For a long time, I've heard a number of people espouse the benefits of social media marketing as a business tool. Since I generally take people at face value, I believed them. Now that I've spent some time digging into it and seeing the results of different people, I wanted to share my thoughts about it. This is a long post, but I'll give you the summary right up front. Most of you are just not going to succeed at social media marketing. It doesn't mean you're a bad person. There just isn't room for you to succeed.
Social Media Marketing Analysis
After speaking with a few friends and listening to some other folks, I've come to a conclusion about social media marketing. It doesn't seem to be the popular opinion, but it's shared by more than a few folks who speak in quiet whispers among the folks in the shitty seats.
From what I can tell, social media marketing is like high school. On the surface, it seems arbitrary and capricious. Some people will try very hard to succeed. They will read every article or blog post about social media marketing. They will buy courses and listen to “experts” on social media marketing. After investing quite a bit of time, effort and money, they will fail at social media marketing. It all boils down to the same thing that made some kids popular in school, too. Some folks are cool and the rest aren't.
It's cruel, but so is society. Why should we expect social media marketing to disobey the social rules we learned as children? We shouldn't, yet that seems to be a hard lesson for many people to learn. Social media marketing success is for the cool kids.
Does that mean you can't be one of the cool kids? Not necessarily. Part of the reason some of those kids are cool is because they make an effort. Maybe they're in the right place at the right time, but you cannot discount the fact that they put in the work to achieve social media popularity. In fact, social media popularity often isn't the end-goal itself for many of them, yet it is for others.
Think back to high school football and the difference between the starting quarterback and the head cheerleader. In my experience, the guy who gets to be starting quarterback was naturally gifted, but worked very hard to get that spot. He didn't do it to become popular, although that was something that came along with the job. I'm sure someone will give me hell for saying this, but I think that many head cheerleaders went after the job because of the social status that goes with it. That doesn't mean she wasn't naturally gifted and hard working, though. I just saw a difference in motivation.
Some people work every bit as hard as the cool kids – perhaps even harder. No matter what they do, they just aren't going to be as successful. Despite the promises of the previous Presidential campaign, hoping for change seldom works.
Is Social Media Marketing a Good Idea?
Yes, but for an increasingly smaller number of people. I have a theory that says there's only so much room at the top. Society's collective attention-span doesn't have room to believe that too many people are great. If a lot of people were great, then that would diminish there very notion of being great. That's why you have to knock someone off the top if you want to get there. The people at the top eventually rotate in and out. Society used to think that Burt Reynolds and Robert Redford were great – and they were. Someone knocked them off the pedestal. You must decide if you have what it takes to make that long, arduous climb to the top of your particular game. Most of you don't. Like I said, there's only room for so many people to have millions of followers, and the tiers move down from there.
That doesn't mean you can't have a successful business without social media marketing. Many of people practically ignore Google+, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites and manage to lead wonderfully fulfilling lives and successful businesses. You can, too.
How to Achieve Social Media Marketing Success
Before I give you my thoughts, let's face something. I am not a social media marketing success. When I played high school football, I was a defensive tackle. Not a popular position, but I can promise you that all the starting quarterbacks knew my name because I was coming after their ass. So take what I'm saying with a grain of salt, or perhaps as the great Charlie Brown from “Peanuts” put it: Those who can't do, teach.
From what I've seen, there are two ways to become a social media marketing success:
- Be engaging
- Be useful
If you can combine both of those elements, perhaps you can reach the pinnacle of the cool kid status. Let's look at both briefly.
Some people do this naturally and some will never, ever learn how to do it. The good news is that there are a number of ways to be engaging. Personality comes to mind first. We flock to some personalities because they seem fun or interesting. However, skills are also engaging. My brother is an outstanding musician. We love beautiful art. We love humor. We love stories. Essentially, we love diversions from the routine or mundane. If you have the personality or talent to take us somewhere entertaining, then you are engaging. Naturally, some people are better at this than others. If you want more attention, get better at being engaging.
This one follows closely with being engaging. That's because I'm not talking about being useful along the lines of being utilitarian. I have a good plumber and he's useful, but he's not one of the cool kids. The people who are useful for social media marketing are those who can show us how to improve ourselves. That's particularly useful for those who want to get better at being engaging. In fact, it's enticing to think that we can learn from someone and then elevate our own status to be one of the cool kids. So, we revere those who can show us something useful that can make us more popular.
Reaching the Pinnacle
I'm going to look at this in a photography segment of popularity. There are plenty of photographers that I truly admire for their work. There are also those who do a great job of communicating their style or technique, but perhaps they aren't as personally engaging as some others.
There are a few people in this field who exemplify how to be engaging and useful. They've created quite a social media following using their talent, personality and hard work. For each person at the top, I could point to equally talented people who are working just as hard, but they aren't going to make it to the top. Why? Because there just isn't enough room at the top for everyone who deserves it.
Society has only so much of its attention span to share. Once society picks its champions, it's no longer sufficient to be just as good. You have to raise the bar substantially above them in order to knock someone off the pinnacle and take their place. Society always wants more and more. Since social media marketing is representative of society, it shouldn't be surprising that the burden of climbing to the top keeps getting more difficult – yet the reward doesn't always grow in equal measure.
