Social Media: Higher Numbers Aren’t Always Better

Facebook’s Infection by Ksayer1 (

This article was originally published on July 13, 2012

Social media continues to make the headlines, and there’s a general sense among marketers that you have to “be there or be square!” The trend to online that started with banner ads, and then accelerated with search and email marketing, now seems like a headlong rush.

But a rush to accomplish which marketing objectives? That’s the part that seems to have become soft and fuzzy. It was easy to calculate the results of pay-per-click ads—all you had to do was count the clicks. But what’s the value of a Like on Facebook or a retweet on Twitter? This is a vexing question, even for the self-ordained gurus of the social media world.

At a recent panel discussion in Toronto hosted by the Association of Internet Marketing and Sales(AIMS), the topic was how to determine the ROI from social media. And that turns out to be a pretty slippery fish. All three social-media specialists on the panel agreed that social media is worthwhile; but translating the numbers into actual value for the brand, they admitted, is “confusing” and “not easy to measure.”

The problem is that the urgency to collect numbers has caused the real point to be overlooked. How does all this social media effort and its accompanying numbers enhance your brand?

To un-confuse this issue, you have to pause and return to fundamentals. This means you have to avoid being mesmerized by the numbers and suppress the tendency to burn with jealousy if a competitor’s Facebook page has twice as many Likes as yours does. Focus on your own social media presence and content, and ask yourself: is your online activity meaningful to the audience that counts—your brand community—or is it just chatter? Secondly, is the messaging aligned with the values your brand seeks to represent and the promises it intends to deliver?

One of the easiest places to see this in action is Pinterest—which also happens to be one of the hottest social media platforms right now. Compare, for instance, the Pinterest page of the Lindt Chocolate brand with the AMD Technology page. At the time of writing, Lindt had set up 15 pinboards on its page, nine of which focused specifically on the Lindt brand, with such images as a wedding cake made entirely of Lindt chocolates. By contrast, the AMD page sported 33 pinboards, of which only six were clearly brand-related, surrounded by 27 boards with such irrelevant topics as “Spring” and “Red”—featuring, for instance, a photo of a red teakettle.

Although each brand has attracted a nearly equal number of Pinterest followers, it should be obvious that a repinning of a Lindt chocolate wedding cake is a stronger message for that brand than a repinning of a red teakettle would be for AMD (which makes computer processor chips, not teakettles). While the Lindt presence on Pinterest does a great job of focusing on lovers of high-quality indulgent chocolate, AMD has apparently not been able to align its brand promise with its social media presence.

“Find your corporate voice and stand your ground on your values. That will have impact,” advised Clive Woodrow, one of the panelists at the AIMS event and vice-president client services at Sysomos Inc., a Toronto-based social media monitoring firm. In other words, your first concern in online activity—any marketing activity for that matter—should be expressing the brand values to your audience.

That brings up another essential point: content is what you start with, not what you end up with. Some marketers are too eager to apply the famous Marshal McLuhan dictum, “The medium is the message.” They hope that simply engaging in social media will project the message that the brand is cool. But this is wishful thinking, at best.

Before you pick up the megaphone of social media to broadcast a message, make sure you have one. Preferably one that, in addition to being thoughtful and consistent with your brand’s values, is also creative and engaging. It would be good to have a reason to believe (insight) and a reason to take action (benefit). If you don’t already have this, get a good creative marketing agency to help you.

For those who thrive on numerical data, the numbers will certainly come. And you will no doubt learn something from them—but only if you remember to interpret them based on what’s relevant to your audience and your messaging.

Looking again at the Pinterest example, one might compare the 1,266 AMD followers with the 1,538 followers of Lindt and conclude that the benefit for each brand is about equal. But in this instance, the quality of Lindt’s brand-building activity far outweighs the quantity of AMD’s less relevant following.

Bearing this in mind, go ahead and dive into the Olympic-sized pool of data that is now available to any online media marketer. Take note, however, as Woodrow said at the end of the panel discussion, “Social media monitoring is like a gym membership. It’s easy to buy, but it still takes a lot of work to get results!”

The important takeaway is that the numbers can be deceiving. They can add up so fast that it’s easy to think your efforts are paying off, until you realize they’re not actually turning into bottom-line results. The solution to this confusion lies in brand planning based on a clear vision of your message and a solid understanding of your brand community to help manage your expectations.

At the end of the day, marketing is more than simply a numbers game. It’s about relationships. Which—provided you handle it correctly—is what social media does best.


Wayne S. Roberts

The Globe and Mail calls Wayne S. Roberts "an ad industry provocateur." Maybe its because he's never seen the point of playing by the ad game rules that place awards above results, while offering spec work instead of real value to win accounts. Throughout his career, Wayne has maintained a defiantly independent streak characterized by his insistence that agencies must be honest, direct and passionately invested in their clients' success. His pioneering work in espousing the brand community perspective has been a touchstone of his belief that branding is more than just logos, websites and ad campaigns; it is the fundamental way human beings connect with each other to create communities and launch movements that have changed our world.

Wayne S. Roberts has 49 posts and counting. See all posts by Wayne S. Roberts

Wayne S. Roberts