In his book Leading in a Social World, Aaron Templer gets to the bottom of the human social brain, including  whether social media is really the right place to be marketing at all.

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"Because we marketers have had our hands on the levers of social media for so long, I think we've kind of lost our way.... The social mind actually uses a completely different network than the rest of our day to day operations," Templer explains.

"You have to flip the network on and off. So as marketers, we enter these social groups.... We've got our work hat on.... You're asking a lot of a social group to think about something like a sales offer or some type of promotion."

Communities that are built on social networks also come with a sense of safety—not only from the outside world but also from the idea of being sold to. So, social media marketing is fighting an uphill battle from the start.

What's more, many marketers are working with flawed data that comes directly from the social platforms themselves—platforms that, of course, want to encourage participation with "positive" results. But followers and Twitter likes aren't even part of the funnel, Templer claims. They're not even the top of the funnel. They're just there to confirm the bias that social media works.

Templer recommends getting over that barrier and having honest conversations about social media data. Look at your dashboard and ask yourself whether it's translating to real business results. And if not, well, it might be time to rethink your position as a marketer and take responsibility for a leadership role in a social community.

"As marketers, the actual craft of marketing is about influence without power. That's what we do every day," says Templer.

Listen to the entire show now from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.


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Full Transcript: A New Approach to Social Media Marketing

Matt Snodgrass: Welcome to the Marketing Smarts Podcast brought to you by MarketingProfs. With me today I have Aaron Templer, the founder of Three Over Four agency and the author of his new book Leading in a Social World.

Aaron, how are you, my friend?

Aaron Templer: I’m doing great, Matt. Thanks so much for having me. I’m psyched to be on with you all and share this cool platform that you guys have built.

Matt: Thank you so much for being here. We’re going to have a great conversation. I’m excited to learn what you’re thinking about in terms of social because you have some ideas that I think some people might find a little bit surprising, might really turn some heads, so I’m excited to get into this.

Before we get into your topic, I want to know a little bit about you. We like to start each episode with three really general questions. The first one is what are you reading right now?

Aaron: I am re-reading something right now that may not be on everybody’s list, so I’ll talk about it. It’s called Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest. The author calls it a love letter to them. It’s just this amazing sort of love letter not only to a Tribe Called Quest but ‘90s east coast hip hop, which is totally my thing.

I’ve just been really enjoying reading it, you can listen to it online, too, and then kind of follow along with the songs that he mentions and talks about. It’s really fun because you can just stream them on-demand now, and then of course buy them to support the artist. That’s what I’m reading right now, super inspiring. It was a cool time during that time of music and I’m just finding some inspiration with that right now.

Matt: When I was in probably high school or college, I always had what I thought was a great idea at the time to have a book that came with a soundtrack, so as you get to different parts of the book you would play the tape and listen to the song. Now it’s awesome that we have the technology where we can do that. You could be listening to an audiobook or reading it, and you can immediately get the music that they’re talking about. That’s really the background soundtrack of the book, which really is cool.

Aaron: It’s a lot of fun to do that.

Matt: Now, you’re re-reading this. I’m a big fan of re-reading. I know this makes for poor audio, but as you can see behind me, I have tons and tons of books. All those books on the shelves behind me are unread books. I find myself over the last couple of years going back and just continually re-reading books that I have found that I liked. I’m guilty of being a huge re-reader and not getting to new stuff. I’m curious as to what pulled you back to re-reading something you’d already gotten through.

Aaron: I think mostly it was just because I wanted to listen to the music again. I’m just drawn to that period of hip hop and that area, that region. It’s funny that you mentioned that. I love, by the way, how you’ve organized them. This is bad podcasting etiquette on my part. It’s all color-coded. It’s super cool. It’s like something you’d see on Pinterest or something. You’ve done a great job with that, it looks great.

Matt: If you had seen what it looked like for about the last seven years, it’s a far cry, because it was just a disaster back there up until about a month ago.

Aaron: There’s a book that I’d like to mention that I actually talk about in my book called How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by this really fun, kind of wacky author and French professor named Pierre Bayard. It’s this great sort of treaty calling out the fakeness that we all have around trying to act like we’ve read books that we haven’t, and that in fact it’s kind of a fool’s pursuit because even when you read something you are actively not reading something else.

He really puts this witty twist and calls us out to say let’s just be honest about this. You can have intelligent dialogue about books that you haven’t read if you understand where they fit in the canon or in the body of work. I think that’s really important, especially as busy marketing professionals, because we’re never going to get to everything.

