The Urban Legend of Free Social Marketing

When I give advice to CMOs about new social marketing strategies, I often hear the same initial response: But nobody wants to come to my website. While that’s probably true today, cultivating an audience is just like growing your audience on social media: it takes investment.

Brands have spent a decade investing time, talent and billions of dollars in growing their audiences on social media, only to discover that suddenly they can no longer effectively reach them…unless they’re willing to pay for it.

Initially, Facebook took much of the heat, after changes to its algorithm sent organic reach (the percentage of your audience who sees non-promoted content) plunging to less than two percent of the average brand’s audience. Critics speculated that Facebook was using its algorithm to bully brands into spending more money on ads. Facebook argued the changes were crucial to sustaining a positive user experience, noting that as many as 15,000 potential stories could appear in any of our News Feeds every time we log on. But marketers remained skeptical, and many talked of shifting their focus to Twitter, where organic reach doesn’t lie at the mercy of an enigmatic algorithm.

Then Twitter announced organic Tweet analytics. The new insights were meant to help users maximize their organic Twitter impressions, but they also revealed something pretty damning: despite the fact that Twitter’s firehose model gives equal treatment to every organic Tweet that crosses the platform, organic reach on Twitter remains eerily similar to Facebook. So while the volume of brand-related content being created — across platforms, by both brands and consumers — has skyrocketed, the volume of content actually being seen has plummeted because of three irreversible trends.

Feed Frenzy: There are 7x as many users on social media than there were five years ago. Each of those brands and individuals is creating and sharing more content than ever before, and (thanks to content marketing) we’re also talking more about brands. But brands aren’t just competing with each other — they’re going up against everything from wedding photos to breaking news to (viral-optimized) cat videos.

Monetization: As media channels, social networks are endemically flawed. The bulk of their revenue eventually needs to come from advertising, and the combination of increased demand for advertising, limited supply of inventory (especially on mobile) and shrinking reach guarantees that the price of getting your content in front of your audience will only go up from here.

Fragmentation: New social networks are born (and die) every year, and they’re only a small fraction of the fragmentation problem. Chartbeat references “dark social” — things like messaging apps, IMs and email that marketing software can’t track — as the number one traffic driver for content. Buzzfeed sees more shares to WhatsApp than to Twitter. Consumers have more ways to share and connect than ever before, and it’s virtually impossible to measure them all.

In an ironic twist of fate, marketers have been very successful at getting their audiences talking, but their ability to amplify any of the resulting buzz has been eclipsed. The sheer volume of content flowing through social networks at any given moment has rendered brand messages all but invisible unless they’re promoted. Social networks are no longer an effective way for brands to reach their audiences — at least not in the same way.

Many marketers have traditionally looked at social marketing as something that lives on social media, often driving campaign traffic to a Facebook page or app, for example. But as social networks increasingly position themselves as paid advertising channels, it’s  time for marketers to start treating them as such. This shift means using social networks to drive traffic to your own properties. You can continue to use social media for acquisition, awareness and viral marketing through advertising and/or encouraging fans to create and share content about your brand. That’s what those social networks want anyway.

The difference is that instead of treating them like destinations in and of themselves, you think of them like a highly targeted media channel to drive traffic to your own properties. Unlike social media (where you’re basically renting the space and the audience), when you shift your audience onto your properties, you own the entire experience — the data and the audience. In fact, your social experiences can better reflect your brand with a content creation and distribution strategy that you construct.

Give people content experiences they actually care about and want to engage with, and in turn you’ll create your own distribution channel for future content. Return visits increase organically as audiences begin to see you as the central hub for your brand, but great content also gives them an incentive to register. And from there, your content storm shifts to more personal, direct conversations with your fans.

Earned media may be headed for extinction, but a brand’s reach shouldn’t have to die along with it. By re-balancing content distribution, brands can turn distant followers into die-hard fans.