How does social media best serve brands? It's a question that's long lingered over an industry still wrestling with driving results across digital channels, and one that was top of the conversation at the Advertising Research Foundation's (ARF) Audience Measurement conference in Jersey City, NJ, last week.
Several industry experts with a focus on audience and data analytics suggested that social media, though a powerful tool on its own, best serves marketers when leveraged with other channels. That might seem a given to social mavens, but ARF speakers cautioned that many brands still mistake social media chatter as comparable to word of mouth, and also fail to properly account for other digital marketing channels when building campaigns and measuring success metrics like ROI.
"Most brands are doing some form of social listening [and] have a tendency to think that's a reflection of what consumers are saying," Ed Keller, CEO, Engagement Labs, said at an ARF talk. "People are comparing social media to Google search, comparing it to word of mouth [...] but is social media reflective of the broader conversation that's taking place about your products, services and brands?
"We do think that there's a blind spot in many organizations for measuring offline word of mouth, wondering are the two the same, wondering if they do want to engage in word of mouth," he added later. "If we're not engaged in actively managing both and thinking about how these two different ecosystems can best be navigated, we're leaving money on the table."
How consumers think about social
Instead of providing a comprehensive portrait of consumer behavior, social media is more analogous to the tip of an iceberg, with a far larger and very differently shaped profile lurking beneath the surface, according to Keller.
To get a clearer perspective, it's important that brands research how consumers actually use social in their day-to-day lives and not think about it strictly as an advertising channel. While social media is valuable in giving marketers an idea of their audiences' tastes and desires in a broad sense, its heavily-curated nature doesn’t always tell the full story.
"Social is when we present the self that we want everyone to see. It's sort of an aspirational version of ourselves," said Jason Hartley, VP, U.S. search practice lead, media, at the agency 360i, during a case study presentation.
At his talk, Keller echoed those comments, noting that social sharing usually showcases "the best part of our lives — it's something new, it's interesting, it's worth talking about publicly."
That role differentiates from a channel like search, which is rarely public facing and therefore lacks a performative aspect, Hartley said. Something like search more often serves a practical and transactional function that is still essential to analyze when trying to create a nuanced consumer profile.
"If you just do social listening, you're going to get a skewed picture, but if you just looked at what people did in search, you wouldn't necessarily understand how they got there," Hartley said. "So this is really about trying to be along the entire consumer journey."
That phenomenon extends to offline measurements like brand word of mouth, according to Keller. His company Engagement Labs, on top of examining social media chatter, regularly surveys consumers to see the types of real-world conversations they have about brands across over 15 different categories, revealing stark contrasts.
"What we find is, across the 500 brands we measure, there's only a +8% correlation between the trends and volume online and offline," he said. "It's not a whole lot to bet on."
Mapping out a journey
In order to build more relevant campaigns through social, marketers might first turn to the channel to gauge sentiment and also what topics are trending. That knowledge can be used to draw up a general framework and then be combined with other factors like search habits to paint detailed, relevant personae to market around.
"In search, there are things you can do to look at the volume and actually how things are converting [...] you can start to understand when this turns into an action that you, as a brand, want people to take," Hartley said.
New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation (NOTMC), one of 360i's fully integrated clients, wanted to push past the image of is namesake city simply being a destination for festivals like Mardi Gras and instead become a year-round vacation spot.
"When we started to look at what they were saying specifically about New Orleans, it was broad impressions," said Kate Paulin, SVP, insights and planning, at 360i. "But where we saw the drop-off was when they went to social."
The agency started closely examining platforms like Twitter and TripAdvisor, along with travel forums, while the NOTMC overhauled its budget to double down on digital with a plan that included social influencers and custom content.
"We redid the analysis just looking at those people who had the right mindset and were kind of amplifying what we wanted them to be saying," Paulin said. The agency was then able to conduct what Paulin called a "tribe analysis" around personae built from that data.
"This is based on search, social and some of the traditional research that we did, and we came up with these portraits of people who we felt had the psychographics to really amplify the message that New Orleans is truly a well-rounded place to visit," Paulin said, noting that the combo made for a trifecta of information on motivations and the real truth behind reactions to the effort.
And despite the investment and more rigorous approach to audience analytics, the results from 360i and the NOTMC's revamped campaign were clear: New Orleans is on track for its highest visitation since Hurricane Katrina, with visitors spending more than ever.
An integrated view
Amid the current industry obsession with accurate, transparent metrics, honing a multi-channel approach that doesn't sink all eggs into one basket ultimately helps cover more bases. The measurement issue is also one that is only going to become more pressing as new screens continue to proliferate and the media landscape fragments further.
"Consumers today move fluidly between online and offline conversation," Keller said, noting that the ubiquity of mobile devices, and the ease with which they can enter real-world conversations, continues to blur that line.
"We think, from a brand point of view, we'd be wise to sort of stop thinking about things in silos and figure out how to have an integrated view of the consumer and the way we communicate with [them] to try to drive these very powerful and important conversations," he said.