By Josh Cline
As technological innovations occur at an ever-increasing rate, marketers often develop unrealistic expectations because they think that each new gadget or medium has made all of the previous communications strategies obsolete.
Far from it. For example, social media is a form of public relations and not some heaven-sent technology that has changed everything, and as such, it and other online-marketing methods need to incorporate traditional best-practices from the beginning. It is crucial not to throw decades of communications knowledge out the digital window. Companies today need to ignore the so-called “hype cycles” that occur in all new marketing mediums and methods, instead understanding that classic communications theory never changes.
From search-engine optimization (SEO) to social-media marketing to other types of online marketing, many such tactics have gone through “hype cycles” in which attitudes and practices went from being:
- Unrealistic and unsustainable, to
- Pessimistic and dejected, to
- Mindful of what has actually worked
As each new technology is born and businesses race to use it in marketing, it is important not to have inflated expectations that will lead to disappointment. It is best to understand and use the sustainable, long-term best-practices from the start of your marketing efforts.
The Gartner Hype Cycle
What is a “hype cycle”? As Greg Satell notes at DigitalTonto, Gartner publishes a Hype Cycle that shows the status of emergent technologies. Gartner’s template graphic is at the top of this post. Here is the 2010 graph with specific technologies:
Emergent marketing methods go through similar cycles – especially when people do not understand the most relevant and best communications practices from the beginning. Here are examples of two popular Internet-based strategies that experienced this cycle: SEO and social media.
The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of SEO
After Danny Sullivan first wrote in 1996 about the effectiveness of ranking highly in search results, online marketers quickly skyrocketed to the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” described in the above graphics. Acting ignorantly on the advice of careless or malicious “black-hat SEO” charlatans in a race to rank first by any digital means necessary, companies used tactics including:
- Stuffing websites with keywords
- Constructing artificial link networks
- Submitting dozens of entries to useless, generic online directories
- Spamming forums
- Building exact-match anchor text links
- Placing content on article-submission websites
Then, marketers fell into the “Trough of Disillusionment” after Google released updates including Panda and Penguin to combat such spam tactics – thereby costing the companies their rankings and traffic and rendering much of their prior work useless. The resulting feeling for marketers? The notion that “SEO is dead.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Such sensationalist headlines are usually cheap attempts to get website pageviews from people in the industry. “True” SEO has never changed – and will never change. Search-engine optimization has always been a collection of best practices that:
- Institute the technical recommendations of search engines themselves to help them to crawl, index, and determine the topic of your website
- Use quality content, social media, and other communications-based methods to increase your company’s authority in your sector and thereby improve your website’s position in search results naturally
- Incorporate inbound marketing and conversion optimization to convert incoming organic traffic into sales and business leads, or towards some other goal in line with your business strategy
In fact, many of the recommended practices for “off-page SEO” and “linkbuilding” today are largely functions of public relations (see this short video by Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz):
The best online marketers had always known these truths, and they silently laughed as other companies slipped into the “Trough of Disillusionment” after trying to spam and manipulate Google. SEOs who use the aforementioned tactics mentioned above rarely need to worry about future search-engine algorithm changes.
Today, the knowledge of “true” SEO is being reborn among marketers in general, and the “hype cycle” is moving towards the “Slope of Enlightenment” – where the actual SEO experts have always resided. We can eagerly expect that the “Plateau of Productivity” for SEO will arrive soon.
The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Social Media
As social-media networks exploded in prominence in recent years, the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” was reached quickly. Some common expressions: “We can reach our customers directly!” “We can advertise to consumers who self-identified as already liking our product!” “We can get a hundred thousand ‘likes’ to increase our brand awareness!”
Well, such feelings did not incorporate a few important points:
- Consumers hate getting direct advertisements and related messages on social media – even supposedly “subtle” ones as users become more and more cynical
- The majority of people “like” company pages only to get a “freebie” or to receive (only occasional!) notices of discounts and sales – they really want only to interact with friends and family on the networks
- “Engagement rates” with B2C companies, even when defined liberally, are abysmal and on-par with banner advertisements
As a result of their misuse of social media, marketers entered the “Trough of Disillusionment.” As Bob Hoffman, the former CEO of Hoffman/Lewis advertising in San Francisco and St. Louis, notes:
Coca-Cola got all tangled up in its underwear last week. At a marketing research whack-a-thon their senior manager for marketing strategy came out and said the unthinkable — social media marketing is a big fat waste of time and money. Well, he didn’t actually use those words. What he said was…“We didn’t see any statistically significant relationship between our buzz and our short-term sales.”
That’s how senior marketing managers talk. So, hang on a minute. You mean “tweets” and “likes” don’t create sales? Get outta here!
Why do you think a can of Coca-Cola is worth 50¢ more than a can of Safeway cola? It’s not because of the Coke ad you saw last night or last week. It’s the ones you’ve seen for your entire life.
Today, more and more companies, such as General Motors, are cutting or stopping advertising on Facebook because the resulting sales revenue does not make it worthwhile. Social media indeed is usually not the best tactic for direct advertising and selling – it is generally better used for other strategic goals.
Hoffman, an admitted social-media skeptic, indeed raises many important issues. But with all due respect, the recently-retired CEO misses the larger point because, as a lifelong advertising man, his primary frame of reference and metric of success is only B2C product sales. Social-media marketing is indeed not the best tactic for direct, B2C sales – but there are many other effective uses when one looks at the greater context. Traditional advertising is a one-way communications medium – social media is two-way, meaning that the possible tactics are numerous:
- B2B marketers can discuss best-practices, industry news, and obtain business leads through quality interaction – not through “spamming” or “advertising” – on social networks including LinkedIn and Quora
- Companies, even B2C ones, should maintain an active Facebook page and Twitter account for customer-service purposes (among others) – people are increasingly more likely to post a comment on a Facebook page or send a tweet rather than wait on hold for thirty minutes on the telephone or wait for days to receive an e-mail response
- Having an active Google+ page for a company that obtains many “+1s” – the Google equivalent of a “like” – will help a business be found more prominently in search-engine results. And Google, as Hoffman admits, is a far-better place to fulfill demand in a consumer context than social-media networks
- Building a quality online community (a related type of social-media marketing) over time can generate tremendous sales and ROI – Proctor & Gamble’s “Being Girl” website, for example, has been four times as effective as traditional advertising
These are just a few examples. The point: In a marketing context, the best practice for social-media marketing is not – and never has been – about advertising and making direct sales. Social media is largely public relations in a different context and medium and should be primarily a function of a company’s communications, rather than sales, department.
The more quickly marketers understand the best-practices that have always been true in social media, the faster that the “Slope of Enlightenment” and then the “Plateau of Productivity” will be reached.
Ignore “Hype Cycles” and Focus on Strategic Best-Practices
The best SEO practices have never been to try to manipulate Google – the best uses had always been to build engaging, authoritative, content-based websites that convert traffic towards one’s desired marketing and business goals.
The best social-media practices have never been to overwhelm users with advertisements. The best uses have always been to use the channels and methods that align with your communications objectives – whether they include customer service, lead generation, community building, or any other goal.
Those marketers who succeed are those who ignore “hype cycles” and the digital flavor of the moment and instead understand and use the best-practices for each technology and medium from the beginning. If you see people overhyping a “sure thing” in marketing – those individuals are most likely trying to sell you something.