Building an audience and converting it into business sales are two different things. That's the downside of social media marketing. It's social, which is not necessarily business. Putting it bluntly, people follow you on social media to use you. They want to be entertained or informed. Maybe, just maybe, some of them will be in the mood to buy something you have to offer. Most of them won't, though.
I can be a boring, deadpan person who says blunt things. For some folks, that's a real downer. For me, it's just a matter of being open and honest. I'm not going to change. This is who I am and I'm OK with it. I understand that I am never going to be one of the cool kids. I may occasionally hang out with some of the cool kids – just like I did in high school – but I'm not one of them. At least, not in a mass consumption kind of way. After all these years, I'm still the defensive tackle.
How does this affect me with social media marketing? It tells me that I'm lacking some key attributes to make it a smashing success, so I need to find another path. It doesn't mean that I'm going to quit hanging out on Facebook or Google+. It's just that my use of those sites isn't a strategy to drive business. It's a place to hang out with my friends and have some fun. I may make some new connections there that eventually help my business, but that's not the objective.
Part of the reason it won't work for me as well as it works for other is due to my inherent strengths and weaknesses. We all have them. Take a look at Olympic athletes as an example. The guy who excels at gymnastics is someone with the best physique for it: short-lever arms and legs. He's not the same guy who will excel at track & field events that rely on long extremities. Sometimes your strength in one area is your weakness in another. I'm socially incompetent, but I'm a pretty good analyst. I have to be realistic about the places where I can achieve my best results.
There are MANY people trying to sell you on strategies to use social media to enhance and grow your business. Be realistic about it. Most of us are not going to replicate the same success. In fact, I've heard people presenting social media marketing as a success story when it really didn't seem to be why they were successful in the first place. Maybe they don't even understand their own success. Then there are scammers who know that there's an audience quite hungry for a social media marketing formula that will magically transform them into financial success. It won't, but desperate people will buy into that idea.
Marketers have a term they use for people who are desperate for a solution that they don't understand: suckers. Here are some examples.
- Have you ever bought a camera or accessory because you thought it would give you better pictures?
- Have you ever bought a training video or seminar on social media marketing because you thought it would improve your business?
- Have you ever bought anything from someone you thought was an expert because he/she said it would give you a result you didn't understand how to achieve on your own?
Social Media Marketing is Not an Excuse for Poor Business Planning
Maybe that's the core misunderstanding I see with so many people looking at social media marketing courses. They don't know what they're supposed to do in business, to they latch on to something that's supposed to solve their problems. It' an old problem. People in direct mail marketing learned the hard way that buying a mailing list doesn't necessarily yield sales. If the list isn't targeted for people who are interested in what you have to offer, then they just perceive it as junk mail. It's not enough to find an audience. You have to find a targeted audience that is ready and willing to get what you have to offer.
Is your audience on 500px, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter or Google+? What do they want from you? What are they willing to exchange in order to get something from you? When you visit these sites, are you engaging with customers or hanging out with your buddies…or worse, potential competitors?
Let's put this in a real-world example using one of my own blunders. A large number of photographers who start a blog or web site will label it as a “Fine Art Photography” site. I did for a while, and I didn't give it much thought at the time. After all, fine art photography is whatever the photographer wants and that loose label appeals to many of us. How many? As I'm writing this, Google tells me it has 2,580,000 sites competing for ranking of the keyword “fine art photography.” That's a LOT of competition. You'd think there must be a big prize for so many people in that market, right? No. The maximum number of daily clicks that the #1 ranked site for this keyword can get is 1,250. That's the maximum. Two and a half million people are competing for the top spot that gets up to 1,250 clicks – and quite probably fewer. Of those clicks, how many will actually buy something, or even click on an advertisement? One percent? Two or three percent? Well, that depends upon what you have to offer and how well you can convert those eyes into customers.
The lesson here is that millions of photographers are competing for a search query that very few people are actually entering into Google. Someone has to be #1, but it's not a hell of a market at all. The world does not need or want another fine art photographer. Posting your fine art photographs on Facebook may get some nice comments and Likes, but that's all most of the people in that audience want. See a pretty picture, click a button, move on with their day.
Fine Art Photography isn't just an uphill battle. It's like free-climbing El Capitan while simultaneously repelling an alien invasion with your bare fists so you can get enough money to eat at Red Lobster.
What Does it All Mean?
If it seems like I'm trying to bust your bubble – I am. While almost everyone else is telling you that social media marketing is a panacea, I'm suggesting you take a dispassionate review of your results and see if it's really working. If someone told you the secret to success was to make so many posts on Facebook and so many tweets on Twitter, then evaluate the results. Is it working or wasting your time? If it isn't working, then you can't believe doing the same thing is going to have different results.
I'm not suggesting that you give up on your dream. What I'm saying is that you need to make a realistic assessment of your course to achieve your dream. Being a successful fine art photographer using a social media strategy is the most over-crowded path and the least likely to yield success. Do your market research. Narrow your niche to something that a specific audience wants to buy. Make sure you understand the competition you face to serve that audience and can handle it. Once you put those fundamentals in place, then you can decide if social media marketing plays a role in your path to success, or if it's just a good place to get a hug.