Before becoming a pre-eminent customer experience thought leader and expert, Augie Ray was a leader in social media marketing and customer experience insights for brands, such as American Express and Prudential. Frustrated by what he thought was Marketing's persistent belief in social media as an effective marketing tool whereas evidence indicated the opposite, in a 2014 blog post he invoked Upton Sinclair for help in understanding why: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Marketers have biases. Strong ones. Sinclair's aphorism and Augie's recognition about social media marketing are still true today. In 2021, things need to change.

For various reasons, my marketing firm rarely offers social media services anymore. That decision was well supported by recent research: I'm working on a book that deals with social media marketing, so I've waded through more than my share of social media marketing data in the past year.

Julia Roth, director of marketing and communications at the University of Colorado Law School, and I collected and analyzed 50+ reports and studies published on social media marketing, and I interviewed people involved in some of the case studies we uncovered. We also attempted to find updates to each of the studies cited in Augie Ray's previously cited post ("What if Everything You Know About Social Media Marketing Is Wrong?").

We discovered four significant implications for social media marketing going into 2021.

1. Marketers (still) don't do data very well

You've probably heard some version of this before: 67% of executive marketers can't quantitatively measure the impact of their social media marketing, according to the 2020 Duke/Deloitte/American Marketing Association CMO Survey. That percentage balloons to as high as 77% in some B2B sectors.

At the same time, marketers are planning to increase their social media marketing spend. That's a huge disconnect.

2. Let's face it—organic social media marketing rarely works

Avinash Kaushik, one of the most respected analytics thought and practice leaders online, urges brands to stop organic social media marketing posthaste. "Kill all the organic social media activity by your company," he writes. "All of it."

Let me point out a study that jumps out from my own research. "The Value of a Facebook Fan: Does 'Liking' Influence Consumer Behavior?" (a 2017 study published in the Journal of Marketing Research), found strong evidence that consumers like brands they already have a fondness for on social media, and that "the mere act of 'liking' a brand has no positive first order effect on consumer attitudes or purchases."

Social media engagement is a consequence, not a cause, of brand affinity. In fact, two meta-analyses suggest that, "if anything, its effect is detrimental."

3. To build online social groups, unlearn marketing

Rob Siefker, senior director of customer loyalty for Zappos, told me he doesn't look for social media-savvy talent when hiring customer care experts to manage his company's social accounts—because "everyone knows how to use social media." Instead, he looks for people who know what "going above and beyond looks like, because how can you give it if you don't know it?"

Community-builder and researcher Nichole Kelly, who built a social community of over a million people for a debt-relief organization, told me she's spent a career asking and training people to "unlearn marketing" for the purposes of building online communities.

Marketers are driven by conversions. Social groups are driven by community. Knowing the difference is crucial (more on that, next).

4. Move social media out of Marketing and into Customer Care

Marketers need to come to terms with a tough reality: The most thriving social media communities with a marketing bent tend to be built within three narrow contexts.

Customer care-focused social media activities, on the other hand, are thriving in all kinds of places. Using social media in customer care stands in contrast to social media marketing because it's about community, not conversion.

Critically, community-building isn't a marketing function. Marketers' training and conditioning forces us into promotions, conversions, and sales funnel thinking, and we build the technical chops to be effective at that. Customer care requires something entirely different, and organizations using social media successfully in their customer care functions know that.

McKenzie Eakin built Xbox's record- and ground-breaking customer service team, "The Elite Tweet Fleet," as well as a 1,000+ member Ambassador Chat program composed of Xbox users who provide peer-to-peer support.

She told me she didn't even have a Twitter account when she started the project, and she didn't hire social media experts. She instead looked for people with a passion for Xbox so they'd have a deeper understanding of the problems its users were experiencing. Members of the team therefore acted passionately in solving users' problems, which resulted in authenticity online.

One powerful case study illustrates how British Telecom, the United Kingdom's largest broadband, landline, and mobile provider, funneled resources into its social media customer service channels and lowered the cost of its customer service operations by the equivalent of $2.6 million a year.

As marketers, our 2021 charge should be to move past our biases and shift social media investments into customer care.

Consider two studies: A SproutSocial content marketing report claiming a 146% rise over three years in social messages requiring brand responses, but brands' response rate actually decreasing over the same timeframe (they respond to only 1 in 10 messages, on average), and a Smartinsights report finding that 80% of companies saying they deliver exceptional social media customer service, but only 8% of their customers agreeing with that assessment.

Social media is a valuable tool for businesses willing to use it in their customer care functions because the social mind is wired to interact in a flat and collaborative way, not in a salesperson/marketer-to-customer relationship.

* * *

Market research and digital marketing agency Good Growth spent a few months in 2017 researching social media marketing for its fourth annual digital marketing growth book. Quite a bit of our research crossed paths with its researchers'; they concluded that "investment in social media [marketing] continues to be a triumph of hope over hard evidence of commercial return.... There remains a lack of clarity regarding the commercial outcome from the investment."

Marketers, let's raise a glass and say "cheers" together: Goodbye to hopeful thinking, and hello to clarity.

This article contains excerpts from a longer, five-blog post series about social media marketing in 2021. Read them all here.

More Resources on Social Media Marketing

How Effective Is Your Brand on Social Media? Here's How You Can Measure That

Why People Follow (And Unfollow) Brands on Social Media

How to Maximize Social Media Marketing as a B2B Company

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image of Aaron Templer

Aaron Templer is the owner of Three Over Four, a Denver-based full-service branding and digital marketing agency. His debut book is Leading in a Social World—a seven-time award winner that, as Readers' Favorite Book Reviews put it, "turns our perception of social media marketing on its head."

LinkedIn: Aaron Templer

Mastodon: @aarontempler