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What Consumers Want from Social Media Is Different than Brands, Creating a Performance Gap

In little over a decade, social media has emerged as businesses’ number one way to connect with consumers, according to a new study conducted by Harris Poll for Sprout Social, a social media listening and analytics company.

Over 70% of businesses surveyed rely on social media for customer engagement, compared with 61% for email, 27% for TV/radio advertising and 24% for print ads.

In a two-prong research investigation, including 1,000+ consumers and 250 business executives, the study found that 91% of business executives plan to increase their social media budgets over the next three years as consumers increasingly rely on social media to learn about brands or companies (55%), most especially the young GenZ and Millennial consumers.

And for 35% of the consumers surveyed, they name social media as the primary way they learn about new products, services and brands.

Belief in social media is unwavering among the business executives surveyed, with over 80% of them involved in direct-to-consumer businesses including retail.

Drawn from a sample ranging across all size companies, from fewer than 200 employees (42%), 200 to 999 (20%) and over 1,000 (38%), nearly 90% of business executives agree that companies which do not invest in social media marketing will be left behind and 62% agree brands and companies which do not have a strong social media presence will not be able to succeed in the long run.

But their belief in social media doesn’t match their experience using it. Fewer than half of companies describe their social media strategies as “very effective” when measuring its power to strengthen brand image, raise awareness, increase sales or growing the customer base. Further, they are not overwhelmingly confident in their company’s current social media strategies.

The gap between retailers’ expectations for social media versus its reality is something I’ve observed in numerous surveys my company has conducted among big retailers and small.

For example, in Unity Marketing’s latest “State of Luxury” study, including results from some 200 luxury goods company executives, only 34% rated Instagram “very effective” and this was the most highly rated social media platform. Fewer than 20% rated Facebook “very effective” and more (23%) said it was of “limited effectiveness.”

These results were mirrored in a survey just conducted by the small-business networking platform Alignable, which regularly conducts research across its network.

With nearly 4,000 small businesses responding, of which 60% were independent retailers, the majority rated both Facebook (53%) and Instagram (50%) advertising only “somewhat effective” in promoting their businesses.

Instagram was relatively more effective than Facebook, with 32% rating Instagram “very” or “extremely effective,” compared with 26% of Facebook users.

Overall independent retailers that most need effective social media strategies are the least able to make social media work. However, even the biggest companies with the most sophisticated technical resources often find social media doesn’t live up to its hype either.

Brands’ expectations of social differ from customers’

In digesting the Sprout Social findings from the company perspective and pairing it with the consumer survey, company chief marketing officer Jamie Gilpin sees the performance gap caused by the difference between what companies expect from social media and what consumers want.

Companies approach social media primarily as an advertising and marketing media: post images to drive sales and store visits. As a result, they measure it like any outbound advertising campaign.

But consumers don’t want to be advertised to on social media. They want to be engaged on social, like they are with their friends and families. For them, it’s primarily a communications and information platform.

“We as marketers always want to have that immediate impact,” Gilpin says. “But consumers are looking to social to learn about brands and engage with them. Many businesses haven’t gotten totally comfortable with that shift.”

Social media users want control, not commercials

Unlike traditional push advertising which interrupts people while doing other things, social media users expect to be in control when engaging with a brand. They want to interact on their own terms, not be force-fed by the brands. This turns traditional marketing and advertising strategies on its head.

“When it comes to social, we react and interact with our friends and family in personal ways. We have that same expectation for a brand,” Gilpin shares.

Retailers and brands run the risk of turning off, rather than turning on consumers when social engagement becomes too commercial.

Gilpin points to Burberry and Lululemon as brands that have mastered the social-engagement side of social-media marketing, recognizing that they are trying to build a long-term relationship with customers – a friendship, if you will – that will eventually lead to action down the road.

“These brands are leveraging the platforms and adapting to the way consumers are consuming content on those platforms. Video has become an important way they are creating meaningful content and meaningful connections that isn’t just about selling products,” Gilpin reflects.

And those videos don’t need to be presented with the highest production values either, but are more engaging if they show real people doing real things, not models strutting on the runway or a heavy-handed sales pitch.

“In video people want that immediate, personal response, like seeing a real sales rep in the store sharing some of the latest items that interest him or her. It’s not just about the products we are trying to sell,” she advises.

Social media users expect engagement

The most successful companies on social media are turning the tables and using it not just to push marketing messages out, but to listen to what consumers are saying and adapting messages accordingly.

“Consumers expect that brands see their history and to know who they are and what they post on social. It’s evolving to a desire for a more personalized experience on social platforms,” she continues.

When people reach out to a brand on social for help or more information, they expect an answer within a 24 hour window, Gilpin notes.

That means the social media department can’t just be staffed with a small team, or in the case of an independent retailer, one social media manager responsible simply for posting messages.

It requires retailers to adequately staff the customer-service and support function within the social media department. Some large retailers have hundreds, if not thousands of users overseeing the social-media function and answering the customer- service inquiries.

“People want that feeling that they are connecting with a real person behind the company,” she continues.

And that human connection pays off, with nearly 80% of the consumers surveyed saying if they have a positive experience with a brand on social they are likely to buy from the brand eventually.  

Social media platforms stand-in for the store

Unlike traditional one-way advertising communications, social media is a two-way communications platform. Retailers and brands fall short when they fail to understand the personal engagement side of social media.

In that way, social media can be seen to function more like the store where customers can interact with company representatives face-to-face in a personal way. And now social media is actually turning into the store, with Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and WhatsApp supporting e-commerce on their platforms.

“Some 35% of consumers overall – and almost half of GenZ  and Millennials – actually prefer to purchase from a brand on social media rather than on the actual website,” Gilpin says. But only 73% of companies offer products for sale on social media platforms and it is much lower (57%) for small businesses, according to the Sprout Social survey.

Further, consumers’ comfort interacting with retailers on social media is so high that over half of the consumers surveyed (58%) say they actually prefer to interact with a brand on social instead of going into their stores, most especially younger consumers.

That so many consumers view the social-media experience as more engaging than visiting the store is a surprising finding about the typical in-store customer experience. Nonetheless, consumers feel more in control of their experiences on social than in the highly variable in-store environment.

“Granted, some of this may be because customers didn’t have a choice to go into the store,” Gilpin observes. “But what is going to play out over the next three years and beyond is more e-commerce is going to become social commerce. That’s how people want to interact with brands today.”

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