The data that we publish in our ongoing series of studies into digital, social and mobile behaviours around the world can help marketers to plan activities and make better investment decisions, but we'd be the first to warn that the data alone don't tell the full story.
For that reason, today we're sharing our 10 recommendations for improving the ROI of social media activities.
I shared these tips on a webinar with Hootsuite earlier today; you can read my full presentation in the SlideShare embed above (or read them here if that's not working for you), but for those who missed the webinar, this post sets out the context behind the themes, and what marketers need to do.
This is a bit of a monster post, so go grab a coffee, get comfortable, and dig in.
The social landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented, and it's getting more and more difficult for marketers to know where to invest their time, effort and money when it comes to creating content or buying media.
However, this complexity can easily become a distraction, and it's impossible for anyone to stay on top of it all anyway.
The good news is that you don't need to stay on top of it all.
Our first tip is to take a deep breath, pause for a moment, and spend some time thinking about what you're actually trying to achieve - and why - rather than spending time stressing about things like which social platform is today's hottest news story.
If you know what your audiences are trying to achieve, and you know how your brand can help them achieve it, it's a lot easier to identify a few select times and places where your brand and its marketing will be most relevant in people's lives.
Once you've done that though, you still need to bring your ideas to life, so you still need to understand the key trends in platform preferences and behaviour if you're going to engage audiences more efficiently and more effectively.
So, what are those trends?
1. The Dominance of Messengers
Our latest global rankings show that four of the world's five most popular social platforms are now mobile messengers:
What's more, given current trends, it's highly likely that mobile messengers will overtake public social networks to become the dominant social platform in people's everyday lives in the very near future.
This is a great soundbite, but the shift from interacting on 'public' networks like Facebook and Twitter to more private platforms like WhatsApp and WeChat has serious implications for marketers:
Firstly, marketers won't be able to listen to these audience conversations in the way that we have been able to on platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Our ability to glean valuable organic audience insights is slipping through our fingers with every conversation that moves into a messenger app, so we need to act quickly if we're going to make the most of 'social listening' as we know it today.
There are also far fewer opportunities for marketers to 'buy' their way into conversations in messenger platforms. Inevitably, this will change as those platforms seek to monetise their audiences, but even if we could buy ad placements to interrupt people's conversations, it's unlikely to be the best approach. The platforms themselves to recognise the danger of this too, as evidenced by this screen-grab from WhatsApp's latest terms and conditions, which makes clear reference to their desire to avoid a "spammy experience":
Perhaps more importantly than all of the above, though, the shift to private messenger platforms requires marketers to completely rethink the metrics they use to measure social 'success'.
In recent months, we've noticed that many marketers have been placing increased importance on 'old-school' marketing metrics such as reach. It's easy to see why this is happening; reach is relatively easy to measure in digital media, and awareness remains a core step in the 'consumer journey'.
However, reach is a very poor indicator of marketing performance; it merely measures potential, not actual success. It's a similar story with likes, followers, clicks, views…
None of these metrics measure a change in brand preference or action.
What's worse, these metrics are all 'game-able': it's very easy to increase 'performance' in these metrics, without adding any meaningful contribution to your brand's bottom line.
So, if brands are to succeed in an increasingly private, peer-to-peer oriented social world, we need to think differently.
We need to earn conversation instead.
We need to think back to the classic drivers of organic word-of-mouth, and understand the activities and approaches that will inspire people to talk favourably about our brands, our products, and our services.
As we explored in a previous study, that's not just about creating great content for social media; it's about using every 'P' in your marketing mix to build a brand that is truly worth talking about:
2. The Evolution of Communication
Clients often ask us what they should use new social platforms for, and our answer usually involves exploring what their audiences are using those platforms for.
We're always fascinated to discover how people co-opt new technologies for their own needs and objectives, and we're seeing this repeatedly across each new arrival in the social platform landscape.
One of the best examples of this is the explosive rise in the use of emoji over recent years. I confess, I was initially skeptical about their potential contribution in a marketing context, but then I started digging a bit deeper into the research, and I quickly became a believer (cue my terrible remix of the Monkees: "and then I saw her
The reason why emoji have caught on so quickly in peer-to-peer digital interactions is that they bring an element of empathy to written communication that words alone can never convey. You'll know this yourself; how many times have you written an email that was completely misinterpreted by a recipient, simply because they missed emotional cues indicating sarcasm or humour?
The fascinating thing is that people interpret emoji using many of the same parts of their brains as those they use to read faces and body language in face-to-face communication. Of course, emoji don't provide anywhere near the same level of emotional connection and engagement that 'live' conversations do, but they do add a significant amount more meaning than words alone can.
