Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Is social media saturating – and what are the implications for marketing?

According to the latest data from Nielsen Research and Experian Simmons, the adoption of social media in the US has skyrocketed to 80 percent of those with online access, or over 40 percent of the overall population. Putting this in perspective, among those 35-and-younger, the adoption of social media is approaching that of US car ownership. Safe to say, it is clearly foolish to think of social media as something new or novel – it is an everyday part of most people’s lives.

Collectively, Americans now spend almost a billion hours a month exchanging news, information and gossip at social media sites. Last I checked there are still only 24 hours in a day: As you look at these stats, especially for the college-age set, the use of social media starts to look like borderline addiction. For many teens and tweens being connected online is an umbilical necessity for sustaining life. You wonder if Facebook and the rest shouldn’t carry warning labels, like cigarettes: Using Social Media Is Not A Substitute For Food, Sleep Or Reality.

More seriously, as social media adoption becomes mainstream, what are the consequences for marketing?

First, marketing pros should understand that media use overall is usually a zero-sum game: If we’re all spending more time online with social media, it usually means we’re doing less of some other media activity. There’s evidence to support this view, with online activities eating away at everything from watching television to reading. Second, we should anticipate that the use of social media is saturating. The amount of time we spend on social media is cresting, especially among those 35-and-younger.

This is a familiar scenario for marketing folks who have lived through other communications and marketing revolutions. I can remember when email marketing was a novelty, with response rates for well-targeted campaigns routinely reachig 3-5 percent (I’ve seen similarly impressive stats for the novelty-of-the-moment, QR codes). As social media saturates we should expect it to become harder and harder to create and sustain relationships between prospects and our brands. Saturation equates to clutter, attentions wane, and people become weary and guarded.

We should also remember that social media got that name for a reason – it’s a tool for staying in touch with friends and family, not primarily for finding your company, not matter how lovely it may be. Understand that social media is only one part of an integrated marketing program. Have realistic expectations - and make sure you communicate these to your management teams. As you work with social media, be true to yourself and your brand. The fundamentals of good marketing have not been re-invented: Be engaging, be credible, be trustworthy, and be unique.

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