So, I wanted to mention that book, too. While I’m re-reading something, I’m not reading something else, and I’m sort of acknowledging that and embracing it because I think that there are really intelligent ways to not read books, which I think is a fun thing to explore.

Matt: How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read… I have that in my show notes, and I definitely need to pick that up.

I think it’s a Japanese term or phrase, but there’s a whole phrase for buying books and not reading them, essentially just collecting books. There’s a whole kind of school of thought around that, and I wish I was better versed to talk about that. I remember reading it in an article years ago, but I can’t remember anything about it. The idea is that collecting books, owning books, and having books, even if you don’t read them, kind of says something about who you are, the kind of person you are, the interests you have, that sort of thing.

Cool. Tell me what is your drink du jour, what’s your drink of choice right now?

Aaron: It’s interesting that you’d ask me that right now. I’m actually on a 90-day alcohol fast, so I’m trying to get a few things in order weight wise and decision wise, and it feels good. I’m in the middle of it right now, so it’s not on my mind. But usually in the Summer I go with a bourbon, in the winter I like scotch, and I’m always down for a good wine here and there. I have a cousin that makes it in Napa Valley, so he has taught me a little bit about where to find and how to find good wine. That’s probably my drink of choice.

Matt: Very nice. Kudos to you for your 90-day break. I think this idea of fasting, or we’re in the Lent period so there’s a lot of folks who are giving stuff up, but I like the idea of just pressing pause, just proving to yourself that you can do whatever it is, whether it’s giving up alcohol or chocolate or vowing to read a book a week, or doing something just to put your nose to the grindstone and prove that I’ve still got it, I can still do this.

Aaron: I think for me I needed a break to remember what moderation is, honestly, just to show you a few cracks in my life. Just sort of reset and think about moderation.

Matt: Very good. Everything in moderation. Right?

Aaron: That’s right.

Matt: So, what is on your mind right now from a business standpoint? What are you thinking about and what’s keeping you up at night?

Aaron: That’s another really good question. We’re kind of growing right now. This is a really interesting time for the agency because a lot of great new client work is coming in, but at a time when we’re trying to figure out how to grow from a resource and people standpoint. Our model is such that we are very flexible. We hire only contract employees and that allows us to really adjust well for client needs. But at the same time, we have to curate a bench strength of free agent talent a lot, so trying to keep that in order is sort of a challenge. But the people on the team are incredible, so it’s been really a joy actually working with folks on new things and trying to grow.

I’d say that and talent anywhere right now is a real sort of keep you up at night type of proposition. I think everybody is struggling with it across all of the different disciplines and industries, just how to make sure the talent and the team is engaged and they’re a part of what we’re doing in a special way. Those are the thoughts that preoccupy me right now, for sure.

Matt: It certainly has been an interesting last couple of years, especially in terms of the job market, because people are being downsized, organizations are changing, their needs have changed over the last years, and now a lot of needs are coming back. There’s this whole sort of rehiring process that’s happening right now. I know at least from the marketing standpoint, where I stand, I see tons of new job openings all the time, tons of things coming through.

I think the pandemic has really shown people that it’s okay to value yourself, it’s okay to put your demands first and to put the things that you need up front, and to be open and honest with them. There was a time that we were just happy to have a job and we would put up with the BS that went along with having that job. I think we’re well passed that and we’re into a phase where it really is feeling acceptable to… I don’t want to use the word demand, but to be clear about what your expectations are and what you’re looking for.

I think organizations have to do a better job of really taking those things into account and thinking about putting employees first.

Aaron: I agree. I think that if you’re willing to embrace it, it can actually really set you apart as an organization. I know that I think of it as a competitive advantage, our ability to be flexible, find and build cultures of trust. Not just allow, but really embrace independence, look for the really top shelf creatives that want to be independent. I think that brings a lot of value to our firm and to our clients. So, I’m with you, I think times have changed.

Matt: It’s definitely a competitive advantage. I don’t know how long it will be, but if you have it now and if you can jump on that bandwagon, then you’re certainly going to be a step ahead for a while until everyone catches up and there’s a new thing.

I want to talk about why you’re here and why we’re having this conversation, and that has to do with social media. You have been encouraging business leaders and encouraging marketers to take a new approach, a new way of looking at social media, and I’m curious about that. Tell us about how you’re encouraging people to think about this.

