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Social media can be retail AND real

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“2013 will be the year that big brands and advertisers can finally expect to start making money from social media sites,” is the hopeful prediction of a company, Millward Brown, an international advertising and marketing company specializing in “brand equity.

They say there’s been a big psychological turnaround in how we use social media. “[S]hoppers are now not only open to being targeted through intelligent digital advertising, they expect it.”

Really? I suppose I do “expect” to get pitched 24/7 to buy stuff, by telemarketers on my phone, by ads on Facebook, and everywhere. I also “expect” to occasionally step in doggie doo-doo after some idiot doesn’t clean up after his/her mutt. But that doesn’t mean I like it!

And what does “open to being targeted” mean, anyway? Do we have a choice in the matter of how Facebook figures out what to advertise on our pages? Nobody asked me for permission to search through everything I do on the Internet and then decide what I’m in the mood to buy. I’m not “open” to (in Millward’s words) “new, richer advertising opportunities,” they’re being foisted on me by forces against my will. The word “open” therefore is bunk, although Millward did get it right with that word, “targeted,” as in seeing us Facebook users through the crosshairs on a rifle.

They have a newish term for the marriage of “retail” and “social media” and it’s called, appropriately enough, “retail social media.” Sounds like an oxymoron to me. Check out the colorful graphic on this site that purports to explain how “community hubs – conduits for people with similar interests to gather” – such as Facebook – can now be used as digital billboards. In the graphic, you see symbols for the following conceptual parts: Staff, HR, Marketing, Operations, Merchandising, Products, Events, Stores, Tactics, Analytics, Strategy, and Business Goals, with arrows showing how all these moving parts are interrelated. But nowhere in the graphic will you see the Facebook user—you and me, the human being at the center of the whole thing. That’s because, from a “retail social media” perspective, the human being has ceased to exist. Instead, there’s only a transactional purchaser with a credit card, a demographic, a, yes, customer whose exclusive function is to buy.

Mind you, I’m not against advertising on websites, per se. I understand that the people who work to give us a free Internet have to make a living. Zuckerberg isn’t doing this for charity. We’re free to ignore the ads if we want to, which is exactly what I do. I’m just increasingly concerned that advertising is going to move from something on the fringes of our social media to something dominant.

It’s sad for me, as a lover of social media, to see it getting hijacked in this way. I guess it was inevitable. But I wonder how the heart of social media—the free, communal spirit in which it has thrived up until now—will survive this assault by the forces of marketing, which are so antithetical to authenticity, transparency and sharing—the traditional pillars of the social use of the Internet. I said as much in my remarks a couple of weeks ago at U.C. Davis’s class on P.R. and Social Media for Small Wineries, although some people didn’t want to hear it.

You know how wine geeks talk about the “True” Sonoma Coast, as opposed to the formal AVA? I see social media the same way. There’s “true” social media in which individual, real people express themselves to other real people and engage in dialog. Then there’s “formal” social media, something that looks and behaves like “true” social media, but isn’t. Instead, it’s a Trojan horse designed to trick people. It’s probably asking too much for big corporations to be authentic (although they can pay people to make them appear to be authentic). But authenticity is what small family wineries do best. I hear over and over again from them that they don’t have the time to do social media, or they don’t know what to say. I tell them over and over again: You do have the time. Facebooking or tweeting only takes a few seconds. As for what to say, Say whatever is real at the time you’re saying it. “Hated to get out of bed this morning cuz it was freezing, but needed get out into the vineyard.” That’s real and authentic and interesting.

  1. To your last point, I believe Arista Winery in Russian River does a fantastic job of keeping people engaged in the winery through their facebook page. They frequently post beautiful (and relevant) pictures of the vineyards during harvest, pruning, or other significant work as well as pictures of the tasting room or garden during special events. Giving heads up when their new wines are to be released and highlighting articles in which they are mentioned also results in me realizing I haven’t had any Arista Pinot Noir in awhile.

  2. Gary Cowan says:

    Steve,

    This is the lecture on Socian Media you should have gave.