Because of this, people all over the world now use billions of emoji every day to add a degree of emotion and empathy that would otherwise be lacking in their written communication. We've even progressed on to using 'stickers' and animated GIFs to add yet more emotion to those interactions.
It's worth stressing that simply adding a smattering of emoji to your marketing isn't going to work magic on its own, though; empathy is about understanding the people you hope to engage on their terms, not simply parroting their behaviour back at them.
However, judicious use of emoji in social posts - especially in text-heavy platforms like messengers - can help foster more engaging connections with people than 'conventional' use of these platforms can.
Empathy isn't just dependent on visual cues, though. WeChat users have embraced audio messaging as a way to convey more emotion, to the extent where typing a message seems almost prehistoric to many of the platform's users (it's also a lot faster and easier to record your voice than it is to type a message using a fiddly smartphone keyboard).
These user behaviours weren't necessarily driven by the platforms themselves, though; people simply found better ways of achieving their own goals by using the features they found hidden within the platforms.
Watching these 'user innovations' and shifts in behaviour, it's clear that many people yearn form more empathetic interaction, whether that's conversations with friends, or interactions with the people they go to in order to find new products and services.
However, many marketers are heading in the opposite direction; instead of embracing these new platforms to build new kinds of value with audiences - perhaps even engaging in one-to-one conversations - they're trying to shoe-horn advertising content that they built for other platforms, in a desperate and misguided attempt to increase 'reach' and extend the 'impact' of their advertising.
This is broken.
Reach is not the big opportunity in messengers, nor is it the best opportunity in any other social platform.
Yes, billions of people use social media each day, but here is no-one using social media that we can't reach through at least one other media channel.
However, there is no other channel - perhaps with the exception of the telephone - that offers marketers the opportunity to engage with audiences one-to-one in the way that social platforms allow us to.
We have a marketing mix for a reason; we can - and should - use different channels for different purposes.
So, if you want better ROI from your activities in social, use social to build deeper engagement and empathy, not just to extend (or replicate) reach.
3. Integrated Platforms
As with all things in marketing, just as we think we're starting to understand today's model, the model gets superseded by new developments. Indeed, the very concept of 'messengers's is quickly becoming outdated, as audiences embrace a variety of different kinds of solutions for their different needs.
Some social platforms are going down the 'focused' route - e.g. Instagram - while others are taking a more 'holistic' approach, incorporating a variety of functionality and services within the same platform.
The reigning champion of this integrated approach is Tencent's WeChat: a platform that enables its users to chat with friends using text, audio, video, stickers, etc., but that also enables them to send each other money, pay municipal fines, book an appointment with their doctor, and even renew their passport.
To all intents and purposes, WeChat is quickly becoming the whole internet in one app:
Many other platforms are adopting diversification of functionality too; since Facebook announced the introduction of its chat bots just a few months ago, developers have built more than 11,000 bots that allow people to do everything from ordering a pizza to managing their flight details:
Apple has also announced that Siri is now an app platform in its own right, and the company is already allowing third-party developers to create services that plug into Siri's AI engine. Given the topics that we covered above around people's desire for greater empathy in their communications, it's clear that this holds huge potential for social media; indeed, Apple even used a WeChat-Siri integration as one of its examples during its WWDC announcement.
But so what?
Well, it's already becoming clear that the 'bots' that succeed over the longer term are those which add tangible 'utility' to people's lives.
In other words, they're not just built for novelty; they're adding meaningful value to their users' world.
And that's the secret to making integrated platforms work for you: use these new opportunities to help your audiences and consumers to achieve more of the things that they care about, rather than using them as yet another advertising channel to talk about what you want to achieve.
4. The Evolution of Video
Video is probably this year's hottest topic in social media, but it's already becoming apparent that we can't talk about 'video' in simple terms anymore.
Is a video without audio - specially designed to engage Facebook users in-feed for a few seconds via autoplay - the same as a one-hour content epic such as a Red Bull extreme sports documentary?
Is live-streaming the same as pre-recorded video? Where does 360° video fit in? And should we be looking at VR as part of our 'video' plans, or should it sit somewhere entirely different in the organisation?
These are all very important questions, but there's a danger that they're distracting us.
We need to remind ourselves that our job is not to compete with Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg.
Even if you work for one of the big movie studios, a marketer's job is not to make movies.
A marketer's job is to influence potential consumers' attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.
Video can sometimes help with that, but - for marketers - video (and all other kinds of content for that matter) is only ever a means to an end.
So, if you want to greatly increase your ROI from social video, brief for outcomes, not outputs.
If you're convinced that you need video - and remember that it's definitely not mandatory - ensure that you're using video to address real business challenges and audience needs, and that you don't get caught in the trap of building content to entertain people simply to improve 'reach' or 'engagement' metrics.
