Hard evidence of social media’s failings


You probably missed the ’Digital Life’ report from TNS that came out last week. Despite a major PR push from its authors, it barely made a dent in the Twittersphere or across traditional marketing and media channels. Which is odd when you consider that even the slightest news about social media usually garners a huge response in the marketing world. A small company launches a new app and headlines start flashing. A senior marketer announces a major investment in Facebook and 5,000 tweets are launched.

So one might expect that the biggest piece of empirical research ever conducted on consumers’ digital behaviour and their attitudes to social media from the world’s biggest market research company would create quite a lot of buzz. After all, 72,000 consumers interviewed across 60 countries is quite a sample. Yet coverage of the report and its key findings was almost non-existent. Blink and you missed it.

One look inside the Digital Life report, however, explains the lack of attention. Unlike the overly optimistic and wildly out of touch proclamations of the social media industry and those that cover it, the TNS study was based on empirical data. And as a result, it presented a much more even-handed and objective view of the digital landscape than most marketers are comfortable accepting or forwarding to their peers.

For example, the report concludes that the majority of consumers in developed markets do not want to engage with brands via social media. In the UK, that proportion was at its highest with 61% of consumers stating they do not see social media as a place they want to interact with brands. That’s a bummer for every brand manager who spouts the usual crap about “having a conversation with the consumer”, because almost two-thirds of their consumers aren’t interested in talking to them.

The research also reveals that just a quarter of consumers in developed markets see social networks as a place to buy products. Again, that’s a blow both to those who have boldly predicted the commercialisation of social media as a retail space and to the likes of Facebook and Twitter, whose long-term business projections partly depend on monetising their impact on consumers.

But these facts and many more were probably not communicated to you because they do not fit the ideology that the marketing industry is attempting to propagate when it comes to social media. Like the Chinese government – which steadfastly refuses to describe Tibet as anything other than a part of China and which rarely covers any of the public outrages that take place there – the hegemonic forces of marketing prefer to tell a story of new apps and bold Facebook strategies rather than a more fair approach.


To the credit of TNS, it did just that in its report last week, and there was much to celebrate about the potential of digital as a vitally important medium for the people of the 21st century. But what also emerged from the data was clear evidence of the lack of credibility or engagement that most brands can expect from their forays into social media. As TNS chief development officer Matthew Froggatt put it: “Many brands have recognised the vast potential audiences available to them on social networks; however, they are failing to understand that these spaces belong to the consumer and brand presence needs to be proportionate and justified.”

Bravo Mr Froggatt! Wise is the marketer who uses data to assess the situation. And he has a point, does he not? In all the hullabaloo, has anyone considered that the term social media has no place for brands within its definition? ’Social media’ literally means the communication channels that exist between people. Not between brands.

But like every medium before it, brands try to invade that space anyway. And social media, like every other medium before it, is already suffering from clutter as a result. As more brands attempt to grab attention and start social media conversations with disinterested consumers, more of them will switch off. That’s probably why the sample in developing countries in the TNS research were more positive about brands on social media those in developed markets – they have yet to be switched off.

And clutter – as marketers should know from experience – does not eventually subside. The response of marketers to a cluttered media is to produce more clutter. As TNS notes: “Misguided digital strategies are generating mountains of digital waste, from friendless Facebook accounts to blogs no one reads”. The stark message from the TNS data is clear: it’s already hard to communicate with consumers via social media and it will only get harder as time goes on and more brands pile in.

The overall message from the TNS report is not one of complete hopelessness but of practical reality. Digital communications, and social media within it, is a genuinely world-changing development. But for those marketers who ’drank the Kool-Aid’ and spent all their money and attention on using it as their main communications focus, there’s a disappointing denouement ahead.

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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