by Bob Hoffman (@adcontrarian), San Francisco Bay 

Date posted: February 14, 2014

It was going to change business forever. It was going to make traditional advertising irrelevant. It was going to revolutionise marketing.

It was social media marketing. And it’s been the biggest disappointment since the NFL hired referees.

While advocates for social media still cling to the wreckage of “the conversation” and continue to hound us with apocryphal tales of social media magic, dispassionate observers are starting to realise what a delusion the whole theory of social media marketing has been.

The idea that consumers were enthusiastic about having conversations about brands online, and they would activate their network of friends and followers to share their enthusiasms and create a socially transmitted tsunami of sales has proven to be deeply fanciful.

It turns out that the average consumer has a lot more on her mind than conducting online conversations about fabric softener. And the ones that do seem to have no ability to generate enthusiasm in others.

While people with a financial or ideological stake in social media continue to propagate the fantasy, those annoying, troublesome things called facts keep popping up to undermine their careless assertions.

The first crack in the wall came in 2011 when the largest, boldest experiment in social media marketing ever attempted — the Pepsi Refresh Project — was exposed as a nasty failure that seems to have cost the brand 5% of its market share, which it has never recovered.

Then in September of 2012, Forrester Research reported that…

“Social tactics are not meaningful sales drivers. While the hype around social networks as a driver of influence in eCommerce continues to capture the attention of online executives, the truth is that social continues to struggle and registers as a barely negligible source of sales…”

A few months later, a story in The Wall Street Journal reported on a study IBM had done on the effect of social media on Black Friday sales. While sales were great, the social media contribution to sales were essentially nonexistent.

IBM reported

Shoppers referred from Social Networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube generated .34 percent of all online sales on Black Friday, a decrease of more than 35 percent from 2011.

The Journal commented…

“…there’s one notable under-performer in the online shopping frenzy: social media.”

But perhaps the most damning report on the negligible influence that social media marketing has on sales was issued a few days ago by McKinsey & Company.

This sentence from the report says it all:

“Email remains a more effective way to acquire customers than social media – nearly 40 times that of Facebook and Twitter combined.”

We’re talking about email here, not the Super Bowl. Email 40 times more effective than Facebook and Twitter combined? Now that’s frightening.

The social media fantasy is in a death spiral. Social media marketing is no longer taken seriously as a sales builder by anyone with a functioning cortex.

Social media marketing will continue to be strangely popular and sporadically effective in some small niche categories.

But when it comes to serious brands, in the vast majority of cases it is evolving into just another cost of doing business.

The Ad Contrarian is Bob Hoffman (@adcontrarian), the author of The Ad Contrarian and 101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising.

This column has been republished from his blog The Ad Contrarian.

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