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An MBA student asked me last week what my problem was with social media. She’d just completed my 12-week Brand Management course throughout which I had been openly hostile to the idea of social media as a communications revolution for brands. The way she had asked me suggested that she thought it was a simple case of 40-something fogeyishness driving my antagonism toward Twitter and the rest.

Read Mark Choueke’s counter argument here

To be fair, I have no doubt that social media is changing the way that people communicate with each other. But where I deviate from popular opinion is in the relevance of social media for most brands. Over the weekend I looked again at big brands and their application of social media.

The results, when compared to the industry buzz we keep hearing, simply do not stack up.

I took Brand Finance’s 2010 report on Britain’s biggest brands, covered exclusively in Marketing Week (29 July), as my starting point. I drew the line at the top 20 and reviewed each of these brand’s Twitter activities. The reality versus the myths of social media might surprise you. Did you know, for example, that five brands, including big players like Morrisons and Barclays, don’t use Twitter at all? How do we reconcile that with the apparently essential nature of social media for 2010 marketing strategies?

And many of the brands that do use Twitter are having very little impact. Forget the hype for a second and just look at the numbers. Of the 15 brands in the top 20 that tweet, several of them – including BP, Vodafone and BT – have fewer followers than tweets. Have you ever encountered a successful mass-communications strategy that involves more messages than audience members? In the particular case of BT and Vodafone, it also prompts the question, given the business they are in and the fact that both have more tweets than followers, why they didn’t just pick up the phone and call their customers instead?

To be fair a couple of the brands on the list, like O2 and Sainsbury’s, have got a more decent number of followers on Twitter. But the figures, relative to their actual market sizes, are still infitessably small – in both cases their followers represent less than 0.5% of their customer base. It’s going to require one hell of a viral effect for Twitter to have any meaningful effect on either brand’s market. And what about Tesco? It’s arguably Britain’s biggest and best run brand and yet it has a grand total of 281 followers. Are you starting to see my point?

Peter Andre has more followers on Twitter than the top 20 British brands between them
Peter Andre has more followers on Twitter than the top 20 British brands between them

If there is one killer stat that proves that I am right on social media’s inequity for most brands, it’s a new calculation that I have called “the Peter Andre factor”. The ex-pop star and ex-celebrity husband is hardly one of Britain’s biggest stars. And yet he has more followers on Twitter than the whole of the top 20 British brands. In fact, his 520,000 followers mean he has more than five times the followers that Britain’s 20 biggest brands can muster between them.

What does Peter Andre have that brands lack? The answer is simple. He is human. Forget what the marketing experts tell you about celebrities being brands. That’s rubbish. Celebrities are people and social media works on a person-to-person basis. Hence the huge numbers of followers on Twitter for pop stars and footballers. Where it does not work is when cold, hard, lifeless organisations start trying to spark interactive social media conversations. It’s not welcome. It’s not valuable. And it’s not working.

The reason I am being so stringent and negative about all this is because that’s exactly the way marketers are supposed to be when it comes to spending money on communications. The whole idea is to query the value of everything to make sure that you don’t get suckered into spending your company’s hard-earned cash on something that is not going to give you a return on investment. And right now I question just how many marketers engaged in social media are actually able to justify their investment.

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The problem with the social media crowd is that they are way too positive and biased towards its potential for every brand, in every situation. Of course they would be positive because it’s not their money they are spending, it’s yours. And it doesn’t do any harm that compared to all the other potential communication tools that they could recommend for your brand social media is very high margin stuff.

So let’s get social media into perspective. It’s a new and relatively insignificant communications tool that has limited potential for a very small proportion of brands. As such it joins the integrated marketing communications mix as an interesting, but probably unjustifiable, alternative to other more established and effective tools like PR, interactive and advertising.

And if anyone tries to tell you any different they are suffering from Insania.

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award-winning columnist and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

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