Wharton@Work

July 2018 | 

Getting Social Media Advertising Right

Marketing used to be simpler. You could reach your target audience with television or radio, magazines or newspapers, direct mail or telemarketing. Today, the number of channels has exploded — and what was “in” last week or last month may now be “out.” Keeping up with the options, and understanding how best to reach customers on each one, takes time. Even a well-placed ad on social media won’t be effective if it doesn’t look and sound right for that platform.

The risk of making missteps is growing too. A study by Symantec found that social media mistakes cost major corporations an average of $4.3 million a year. Wharton marketing professor Ron Berman says that while the fear of making a mistake is justified, it should not stop organizations from advertising on social media. (One surprising side benefit, according to Berman, is that having a strong, authentic presence on social media increases employee happiness, lowers turnover, and makes recruiting easier.)

To manage the potential downsides of marketing on social media, first you need to understand the goal. “You are not there to directly sell products,” he tells participants in the Strategic Marketing for Competitive Advantage program. That’s a new insight for many of the marketing executives in attendance. “Social media is for building brand awareness. You are there to create a community or audience that will follow and promote your message. Then when you do launch something, that community will be there.”

Once that goal is understood, it’s important to consider how your content will be perceived by your audience. On TV, consumers are well aware that they are watching an ad, and they can react to it in one of two ways: watch it or don’t watch it. But social media content can blend in more easily and catch consumers unaware. Or it can put them off.

“In that case,” says Berman, “your content can backfire quickly, because it can be shared, commented on, changed, and even turned into memes that millions of people can see.” That was the case when McDonald’s started a campaign on Twitter with a much-too-vague hashtag #McDStories. Encouraging their followers to share their experiences with the brand, they got thousands of the wrong kind of stories (think food poisoning and inhumane treatment of animals).

In addition to thinking about the many ways in which your audience might react, Berman says to aim for authenticity and sincerity on any social media platform. “Consumers appreciate it when companies are open to sharing both the good and the bad. If you’re constantly trying to massage the message, you may get negative reactions. Instead, build your brand by being authentic and transparent.”

And don’t overdo it. A number of studies show that figuring out ROI is not straightforward when one campaign can simultaneously increase sales slightly and drive people away from your brand in droves. Even if your messages are well crafted, emailing, posting, or tweeting too much can also get a negative reaction.

Additionally, Berman says placement is paramount. “At the beginning of a recent session of Strategic Marketing for Competitive Advantage, I asked the participants how many are advertising on YouTube. Very few hands went up. They’re not thinking of video platforms yet, but they should.”

Indeed, earlier this year, a Pew Research Center survey found that YouTube has outpaced Facebook as the number one social media platform. “When you look at two numbers — where people spend their time online and where advertising money is spent online — you see a big gap,” says Berman. “A few years ago, that gap was there regarding social media in general — the spending wasn’t there.” [This very newsletter ran a marketing story in 2013 titled, “Is Social Media Worth your Time?”] “Marketers need to understand where the industry is going. The big opportunities today are on video platforms.”