Are social media features helpful or just gimmicks?

One thing that we all appear to love on social media sites is being able to get involved with something. Whether it be the ‘Like’ buttons on Facebook, the ‘Retweet’ option on Twitter or the new feature on LinkedIn that allows you to endorse skills for your connections. But as fun as these little features are, what do they actually tell us? Are they an indication of popularity or approval or are they simply misleading and really showing that users like to be involved and so click them without  thinking through what they are associating themselves with?

I will give you an example; on LinkedIn I regularly receive endorsements via the new skills feature, and most times when I log on I will issue a handful of them as well. The way I approach this is that I select the ones that I really feel apply, as if I was giving a reference, so if a good developer I have have previously worked with pops up with HTML as an option then I will happily click to endorse. On the flip side, if a mediocre designer pops up I won’t endorse their design skills. My view is that if you wouldn’t recommend them to someone else then you shouldn’t endorse their skills. But is this how other people are using this feature? Well quite simply put, no.

To give another example; also on LinkedIn recently I received a notification that I had been endorsed for my CSS skills. This came as a bit of a surprise as I am not a developer and although I can fiddle around with a bit of HTML I am certainly not someone who would be recommended for his skills in this area. On closer inspection what was even more surprising was that the person who had endorsed me was a developer I have previously worked with, who is more than well aware that I do not possess these skills. What does this tell us about how people generally use this feature? It suggests that they do not actually look at what they are endorsing and therefore the validity of endorsements on LinkedIn becomes minimal at best.

But why is this concerning? In the not too distant past I went for a job interview and it was made known that my LinkedIn profile had played a significant part in the pre-interview preparation they had done. What I found particularly galling was that at the time I listed my Freelance Photography as one of my jobs, because it is relevant to my professional skills. This became a particularly significant line of questioning as something that they saw as a risk to their business if they hired me. In that particular situation there was nothing fabricated about my profile, it merely showed that as well as my main job I do a freelance job. So if LinkedIn is becoming a tool for recruitment how will the inaccurate endorsements skew opinion for or against a candidate?

Another problem with these features is that Social Media is hard to measure in terms of success. A lot of companies measure their success based on Likes, Shares and Retweets. But if user engagement is anything like LinkedIn’s endorsements feature then this could be misleading. I regularly see on my Facebook wall that people have liked a whole myriad of random companies, some of which they probably wouldn’t ever actually buy something from but liked the pictures, or perhaps their friends liked the company first and so they followed suit.

The ‘Like’ feature on Facebook is a particularly misleading one. It is incredibly common for someone to make a comment on Facebook that provides sad news or misfortune. In that situation the last thing you would normally do is ‘Like’ the comment. If a friend told you that they had cancer you wouldn’t respond by saying “I like that” would you? And yet on Facebook dozens of people will do this and only the savvy few will actually comment and saying “I won’t click Like, because it doesn’t seem right”. It seems that we have an impulse to associate ourselves with other people and their content, in order to connect ourselves and feel a part of it.

The problem for marketeers is gleaning some sort of meaningful statistics from these sorts of engagements. Endorsements, Likes, Retweets and the vast collections of other features out there do offer us one thing, an indication of engagement with users. But this shouldn’t be confused with approval and it shouldn’t be translated into some sort of sales potential. the big problem with Social Media engagement is the common misconception that these platforms offer a direct channel for sales. They don’t! Instead what they offer is the chance to build advocates of brands. There is nothing wrong with getting 1 million followers on Twitter or 1 million likes of your page on Facebook, but this shouldn’t be translated into 1 million potential sales opportunities. A lot of those will be there because of the group mentality to follow, lemming like. What this does mean however, is that there is potential for 1 million users to see your content and be influenced by it. Giving them a reason to see that content and engage with it regularly is the first step in creating advocates of them, and that means that your brand is likely to start resonating with them when they are not viewing your content as well.

In the end Social Media is about networking, not about selling, and understanding the mentality behind this is key. People use social media sites to feel close to each other, to have conversations and to feel involved, not to be sold to. This is invasive and we, as users, don’t like our personal space to be invaded. The industry is trying shift the focus of social sites to allow selling to take place. Advertising is creeping in all over the place, but there is a lot of disapproval from users for this. The social media fad may dip or it may retain its strength, but the sites that will succeed with users will be the ones that maintain the social feel and try to hold back the sales element. Unfortunately this is at odds with the business needs of the companies who build the sites. A cold war is churning away and it will be interesting to see how it is played out. Until then, get sensible with your social media and value your users…they will value you in return.

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