5. Content vs. Social
It's not just video that's confusing marketers though; we've become obsessed with creating and distributing all kinds of content, rather than using content as a tool to help us achieve our marketing objectives.
Our on-going social plans often reveal this confusion at its worst. We've read so many articles dramatising the importance of posting every day, or of the critical need to post at "3pm on a Wednesday", that we've become slaves to our content calendars.
If you've ever said to yourself (or to your agency), "but we need content for today's post!", you've likely become distracted too.
Only post when you have something meaningful to add to the conversation.
That doesn't mean that every post has to be deeply profound, of course; it just means that there's never a need to post for the sake of fulfilling a (misguided) content calendar commitment.
But when should you post?
The answer to this comes in the form of a simple analogy: how often should you speak with your friends?
Everyone knows there's no magic formula for that; we talk with our friends as often as we have something meaningful to talk about, even if it's just shooting the breeze.
There are two key take-aways from that analogy though: a conversation about content is often more valuable than the content itself, and the relationship is invariably more important than any individual conversation.
Taking that further, there's a simple tip for getting better ROI from all your social content: be sociable, don't just do social.
6. Rethinking the Role of Paid
One of the greatest ironies of our compulsion to post every day is that our content has become less engaging as we run out of meaningful things to say (let's be honest, no-one can be interesting to everyone, every day).
However, many marketers have set themselves or their agencies clear targets to hit in terms of minimum reach or engagement for each post, and when we start to see content 'underperform' against these metrics, we look for quick and easy ways to remedy the decline.
Disturbingly, the rememdy that many marketers have opted for is to promote mediocre, 'calendar-filling' content using paid media.
But this is broken too.
If you tell a joke and no-one laughs, most of us know that the answer isn't to shout that joke louder and hope that it will start to be funny simply because more people heard it.
So why do we take what is essentially the same approach with our marketing?
Of course, there are many occasions when paid media is a very sensible investment, but we should never - never - use paid media simply to inflate the 'performance' of mediocre content.
With the current trends in media cost inflation, it's also unsustainable for most brands to continue putting more and more money behind each and every post to maintain the same level of 'reach' each time - especially if our content calendars insist that we post every day.
Many marketers have reached the point where they're investing most of their budgets to buy ads that actively irritate their audiences, by interrupting those audiences with mediocre content that the brand has produced to satisfy a content calendar mandate that simply isn't contributing to the brand's needs in the first place.
It's time to call it; the emperor is naked. We need to stop and ask ourselves whether all of this is really helping, or if we're just chasing our own tails.
You don't need to reach your entire audience ever day with every post; you simply need to engage a decent number of people when you have something meaningful to offer, knowing that the best relationships build steadily over time through multiple interactions.
Our advice: only buy media when that investment offers a tangible contribution to your brand's bottom line.
7. Amplifying the Voices of Others
Influencers are another red-hot topic in social media today, but this is another area where marketers are getting confused and distracted.
The first - and most important - point here is that reach does not equal influence.
Just because a 'star' on YouTube has a few million followers, it doesn't mean that they will 'influence' your audience when it comes to your brand or product.
Marketers must make a clear distinction between the following types of 'influencer':
- Celebrities: 'famous' people who have very high reach, but who generally have very little relevance to your category, your brand, or your product / service.
- Opinion Leaders: people who may or may not have a sizeable following, but who have a disproportionate impact on people's opinions and choices in the category in which you operate.
- Advocates: people who frequently and publicly share a genuine passion for your brand or your products (regardless of how big their 'audience' is).
Each of these influential people may have a role to play in your marketing, but you need to understand what that role is, and how it adds value.
Getting a YouTube celebrity to endorse your product online is very similar to getting a sports star to endorse your product in a TV ad; you're effectively paying for reach, so you need to compare the efficiency and cost of engaging that celebrity with every other 'reach' tool at your disposal, including TV ads, billboards, banner ads, etc.
Meanwhile, opinion leaders have achieved their position because they're credible; other people trust their opinions. As a result, no opinion leader will endorse your product unless they genuinely believe in it.
Even if they do choose to celebrate it, true opinion leaders will need to address the good, the bad and the ugly of your brand with their audiences if they're to maintain their position of credibility.
Advocates are the most misunderstood group on this list, yet they're potentially the most valuable from a marketing perspective. Advocates may not always tell your story in exactly the way you'd like (they're not an ad agency), and their stories may not reach the millions of people you dream of, but advocates are passionate, credible, and persuasive.
What's more, there's nothing to stop you amplifying organic content from your brand's advocates - just make sure you treat them with the respect that a true friend deserves (hint: that usually means asking them for permission first).
