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Can social media sell anything but itself?

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Let me start by a disclaimer: I am not a marketing person.

Over the past 30 years I’ve first and foremost regarded myself as a salesperson.

Despite having an MBA majoring in marketing, I fully admit to having a rather simplistic view of marketing: present a product or service so people can see what it is. Then leave the selling to the sales department.

Marketing incorporates advertising, half of which we know works – we’re just not sure which half.

And that’s why I love online advertising.

If it doesn’t work, I can turn it off – instantly.

The beauty of online is that everything can be measured. The challenge is to work out what to measure. In ecommerce, that’s really easy – Return of Investment (ROI).

Everything we do online comes down to a very simple measurement of how much each sale costs (i.e. cost per conversion, or CPA), and whether that cost is less than what we make on the sale. If it does, keep doing it. If not, turn it off.

Enter social media, this wonderful Pandora’s box promising to be a marketers nirvana – two-way communication between your brand and audience, interacting directly in real time with thousands upon thousands of your most valued customer at once, creating trust, creating interest, creating sales.

Social media may be all of the above, but so far I certainly haven’t worked out how the online traffic we can create from Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube or any other broad based social media site creates sales. Or, more accurately, how traffic generated to our site from any of the above can create sales at an acceptable ROI.

A couple of years ago, all the rage was about viral marketing campaigns – at every online seminar or workshop you’d hear at least one amazing story about how someone sending this incredibly funny message to a handful of friends mushroomed into an audience of millions within weeks or even days.

Interestingly, I can’t recall too many stories about viral campaigns that resulted in equally amazing sales results.

I see an interesting parallel here. The viral campaigns we heard about were successful because they were funny, controversial, cheeky, silly or a combination of all of the above. The real value was in the message itself, not what it was trying to sell. Teetotallers with a sense of humour would laugh at Carlton Draught’s Very Big Ad, but they wouldn’t suddenly start buying Carlton Draught by the slab.

More to the point, viral campaigns were successful because they could be shared easily. I’d forward a funny email to my friends and colleagues because I wanted to share the laughter. Social media has a lot of the same characteristics – it attracts huge audiences because people want to share experiences, photographs, videos, thoughts, music, rumours, ideas, etc.

It’s the sharing and interaction that makes social media so successful and differentiates it from most other forms of media.

That doesn’t necessarily make it an effective sales channel.

A metaphor I often hear used is that social media is the modern day equivalent of the office water cooler (or the office canteen, smokers corner, the vending machine or the local café – wherever co-workers gather in groups). Which also reminds me that the most unpopular person in such gatherings is the guy who has just signed up with Amway (no link intended) – a sure-fire conversation stopper!

So just like the water cooler, trying to sell stuff on social media sites is not just difficult, but it may even be contrary to the very purpose of what social media is about – sharing and interaction between like-minded people.

Coming back to the viral campaign comparison, I haven’t had any agency trying to sell me on the cost-effectiveness of viral campaigns for a long time. I wonder if social media is going the same way?

Hang on a minute, I hear you say, whether you are a salesman or a marketer, you cannot possibly ignore such a huge audience.

And you’d be right.

But the point is, if social media has a place in the overall online marketing mix, it needs to be measured, and having people twitter, update a Facebook profile or post videos on YouTube costs money, too.

Social media may have a place in the overall marketing mix, but you need to understand where it fits into the sales process.

Kim Wingerei sells mobile phones and telco services online. He works to live, is easily distracted and likes sailing.

Photo: Respres (flickr)

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