I have heard it said on a number of occasions that social media is word of mouth on steroids. The argument goes like this: Whereas face-to-face conversations only reach people one-on-one or one-on-several, social media allows people to reach hundreds and often thousands of people with a single post. As a result, it has a far greater reach than word of mouth.
I have been skeptical of this view, arguing that while social media is certainly a piece of the social influence puzzle for brands that deserves to be leveraged, it is just one piece among many. And the premise that social media is word of mouth on steroids ignores the facts. A singular focus on social media is misguided, in my view, as it can blind brands to the full array of opportunities available to them to drive brand advocacy. This is the subject of my forthcoming book, The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace, co-authored with Brad Fay and coming in May.
A few months ago I wrote a blog under the headline, “Social Media is Word of Mouth on Steroids, or is It?” In the piece I shared research that shows for brands with tens of millions of Facebook fans, active engagement by those fans is quite small. In fact just 0.45% are active fans. In a similar vein, research was released last month from the prestigious Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science in Australia showing that after the initial click to “like” the brand, consumers rarely interact again with the brand on Facebook. Here too, less than 1 percent of people remained active on Facebook after the initial engagement. Ehrenberg-Bass summarized its results as follows: “Big Brands Snubbed by Fans on Facebook.” The message here is that the large numbers associated with social media can be seductive, but they are not always exactly as they appear to be.
Now comes a very different type of study that further debunks the “social media is word of mouth on steroids” argument. This research, conducted by BuzzFeed and StumbleUpon, looks at the sources of shared content online across their respective networks and comes to this conclusion: “Put simply, the vast majority of sharing occurs in the normal fashion evidenced in real-world word-of- mouth.”
More specifically, they report that the average Facebook share leads only nine people to visit the story. The median for Twitter was even lower, with each story shared on Twitter leading to five people visiting the story. This reality is far from the “one-to-many” image of social media that many proponents postulate and would be consistent with the “word of mouth on steroid” claim.
The conclusion from BuzzFeed and StumbleUpon: “What emerges is a picture of social networks where stories go viral when lots of people engage with their normal-sized circles to share content. . . In looking to get content shared, marketers and publishers should focus on content that will resonate and get people talking to their colleagues, friends and families. Social media is about engaging people in conversations that mirror the offline world.”
The research that is emerging helps to separate fact from fiction. Yes, social media has the potential to reach hundreds or thousands of people at a time, but the reality is that it rarely does. It should be considered as a part of today’s marketing mix, but it is becoming increasingly clear that for brands which wish to spark the conversations that will move their business forward, it is not a panacea nor is it “word of mouth on steroids.” Remember, for each conversation people share with their colleagues, friends and families via social media, there are many multiples more that get shared at the dinner table, at the water cooler, on the sidelines at youth sports events, and anywhere else people congregate. Those conversations collectively generate far more sharing. Let’s take a holistic perspective on the best and most productive ways to engage today’s social consumer.