You understand that you need to pay for a ticket; it’s the price you pay to see the film. You understand that you need to pay for popcorn; it's the price you pay for eating sweet chunks of cardboard. You take your seat, the room goes dark and you understand that you must sit through twenty minutes of advertising before the film begins. It’s the price you pay for seeing The Avengers on a screen larger than the first floor of your house.
In those twenty minutes, you’re an advertiser's Christmas Eve dream; a captive viewer. The worst advert ever commited to screen could be shown and you’d still watch it. It’s the price you pay.
The social media audience isn’t paying and I think we all forget that sometimes.* The social media audience isn’t coughing up money to watch The Hulk smash things with his CGI fists; there’s nothing keeping them glued to your brand’s latest status update. If they’re following your company on Twitter or Facebook, it’s because you’re offering them something they’re interested in. Competitions. Product news. Customer service. Jokes. Content that’s relevant and content that adds value to their online lives. I think we forget that sometimes.
Social media marketing is viable because it gives businesses the opportunity no other medium offers. As a social brand, you live in their online life, your company seamlessly mixing with conversations from friends and relatives. Your message is constant. But it’s not permanent.
Unlike a film, a television programme or a magazine article, there’s nothing keeping a fan or a follower in their metaphorical chair. There’s no final dramatic act, no last-minute goal, no life-affirming article. Your online audience is there because they choose to be. And if you stop being relevant, if you stop adding value, they will leave you without shedding a tear. It’s the nature of the beast. They’re fickle and there’s nothing we can do to control it.
But it’s not just our problem to fret over. It’s Twitter’s problem, Facebook’s problem, Google +’s problem and LinkedIn’s problem.
Our fates are all intertwined. It’s just as easy to close a Twitter account as it is to click unlike, unsubscribe or unfollow. The online audience is fickle, opening accounts on Pinterest, Quora (remember that?) and Foursquare and abandoning them just as quickly. Users jump around the internet with a pogo stick and, without a time machine, it’s impossible to predict if May’s social network will still be the flavour of the month in June.
But it’s the nature of the beast we’re dealing with. Social media is free and we can afford to be fickle with the things given to us without purchase. We get distracted by the new shiny thing and the old becomes disposable; graveyards of university photographs and melancholic status updates last written in 2007. While the concept of sharing online isn’t dying off anytime soon, the sites certainly are.
It’s why we, as an industry, are so concerned with statistics. The number of registrations, the number of daily visits, the number of minutes spent on a site. It’s a damn sight easier to justify a campaign on a specific platform when all the numbers add up. A website without consumers just doesn't deserve the ad spend**. But we can't control any of this.
As advertisers, all we can do is pay attention and keep adding value. Our fate isn't our own and I think it’s time we all realised that we’re not the masters of this particular universe. I think it’s time we made ourselves useful.
*Of course, your personal data is the price you pay for using social media. I'd argue that users value money to pay the rent much more than their personal data.
**Of course, there are exceptions and campaigns on niche sites for a specific audience can be tremendously effective. But that’s not we’re discussing here. Maybe another time.