    Using Social Media To Cover For Lack Of Original Thought – Onion Talks – Ep. 6

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CK62I-4cuSY

  3. I still say the only people that are going to make any real money with social media are the ones teaching/selling social media. That being said, I work for a small, family owned retail wine store and have kind of taken a lead on the Facebook side of the whole social media, (ugh, sick to death of that fucking phrase) angle, which is to say that I post things, (pictures of new products, promos and even shots and stories about my dinner and what drank well with it) several times a day both while at work and at times from home, and we do get people coming in asking for “That Rose Sam had with her soup” or “The new Cheddar from California” and what have you. So it does work for us on a small scale and seeing as I was already getting paid and it only takes a few minutes the cost is nothing for the store, therefore totally worth it if it even one person makes that trip to come see us for whatever. Plus each time we can get our voices and products at least in the mind of our customers, and not have to pay for print ads….which for a small store it just too expensive, it’s a win. Would we hire a full time social media person, not snowballs chance in SoCal.

  4. Steve – I have to wonder if your concern for the demise of the “heart of social media—the free, communal spirit” is rooted in the expectation that these platforms will begin to look like Times Square, and then no one will want to come visit with those bright light ads.

    From the marketing side, those of us managing winery fan pages (and similar) find out pretty quickly if we’ve crossed the line into a fan’s personal territory. If we reply to a fan’s positive or negative comment in a manner that doesn’t go over well, that person has no qualms about letting us know we made a mistake. The medium is there to serve the individual not the brand. It’s our job to figure out the right balance of being useful and entertaining without intruding or offending. Too many posts and you’re unliked. Wrong content and you get negative feedback.

    The great thing about the medium is the instant feedback. You sure don’t get that with traditional advertising venues.

    Time will tell if your concerns are well-founded or the medium evolves beyond that.

  5. For all the agony and turmoil involved in Retail Social Media, why don’t we just shorten it to “Retail S&M?” ;)

    With decades of retail sales and management experience, I have gone through many similar situations when deciding where to place my budgeted dollars for advertising and getting out the message of the company. All forms of customer contact have their advantages and disadvantages, and (for most businesses) the big question is what will the return be for the dollars and time invested?

    Since we still haven’t found a way to meaningfully track ROI (return on investment) of social media, it’s main advantage still lies in being relatively low-cost, needing only some keyboard time and the input of someone who knows what they need to do. But it is *critical* that they know the what and how of their communications.

    Most of what I’ve seen in SM is the equivalent of billboard advertising along the freeway or mass email blasts — junk mail that most consumers ignore. As SM providers get more ambitious about *targeting* us (yes, an apt phrase) we’ll see more of the junk mail being tailored for out “likes” but rarely does the advertiser seem to care about our *dislikes*. Being bombarded by constant barrages turns me off to the message and eventually makes me a bit leery about even favorite long-time brands which I’ve supported over the years.

    Brings to mind Spielberg’s 2002 rendition of “Minority Report.” The most horrific part of the movie — not Tom Cruise’s acting, not taking Philip K. Dick’s incisive short story and bloating into an action/adventure chase flick — to me was the relentless tracking of individuals and the barrage of “advertising” *tailored* to their histories. That was the most chilling part of the movie for me.

    Most people seem to ignore the fact that *they* are the product for FB or other SM outlets; they are providing the content (which is no longer their private property, once it’s posted on the wall) and they are the targets for the folks from whom FB makes their money. Brings to mind another SF flick (“The Matrix”) — feeling more and more like “coppertops.”

  6. Steve,

    Hate to be the one to say this but “Hated to get out of bed this morning cuz it was freezing, but needed get out into the vineyard.” may be real and authentic but it is most definitely not interesting.

  7. Oh, Fred, I couldn’t disagree more!

  8. Direct Marketing is a very old industry that quickly understood and took advantage of moving from snail-mail marketing to e-mail, they saved a bunch of money doing it and made a ton along the way. e-mail marketing morphed into something different with spam laws and controls and the big thing then became permissions marketing which is still important (and paid for). Now comes social and the people who made money through snail-mail, e-mail and then permission marketing are all working hard to figure out this next phase.

    A very interesting thing has happened with social media… your friends, family and associates are now giving out your permission, so how does one of the marketing companies make money from that? Trust me they big money that figured out s-mail/e-mail/p-mail marketing are spending lots of time and money figuring out how to generate money from social & also trust me they will figure it out.

  9. and it’s not banner ads on Facebook or Twitter as we all know we ignore those, and their success rates are being very carefully analyzed and vetted.

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