number of epic battles on the Missouri House and Senate floors and in committee rooms over the words “a” and “the.”  As in, “a” cause of a workplace injury or “the” cause of injury.

These two little words carry a great deal of weight. The idea is to treat social media as “a” source of customer information, not “the” source of customer information. “A” communications outlet, not “the” communications outlet. “A” path to addressing consumer complaints, not “the” path to address consumer complaints.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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    Jim Akin

    Great post. I think it all boils down to filtering. As consumers of social media, we face a constant challenge to sort what’s meaningful (or engaging, or amusing) from the “junk” — much of which is no doubt useful or entertaining to someone else. And as you say, when parsing social media data, it’s also very tricky to assign cause and effect.

    For now, I think we need to dutifully track our actions and their results, seeking meaning as best we can, and trust that tools will continue to become more refined, and that patterns will become more discernible as the pool of data becomes larger and better understood.

    In the end, social engagement and marketing will never be purely a numbers game. Customer service and relationship branding have to be about a level of connection that defies quantifying. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t try to measure it, refine it, identify and learn from successes and failures, and improve our results as we go.

    Despite its association with Twitter overload, I’m reminded of the blue whale. It feeds on krill and plankton, among the tiniest of organisms, by gulping in vast amounts of seawater, then forcing the water out through comblike filters, which trap its microscopic prey. Each mouthful of water can equal the whale’s entire body mass (100 tons or more), but eventually the process nets the whale about 4 tons of nourishment a day.

    The process strikes me as pretty labor-intensive, but its efficiency has allowed the blue whale to evolve into the biggest creature ever to live on earth. Our filters are evolving, too, and eventually we’ll begin sifting more sense from our oceans of data points.

      Jen Zingsheim

      Thanks so much for commenting, Jim. I think your analogy of the blue whale is an excellent one.

      I worry about the “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” reaction. Seeing posts that point to Pepsi and Burger King, which then conclude “social doesn’t work” scares me a bit, because it seems as much an overreaction as did the initial response to social. There is a happy medium–why is it so elusive?

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