Why it takes so long to achieve social media success

By Mark Schaefer

If you’re impatient, social media is probably the wrong marketing channel for you. Here’s a chart that illustrates why.

social media success

This is data from the recent research released by Social Media Examiner. This is not a scientific study, but it is a view from nearly 4,000 marketers, skewed toward small businesses. So we can’t regard it as absolute truth but it is probably directionally correct. Let’s take a close look at what we can learn from the feedback provided by these active social media marketers.

First, let’s examine the expectations they have from their social media initiatives:

social media success

A pretty comprehensive list. It’s interesting that “soft benefits” like awareness and loyalty are at the top of the chart when everybody seems to be preoccupied with ROI. Perhaps marketers are beginning to finally acknowledge the important qualitative benefits of social media marketing.

Social media success takes time

Now let’s refer to the chart at the top of the post again. When we compare a soft benefit like awareness with a “hard” benefit like sales, we see that most people even just starting with social media recognize an immediate benefit on the awareness front. In fact about 80 percent saw results in the first year compared to 35 percent who saw an increase in sales right out of the gate.

This chart would imply that you have to work hard on your social media marketing for at least 3-4 years before most businesses see an impact on sales. And the most successful businesses realizing a true ROI may have been at it five years or more, a category where 70 percent of the respondents could see an increase in sales.

Weak relational links

Why does it take so long for the sales to kick in?

One of the biggest problems many businesses face is they compare social media marketing efforts with advertising. That is an inaccurate comparsion because the mechanisms and benefits are different. If you need to drive rapid awareness or pump up sales with a coupon, advertising still works really well (assuming people see your ads!).

While social media has many benefits including marketing research, customer service, and collaboration, for many businesses it’s primarily about building relationships that lead to sales. But social media connections are weak relational links. Social media platforms simply open new doors, and it takes time to turn those connections into strong links that are actionable.

Instead of comparing social media marketing to advertisng, it might be more accurate comparing it to the benefits of attending an annual trade show or networking meeting where it takes time to build relationships that lead to sales.

So yes, the immediate benefit of social media marketing is awareness and that is IMPORTANT because awareness leads to engagement. Over time, that engagement may result in trust. And it’s not until we get to that point that we can begin seeing some cash coming in the door … maybe years down the line.

This is why social media marketing can be a hard sell to executives who are accustomed to the overnight results of advertising. Unfortunately, many traditional kinds of advertising present diminishing returns as people spend less time with newspapers, local radio, and network television. For this reason, it makes good sense to start moving up that social media sales curve now, right?

Note: If you enjoyed this article, you will find more helpful insights on social media measurement in Social Media Explained: Untangling the World’s Most Misunderstood Business Trend.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon. 

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