Exposing the Fatal Flaw in Social Network Marketing

I read (via a link from Hutch Carpenter) with absolute glee today an article at the Harvard Business Review that points out what I and about 3 other voices have been screaming from the wilderness for years- customers don’t really want to “socialize” with companies:

Maybe customers are shifting toward self service because they don’t want a relationship with companies. While this secular trend could be explained away as just a change in consumers’ channel preferences, skeptics might argue that customers never wanted the kind of relationship that companies have always hoped for, and that self service now allows customers the “out” they’ve been looking for all along.

In fact, the trend has long been towards company avoidance, with two very different exceptions, which we’ll get to in a moment.

First, let’s look at how most people shop and consume today.

My Time is Not Your Money

Time is precious in this day and age.  I buy virtually all of my products, other than groceries, online.  Even at the grocery store, we are in the middle of a shift to self-checkout.  I thought that was an insane idea the first time I saw it.  Now I use it all the time.  It’s all about saving that precious commodity- time.

It takes a fraction of the time to buy a product online, and my goods get delivered to my doorstep.  Amazon Prime delivers by second-day mail.  I have found Apple and even Dell to be very fast shippers, with items often arriving even before the estimated date.  All of this gives me more time to do what I want to do, whether that’s make more money for me, or spend some extra time goofing off with my kids.

If you want to talk to me, in whatever capacity, that takes time.  Time that I probably don’t want to give you if the idea is to part me with my money.  The fact that I can read (or click, in the case of buying something online) faster than you can talk is why I get my news online and not on TV, and why I have never been into the video-blogging thing.  I want to consume information and goods at my pace, not yours.

Time being such a precious commodity, why in the world would people want to prolong the process they have to go through to get the goods they want?  In other words, people, even those who play Farmville, are smart enough to know that (a) some company who invades Facebook is there, ultimately, to make money off of them, and (b) time spent on some pseudo-conversation with a company representative (or likely a series of them) could be better spent looking for lost chickens (or whatever you do in Farmville).

The Tupperware Effect

I have never been to a tupperware party, OK?  But I know that the idea is to get a bunch of people you know together, have some sort of faux party and try to sell them something.  There are a million different versions of this “monetize your friends” angle.  The problem is that when you’re gathered in a circle talking about the newest Apple rumor and half the people are secretly trying to sell you a sandwich container, it’s only a matter of time until the conversation goes from iMacs to re-sealable sandwich holders.  In other words, the conversation quality is lower.  If you are only waiting for me to shut up so you can make your pitch, what’s the point?

Art by Hugh

I’m clearly not the only one who feels this way.  Listen to Kathy Sierra talk about social networking at something called the Gov 2.0 Expo.

On TIVOs and DVRs

If I’m right- and I am- that all of this social network marketing is really just some new age, dressed-up advertising, then how long before the conscripted universe of potential customers rebels?  I have spent thousands of dollars on satellite TV, XM radio (though Mojo Nixon is in the process of single-handedly driving me away from it), TIVOs and the like, all in the name of ad-avoidance.  Hell, I just bought a season pass of the current Big Brother season, just to avoid having to fast-forward through the ads.  There are entire industries based on avoiding the very thing marketers want to subject us to.

It boggles my mind that so many people are betting so much on the infinite willingness of people to be marketed to.

Anyone Remember Email?

At the end of the day, most of this social networking business is just an email replacement that people use, generally on their own time, to communicate with friends and have fun.  Business, even if you try to disguise it, thrust into a goodtime is a buzz kill.  Period.  It’s spam 2.0.

If we react so negatively and passionately to spam in our email inbox, how can anyone expect us to allow spam in our social stream?

We won’t.  Because at the end of the day, people hate advertising.  They always have and they always will.

What About the Two Exceptions?

I’m glad you asked.  There are exactly two times when people will seek out contact with companies.  To get something cheaper and when something is broken.  These are very different situations, and only one of them is an opportunity for companies to improve their brand.

I don’t like coupons, and I hate rebates.  That whole business makes me feel like a lion standing in front of a burning hoop.  It would be more fun to bite the head off of the person expecting me to jump through it, but it would be easier (i.e., it would save me a few dollars) to jump.  No company has ever made me feel affection by offering me a coupon or a rebate.  Sure I may buy your product and fill in your stupid rebate form, but I’ll hate you for it.

The way to my heart is to forget marketing and just make a great product.

Product support is a different story.  When something breaks, I want to get it fixed, quickly (because, again, time is precious) and permanently.  There have been many instances in which a blog post here or a post on Twitter has resulted in a email from a support person offering assistance.  That makes me feel warm and fuzzy.  Your third request that I “Like” your Facebook page, not so much.

Companies should send their support department to the social networks, not the
ir marketing department.

The Bottom Line

People hate ads.  People want to buy things their way, on their terms and without a lot of hoopla.  Nothing is going to change this.  If companies want to improve their brand via the social networks, they have to stop trying to turn the internet into a giant tupperware party, and focus on giving customers what they really want- a great product with great support.

5 thoughts on “Exposing the Fatal Flaw in Social Network Marketing

  1. I really like your post and I've been blogging about some of the same topics. I predict a shake-up in social network marketing similar to the one that happened to the dotcoms in the late 1990's. People want to connect with companies, as you mentioned, when they want to get something cheaper or when they don't work. But, they also want to connect with companies and other people who use the product in communities that address their needs — a need for information, a need for instruction, a need to share experiences with others using the product. Probably there are other needs fulfilled by communities of commercial and user groups. But, you can't just rush in a sell them something. Recently, Twitter started displaying ads. Not only are these annoying, but my guess is they aren't working too well for advertisers, just as the ads and sponsored links in Google are starting to perform poorly.

  2. Great post Kent. Social support is an area that is slowly picking up steam, especially with the advent of hosted cloud solutions like http://www.service-now.com. Back in 2004, I started and managed a local government online support community for supported housing professional using a particular 3rd party contract management solution. The solution vendor loved it because it was value-added support for their customers, with little involvement from their end except to announce new features to their app, and convening workshops to discuss issues and new features for future versions. The customer base provided the bulk of the expertise and knowledge sharing in the community. If a problem couldn't be resolved by the user community, then it would be raised as a helpdesk incident with the vendor. It is now a mature Ning community with many contributing members using all the swish Web 2.0 functionalily available in Ning networks.

  3. Thanks for the comment. I agree that the current trend (which assumes that ad dollars are infinite) is not sustainable. It's crazy how our economy went from a manufacturing one (good) to mostly a service one (bad, over time), and now even these web services have put themselves, collectively, in a place where they can't even charge for their services. It's beyond absurd if you think about it. When did something no one will pay for (like, say, Twitter) become not only a business model, but one that some people (most of whom, granted, have skin in the game) place gigantic valuations on.It's like everybody realizes they don't have any real product to sell, so they are trying to sell imaginary ones for as long as possible.

  4. Very good points. I think the service end could be the golden egg for a lot of stuff (as long as we don't get all navel-gazing and start talking about CRM, the semantic web and all of that nonsense). I can envision all kinds of cost savings on one end, and convenience and crowd sourcing on the other.In many ways Google is already serving as the support department for all products. I bought a new monitor that needed a dual link DVI cable. When I hooked it up, the screen looked BAAAD. I didn't even think about going to the Dell site, or calling anyone. I just Googled it, and found my problem (which was solved by using the cables that came with the monitor, instead of my old ones).If companies can harvest that stuff, and improve on it, I think there are savings galore to be had.As an aside, I thought Ning was a neat idea. Again, though, they were forced by the sins of their forefathers to try (and fail) to have a business plan based on free.

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