Inside the social media echo chamber

An acquaintance relates an anecdote of a discussion they had recently with someone from Facebook. They were looking for guidance regarding what they should be doing with their brand page from a strategic perspective. And the advice they received largely boiled down to something like ‘build up your likes’.

Not an Earth-shattering insight. And what it does raise is the uncomfortable idea that even the platform creators harbour a great deal of uncertainly regarding what businesses should be looking to achieve by operating in the social media space. It’s easy to forget in the noise, opinion and hype that surrounds it that it wasn’t actually designed with brands and organisations in mind. They’ve found their way there, but no-one’s really sure what we expect them to do now.

We recently conducted a study with brand owners in New Zealand, looking at this central idea of what they hoped to achieve for their brand via social media. And the results were fascinating. For about eight in ten brand owners, the most important role the Facebook page is seen to play was in developing and communicating the brand, closely followed by driving traffic to the brand’s website. 

With around 1.9 million active users in New Zealand, Facebook does look like a great place to grow a brand and direct traffic from. But is it? Within this massive number of active users, who are the people who actually interact with our brand? 

The truth is Facebook offers nothing like this kind of reach at all. We’ve spent the past two months talking in-depth to New Zealand consumers, across a range of different demographics, and what is brutally clear is that people who really connect with brands on Facebook sit within a very clear, very narrow segment: the super-engaged brand loyalists.

Across all kinds of demographics, it’s the people who already love the brand that are active with it on Facebook. People who already visit the brand’s website, who already have a very clear sense of the brand’s personality and image, who probably least need our help to develop a sense of the brand. Indeed, these people are on a brand’s Facebook page seeking something much different. What they are looking to do is deepen their experience with the brand. Kind of like letting fans into the changing room, what these people are seeking is a kind of ‘masters-level’ engagement, and this is a quite different thing to developing a brand with light or non-users. It’s detailed, involved, granular. It assumes a level of knowledge with ‘the basics’.

In essence, the argument that this insight forms is that we can’t look at Facebook like some kind of mass media platform for introducing the brand to the public at large, which one suspects is how it’s seen now by brand owners. At least in part. 

Lots of “eyeballs” are on “screens”, but this disguises what’s really happening in how people are using it and what they are seeking. Facebook, in reality, is a targeted, experiential tool for deepening already established relationships. And this is what we should be designing our social media footprint to reflect. Not growth, but depth.

People do interact with brands for other reasons, of course. They might want a solution to a service issue they are having; they might ‘like’ a brand in exchange for entering a promotion. But unless they are already a loyal customer, they are unlikely to be there to learn about a brand, and our research shows they are certainly not there to start a new brand relationship.

Facebook brand pages are, in a way, a sort of echo chamber. The converted talking amongst themselves, an endless loop of reinforcement. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s an amazing tool. But we do need to recognise it for what it is, and design with that in mind. In fact, the whole social media world for brands is probably a reflection of this same idea in New Zealand. For example, 71 percent of the brand owners and agency people who completed our survey have a personal Twitter account, and 72 percent of their organisations are on Twitter. But only 11 percent of adults in New Zealand have an account, and research suggests there are only 120,000 active Twitter accounts (three percent of adults).

So who are all these marketing professionals and organisations talking to? It’s not consumers. It would seem we are just talking to each other. The converted.

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