What if your customers are silent types?

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Think about the last 10 things you read about social media. I’ll bet each and every one has gushed about the advantages and bold new possibilities. And I’ll also wager that not one of them included even a sentence on what social media was not good at. On what it couldn’t do.

To tell only one side of the story is dangerous – especially for marketers. A brand manager with a big budget and no critical sensibilities regarding social media is a disaster waiting to happen. Take Cadbury. The company has gambled £50m on its biggest ever communication campaign to back its role as the official treat provider to the Olympics.

The campaign centres on a contest between spots and stripes hosted across a variety of social media. You have probably seen the original TV ad in which various marine creatures, representing the spots and stripes, battle it out for supremacy underwater. That campaign was designed to drive visitors to either the Spots or Stripes Facebook site where consumers could join a team and take part in interactive real-time activities to support their chosen side in the run-up to the Olympics.

Eight months in and the Facebook pages for spots and stripes teams total 165,000 “likes”. That puts it on a par with minor celebrities like Zach Galifianakis and bizarre causes like “I hate it when you open your fridge and get punched by a bear”. On Twitter the campaign’s numbers are even more disappointing. So far, it has attracted just over 2,200 followers, which is about 9% of Marketing Week’s following and puts Cadbury’s campaign in the same league as Northumbria Police or BBC Cornwall. All this might explain why many of the real-time Spots v Stripes events appear to be little more than Donna Air and a handful of bemused shoppers playing games in deserted shopping centres.

Social media is too damned voluntary. Like it or not, the oldest strength of advertising is that it is intrusive

Thanks to big brand pioneers like Cadbury perhaps we are about to learn, the hard way, the limitations of social media. For starters, social media does not have the reach of traditional media. Maybe everyone you know starts their day with Twitter and lives for Facebook, but that is clearly not the behaviour of the vast majority of Cadbury’s target market. Indeed, 62% of the British population do not use Facebook and 89% are not on Twitter.

The emigration of the under-30s from mass-media to social media does call for new methods to reach them. But it does not justify the wholesale focus on these tools at the expense of traditional media.

To take the first main criticism of social media – that its reach is simply not broad enough – it should be said that Cadbury is using traditional media too. But while the Spots v Stripes campaign includes millions invested in advertising, PR and sponsorship they are there to drive the target audience towards the snakes and ladders of social media interaction. In a theme common among today’s social media campaigns, Cadbury’s integrated mix does not exist to build brand or drive sales, but rather increase Facebook followers.

It’s hard enough in today’s cluttered climate to reach the consumer and deliver the key message that will drive sales, without adding additional stages to the buying process and spangly new distractions for the marketing team to lose focus on. And this is the second main criticism of social media – it distracts and detracts from the singular focus and simple messaging that usually underpins successful branding work.

A third problem with social media is that it is just too damned voluntary. Like it or not, one of the oldest and most established strengths of advertising is that it is intrusive. Brands invaded the living rooms and the consciousness of their target consumers and delivered a repetitive, low involvem ent message. It may be cooler to engage your consumers in a conversation, but what if they don’t want to talk to you? What if they would rather chat with friends about genuinely self-generated issues. It is too easy for consumers to opt out from the conversation entirely leaving vast swathes of the market unaware of your message.

Then there is the issue of campaign endurance. Speed of contagion is one of social media’s strengths but that also means the half-life of most social media movements is measured in days not months. Cadbury’s naivety with Spots v Stripes can be measured not only by how much it is spending, but when Cadbury started the campaign – August 2010. It actually believes it will engage a social movement around chocolate for 24 months. In fact the initial impact of social media campaigns is rarely longer than a few weeks and most marketing campaigns require more endurance than that for impact.

Thankfully, we do not have to make this an intellectual debate. Marketing is a practical discipline and the proof of social media’s potential will be assessed from sales and market share. Let’s find out if Cadbury’s emphasis on social media makes financial and strategic sense by following the next 14 months of its Spots v Stripes campaign. Just don’t expect my vote.

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