Social media: more about communication than conversation?

I did a long post a couple of weeks ago on the lack of hard data proving social media's effectiveness in building business. One key point I'd like to pick up on again here is the idea that consumers want to "engage", "participate" and "have conversations" with brands via social media.

The more I think about it, the more I think social media is more about communication than conversation for most brands. At least in terms of brands' own facebook and twitter sites. This is especially true for FMCG brands, which make up a big part of our client base.

Here's why.

Is your brand more like Prada, or pasta sauce?

There are lots of lofty claims made about social media, many made of course by sellers of social media services. Take this one from agency We Are Social: "People are talking about brands at all hours of every day, in countless forms of social media. These are trusted more than a brand’s own website, and a lot more than advertising. There is a proven link between online conversation and sales."

Now, let's leave aside the lack of hard data to back up the claim of a proven link between online conversation and sales. We'll focus on the bit about people talking about brands.

And ask, which brands?

Now, if you're lucky enough to work on a sexy fashion brand, TV show or sports team brand, then perhaps people are talking about you "at all hours of every day". But if you're flogging pasta sauce, petfood or toilet cleaner, who on earth, if anyone, is talking about your brand like this?! Hopefully not many people, as surely there are more important things to talk about?

Research by Opinion Way for DDB helps shed some light on Facebook. People Like on average on only 9 brands. And these are mainly media, fashion, sport and charities. Check out FMCG, way down at the bottom. What chance of you really got of being 1 of the 9 brands people follow?

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Its a similar story on Twitter, as shown in US research by Chadwick Martin, via Mashable Business. This shows that only 21% of people follow any brands at all. And of these, only 36% follow more than 4. In other words, only 7% of people are following more than 4 brands on Twitter. 

There is of course also people using their own social media to talk about brands, rather than following a brands' facebook page or twitter feed. But again, which brands are people going to talk about? A good way of thinking about this is ask if people were talking about your brand before social media. If yes, then social media will help amplify these converations. If no, then why would people suddenly want to start talking about your toilet roll or mayonnaise brand, just because social media exists? The answer if of course that they won't.

Question 1: Is your brand more like pasta sauce or Prada? If your brand lacks the sex appeal of Prada or U2, and is more mundane, than I would question how much effort to put into creating your own social media platforms. They are likely to appeal to a small, niche group of brand fans who are buying loads of your stuff already.

If you do have a more sexy brand, like Manchester United soccer club, then social media platforms could play a key role in your mix.

Most people are content consumers, not creators

Even your brand is sexy and/or interesting, most of the people visiting your social media site, such as Facebook and YouTube, are there to consume content, not create it.

This is shown by Futurelab research I posted on here, that looked at 20 of the most-liked celebrities on Facebook. For one of the most popular, Lady Gaga, it found she had 39 million Facebook followers but that each user left only 1.82 comments. And a meagre 1,231 people, or 0.003% of the Facebook likers,   commented more than this average.

Its the same thing with user-created encyclopedia Wikipedia. Active editors make up only 0.02% of the site's visitors. 99.98% of us go their to consume content, not create it.

Question 2: How can I create compelling content? Given the low levels of interaction, social media platforms seem to be more about content than conversation for the majority. Indeed, the same old rules of communication apply. Create interesting, emotionally involving and useful content that helps make your brand distinctive and top of mind.

When people do talk about your brand, the same old rules apply

The final point is that when people do talk about your brand online, the main reasons are not because of a fancy social media campaign targeted at a niche group of bloggers. The factors driving online conversation about brands are the same as they were in the old days before the internet. Firstly, doing interesting, exciting and entertaining stuff that people want to talk about (e.g. Yeo Valley farmers advert). Second, screwing up on your product or service (e.g. Blackberry's recent "outage")

In conclusion, for most brands social media is just another communication channel. Getting beyond this to conversation will happen if your create interesting, exciting marketing.

What do you think?