So, how do marketers improve ROI when working with influencers? The secret is to identify and understand the agenda of the 'influencer' you're hoping to work with.
Is the celebrity only interested in money, or is there something else you can help them achieve instead? What are key opinion leaders motivated by, and how can you work with them so that everyone gets more of what they want? And why do your advocates love to share their passion for your brand, and how can you show them some love in return?
8. Professional Social Networking
We'll switch gears a bit for this next 'trend', but professional social networking is another hot topic that's worthy of every marketer's attention over the next few months.
Social is coming to the workplace, and for many of us, it's already arrived - often without us noticing.
Facebook at Work and Slack are already changing the way that professionals communicate with their colleagues, peers, clients and agencies, so it's perhaps unsurprising that Microsoft paid $26 billion for LinkedIn, and that Slack is already worth nearly $4 billion.
But social networking isn't just about job hunting or sharing the latest great post from Forbes; it's also about building and nurturing the relationships that underpin business success everywhere in the world, across every industry.
Professional social platforms are a great opportunity to share your team's perspectives, as well as to engage clients, customers and partners in valuable conversation.
Tomorrow's CEOs will be increasingly visible - they'll be the people who know how to engage with public audiences in social media, share their organisation's perspectives and values, and demonstrate empathy for the audiences and partners that their organisation cares about.
Similarly, the brands that can best harness widespread employee advocacy are the brands that stand to benefit the most from 'earned' media, and build powerful employer brands in the process.
So, if you'd like to improve your (brand's) ROI via professional social media, don't just look at posting occasional content or polishing your profile when you want a new job. Instead, build your networks now so that they're in place when you need them, whether that's asking peers for advice, finding partners for a new initiative, or getting a foot in the door for your next job.
9. Social Commerce
A trends that is inspiring some of the greatest excitement amongst marketers in social media is the move to embrace social commerce.
'Buy buttons' are popping up all over social media, and while these direct conversion tools offer huge potential for savvy marketers, they're also a potential minefield.
Most people (users) don't come to social media to buy things; they come to socialise. Of course, there may be occasions when they see something they want, and they want to buy it now, but that's more likely by coincidence than by design.
Marketers must be very careful not to interrupt people's conversations with friends and family to try to sell them something that's out of context - or even worse, totally irrelevant.
True 'social' commerce is about building distinct social value into an exchange; it's about interacting with people as people, and not just treating them as transactional consumers.
If you're looking to derive real and enduring value from social commerce, don't think of it as adding e-commerce buttons to social media platforms.
Instead, look for ways to use social media environments to add the kinds of 'value' that people enjoy from social interactions with a great barista, an empathetic customer service agent, or a helpful concierge.
Aim to become a truly social business, and not just a business that sells in social.
10. More Meaningful Measurement of ROI
Our last tip for this post tackles how brands should identify and track social's contribution to overall brand success.
As we mentioned a few times above, real social success can't be measured in terms of eyeballs, clicks, likes, views…
So how should we measure social?
Let's go back to basics. Marketing's task is to always to deliver some kind of change: a change in what people think, feel or do.
Sometimes that change is about radically flipping people's perceptions, but sometimes it's just about a subtle reinforcement of what they already think.
Critically though, unless marketing has delivered some kind of meaningful change, it has not added value.
And it's that change that we need to measure if we're to identify social's contribution (or the contribution of any other part of our marketing mix for that matter).
Identifying this change - and what triggered it - is a lot more straightforward than many marketers think, though.
The answer lies in simple control group research - and by research, we mean anything from a simple Survey Monkey questionnaire with a handful of quick questions, all the way through to large-scale brand tracking surveys conducted across thousands of people in multiple markets every month.
The trick to identifying the contribution of one specific element of your marketing is to ask people whether they've experienced that element, whether it's an individual ad, a social platform (e.g. your Facebook page), or any other part of your marketing mix.
You then need to ask them a question that 'measures' a key attribute - an attitude, belief, or action - that you believe determines your brand success.
By comparing the 'scores' of this key attribute between groups who have experienced certain activities and those who haven't, you can start to identify the contribution that each activity has made to the relevant change in people's attitudes, beliefs or actions.
It may not always be easy to do this sort of research at the scale where you're comfortable making billion-dollar investments off the back of your findings, but our experience proves that even basic findings from this kind of approach are much more informative and reliable than measuring likes, views, or clicks.
Remember: just because you can count it, it doesn't mean it counts.
We'll finish where we started: the best advice we can offer is not to get caught up in chasing every trend, or trying to map out every possible nuance of the social media world.
Instead, take a deep breath, think about what your audiences would most like to see or hear from you, and find the most effective and efficient ways of delivering it to them.