The best thing that ever happened to social media marketing was the hacking of the 2016 US election of Donal Trump by the Russians. Why? Because it laid bare what many in social media marketing has known for a long, long time: that social media platforms are a joke, their valuations are based on imaginary users, and their integrity lies somewhere between Lucifer and that guy who eats people’s faces in the movies.
For marketing consultants such as myself, recommending existing social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram has been increasingly difficult, because -quite frankly- many of us don’t trust the metrics.
And why should we? Facebook doesn’t.
This is from Facebook’s 2017 SEC filing (emphasis mine):
The numbers for our key metrics, which include our daily active users (DAUs), monthly active users (MAUs), and average revenue per user (ARPU), are calculated using internal company data based on the activity of user accounts. While these numbers are based on what we believe to be reasonable estimates of our user base for the applicable period of measurement, there are inherent challenges in measuring usage of our products across large online and mobile populations around the world.
The largest data management company in the world says it doesn’t really know if its numbers are accurate. Estimates? What marketing professional wants estimated results after the fact?
It gets worse. Emphasis mine:
In the fourth quarter of 2017, we estimate that duplicate accounts may have represented approximately 10% of our worldwide MAUs. We believe the percentage of duplicate accounts is meaningfully higher in developing markets such as India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, as compared to more developed markets. In the fourth quarter of 2017, we estimate that false accounts may have represented approximately 3-4% of our worldwide MAUs.
Let that sink in. Facebook is admitting that “approximately” 10% of its monthly active users are fake. Interestingly, they don’t mention what percentage of their daily active users are fake.
And that’s the problem with social media. You don’t know what’s real and what’s fake anymore.
Social media hasn’t been real for a while.
As marketers and advertisers, we pride ourselves on accuracy. In the olden times of marketing and advertising, we obsessed over rating numbers of tv shows, readership for print promotions, and delivery success rates for direct mail.
In all cases, the platforms of the day were heavily audited. You knew, with fair certainty, was the audiences were for any particular medium or channel because there was usually a point of review somewhere for the numbers.
Traditional media such as radio, TV, and print had been around long enough that there were thousands of case studies one could study the success or failures of individual campaigns. Because these mediums were part of the public record, it was easy to work backward to see what mix of media and budget worked and what didn’t.
As an industry, we could quickly establish benchmarks for success – not just based on our personal experiences- but in the collective experiences of very clear strategies laid bare for everyone to dissect.
Well, that all went out the window with social media.
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram’s numbers were always a joke.
In days of yore, company valuation was based on revenues, assets, and human capital, and performance.
That all changed when someone came up with the concept of “daily active users.”
The race to gain users became the driving force for social media platforms in a way that we’ve never seen before. Now, the obsession with user growth opened the door to advertising and marketing fraud on a scale that just wasn’t possible previously.
Let’s get something clear: any platform that allows for people to create thousands of fake profiles so others can buy likes, followers, retweets, or shares is toxic to advertisers and brands alike.
Now, I understand that the word “allows” is doing a lot of work in that sentence, so let me expand a bit what I mean.
I don’t think I’ll get many arguments when I say that -regardless of what I think of them- the most successful social media platforms on the planet are also some of the most sophisticated technological enterprises on the planet. They have -arguably- some of the best AI around, as their entire business models revolve around being able to crunch numbers, facts, and obscure pieces of data millions of times a second.
They are also massive corporations, with an army of lawyers and IP bulldogs waiting to protect their brand against any hostile outside forces.
So explain to me, how is it, that even after all we have seen in the news people can still buy Facebook likes, or Twitter followers, or Instagram fans?
The reason: it was always a scam. And we got conned along with everyone else.
If your company is valued on your number of users and the activity of those users on your platform, what do you care if they are fake or not? If you did, you’d hire an armada of auditors to ensure the integrity of your userbase. I don’t believe they ever did and will never do this.
Social platforms deploy their honey trap.
Initially, social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter lured brands and companies onto their platforms with promises of free marketing and advertising. The ability to quickly grow a fanbase and follower base, without the need of hiring marketing shmucks like me. Why waste time on hiring a professional when you can do it all yourself for nothing?
At first, I was a supporter of this. I believed that marketing and advertising was often something that only larger companies could afford, and that small business marketing was being left behind. Social media marketing allowed for even a mom and pop shop to compete online.
So many businesses spent countless hours and thousands of dollars in human resources to grow their followers online.
Having lured them into their honey trap, social media companies then held followers and fans hostages. You had to pay to have access to the userbase that you built up and cultivated.
Suddenly the numbers didn’t make any sense. You had to pay to promote or boost posts when previously it was free. The result was disastrous for many businesses. The ROI’s didn’t add up, but with so many of their customers on these platforms, they had little choice but to continue to try and get whatever value they could for them.
Moreover, the move to such promotions opened up the Pandora’s box to further abuses. The drive for revenue seemingly caused social platforms to continue to look the other way on fake profiles and social media bots because they drove ad sales. Personal data was harvested and manipulated in ways that users could not fathom and did not agree to.
Mostly, it did something to marketing that I’m not sure we can recover. For many digital marketing firms and marketing agencies, it forced us to down the Kool-aid with everyone else. People that should have known better doubled down on social media marketing for our clients when we knew -for most of them- it was unnecessary.
Marketing and advertising agencies became accomplices after the fact.
Like I said earlier, marketing and advertising agencies and consultants are supposed to obsess with accuracy. We want our clients to have the very best ROI available.
However, like professionals in any business vertical, we’re self-serving.
One of my favourite examples of how people who would know better will say anything for a buck is real estate agents.
Have you EVER heard a real estate agent tell you it’s a wrong time to buy a house? In all of my days, I have never read an article by a real estate agent saying that people should hold off on a purchase. House prices going up? A great time to buy; you’ll make your money back immediately! House prices going down? It’s a buyers market! Lock in your savings now!
Marketing and advertising professionals did something similar with social media marketing.
We saw the platforms’ rise in popularity and didn’t want to get caught in a lurch. The buzz was building behind them, and clients were often demanding us to help them. So -even though Facebook and Twitter were mostly unproven with little to no actual case studies to speak of- many firms told their clients to throw money into the black hole of social.
What was the result? The majority of social media campaigns are disasters. I only know of a fraction of companies that continue with any seriousness on social media compared to the rates companies did with traditional advertising or even SEO and non-social digital ads.
You see it in the positioning. When digital marketers talk about social media, they discuss it regarding “reach,” “exposure,” “presence,” “awareness.” That’s code word for “throw your money away.” Do an online search of the effectiveness of social media, and you will find the results filled with SEO and social media marketers praising the platforms and the strategies.