This week I found myself buried in emails. A study by ExactTarget predicts that in 2014 marketers will send out even more emails, while McKinsey writes “email rocks” and recommends we all stick with marketing via email. Social media, it says, doesn’t get anywhere near the conversion rates of email. The sobering graph below demonstrates this all too clearly.
Ouch! There I’ve been, preaching the social business gospel all this time, and then this! But let’s just take a step back here. I think there might be a fundamental misunderstanding going on. Social media and email are completely different marketing tools in so many different ways, and it seems to me that many marketers and even many so-called experts have failed to understand this.
Oh and, by the way, not all social media is created equally. There are major differences between social networks, Twitter, communities and blogs. But the one thing they have in common is that they are not really – or not at all – the appropriate tools for outbound marketing. That is the strength of email, which is the most direct way of reaching a potential customer, similar to a phone call from a call center or a sales rep. It might be a “cold” email (like a “cold” call), or it might be a “warm” contact between a company and a customer who already know each other. As McKinsey correctly points out, some of this is conducted very messily and emails work much better as marketing tools if they are properly personalized, really reflect customers’ needs, and skillfully use the data available on each customer for targeted communications. On top of that, companies need to learn to continually evaluate the success of their email campaigns.
But what about social media? If I look at my own behavior, I have to confirm what McKinsey says. Every now and again I order a bottle of wine from various online shops. I have never ordered one on the basis of an ad on Facebook or Twitter. I have, however, responded to the occasional ad I received by email. (Although I should point out that 95 percent of the emails end up in the trash for being boring, impersonal, or just plain platitudinous.) However, now comes the “but…” as regards social media: I have ordered lots of wines because I read a review online, primarily on a blog. Usually these reviews come from people that I regard as relatively independent, competent and eloquent. I then order a wine from the shops they recommend and if I like it, I order more.
Without wanting to suggest I am absolutely representative of everyone else, I would say that this is precisely the gist of the matter. Social channels rarely lead to direct conversions and sales, but the recommendations of experts and well-written blogs can indirectly lead to a sale via word of mouth. Wine lovers will then either follow a link in the review or search for a recommended wine in a search engine. In the case of direct links, the operator of the online shop can determine this is what triggered the purchase, but clearly not in the case of an Internet search. Some bloggers and some online wine shops also use discount codes that allow them to track where a customer has come from, and some online shops publish newsletters where they cite experts and make reference to reviews.
What can we learn from this (other than that I like wine)? email newsletters and emails remain a valuable means of customer conversion, but they could be improved by offering more relevant and targeted content. Social channels play a secondary role in customer conversion, influencing purchasing decisions indirectly via video commentary, product reviews and community discussions. This is precisely how social channels should be understood and used. It is also the reason why they are vitally important and becoming ever more so. They are the place where opinion – that “word of mouth” factor – is formed, and that is why they should not be neglected in either B2C or B2B communications in the social age.
To be successful in social media, it is not enough to maintain corporate Twitter, Facebook and Google+ channels or to inundate customers with marketing emails. Businesses enjoy far greater success if their experts are visible and approachable, ideally on the platforms and in the communities where potential and existing customers are active. It is also crucial that experts network with “influencers,” opinion formers in their field, and maintain regular contact and exchange with them on relevant issues. To achieve this, businesses have to allow their experts the time to keep up a presence on these platforms and engage in dialogue with “influencers.” This is not something they can fit in between other jobs, and should also not be viewed as an optional leisure-time activity. Instead, it should be considered an integral part of work in the social age.
It is crucial that marketing departments and particularly marketing executives finally understand the correct significance of social media.
Social media does not replace, but rather complements email.
Social media is an essential tool for forming opinions, dominating “word of mouth” activity and earning recommendations.
The success of social media cannot be measured using conventional success criteria (conversion, etc.). At best, quantitative criteria like the number of followers or fans provide helpful metrics.
Successfully utilizing social media does not mean sending out marketing updates via corporate Twitter or Facebook channels, thus creating a new form of “social spam” alongside email spam.
Business will be successful in social media if their employees are available and active where their existing and potential customers are.
email newsletters should be more personal and provide existing and potential customers with relevant content.
Social media, email, SEO and a company website all form part of the marketing mix, and businesses should be engaged in all of these areas.