Aaron: Yes. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about this book. It has been something I’ve consulted and spoken on for a long time. It became a book in the stay at home orders, so I was one of those annoying guys where you’re feeling unproductive and then your friend is writing a book. I did that, so I’m that guy. It was great to get it out.

I’m driven by this notion, first of all, that marketers need to elevate what it is that we do and think about our role in what we do from a business but also a larger society perspective. I think what we can learn from is the leadership discipline as much as the marketing one. When you start to put that lens on, what you see is an interesting thing. You are, we are as marketers, influencing, which is something that the leadership discipline talks about quite a bit.

When it comes to social constructs like social media, places where people have gathered specifically for social reasons, what we do there as marketers by and large isn’t effective, and it actually runs contrary to the way social groups operate and work. Because marketers have had their hands on the levers of social media for so long, I think we’ve kind of lost our way.

The first half of the book takes a look at does social media work from a marketing perspective, is social media marketing effective and does it work. The argument is pretty clear that it doesn’t. The second half is then what does. What does is the leadership discipline of building and using social capital. That can be done in digital spaces, like on social media.

So, we just sort of ask marketers to switch their lens and stop thinking about conversions and start thinking about community, but it does take a different mindset.

Matt: I love thinking and talking about community. My role as director of community is acutely tied to that every day, so I am 100% on board. I want to rewind just a little bit and talk about the things that aren’t working. Maybe if you could share for the audience the kinds of things that you’re seeing marketers do that aren’t working and that aren’t having the effectiveness that we think they are or we think they should be.

Aaron: I think it’s important to think quickly about social constructs and the social mind, and how people are wired when they’re engaged in social constructs like social media. That’s really important because then you can see how marketing runs into contrast with that.

For instance, the social mind actually uses a completely different network than the rest of our day to day operation. When you’re engaged in a social interaction, there is a completely different network that’s used, and that network is so important and so vital for our survival that it uses everything. It's like a see-saw, as a book that we look at puts it, under a logical book that we look at in Leading in a Social World, so you have to flip the network on and off.

As marketers, we enter these social groups and social constructs like social media with a totally different network, we have our work hat on, we’re in a completely different headspace than those that are operating in it for reciprocity and connection and all those reasons that we participate in social groups. We are protecting that as well, which is really important to remember, those social connections. You’re asking a lot of a social group to think about something like a sales offer or some type of promotion at all. In fact, it runs contrary to the way that our brains while we’re engaged in social constructs.

Most of the ways that marketers approach social media runs in contrast to the way that social groups operate and the social mind is actually activated and wired.

Matt: We are inherently social creatures as human beings. I know there are outliers, there are some people who don’t prefer it, but generally speaking, human beings are social creatures, so the idea of community is so big. Even if we don’t realize it, as you said, on a subconscious level being part of a community, being part of a group, being part of a subsection of people who are interested, concerned, care about the same things, that has a lot of psychological value to us.

One of the things that we talk about a lot in community is this idea of safety, the idea of being in a safe place. That can be a whole lot of different things. It can be safe from people coming in and insulting a religion, or race, or gender, or anything like that. But there’s another element of safety that we’ve just been talking about recently in our day to day community, and the idea is safe from the idea of being sold to.

We want to be part of this community because you and I have the same interests, because we’re facing the same problems, because we have hurdles that we’ve overcome and I can share my experience with you, you can share your experience with me, we can cross these barriers together. That’s the point of a community. But when someone comes in with a sales pitch, or with a solution, or we feel like we’re being sold to, that’s an intrusion in our community. It’s almost like ants, they start attacking, because this is a foreign object in our community and it just feels wrong.

Aaron: Absolutely. The neuroscience book that I alluded to is called Social: How Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Dr. Matthew Lieberman. It’s fascinating. It has all kinds of implications for people who are doing work in social media trying to integrate into those social groups. You’re absolutely right, we protect them. Social connection is responsible for our survival. Dr. Lieberman flips Maslow’s law actually, and says that it’s primal, it’s our first need.

It’s why we cry when we’re born, to connect to somebody or something that will care for us in what is a very long gestation period. If you think about that, we’re sort of putting ourselves in a vulnerable position from predators and all kinds of things to make that connection. It’s that important. From that moment on, we work on that area of our brain when we’re not doing anything. We exercise the part in our brain to make social connections, it’s so important. We’re really good at it, it’s really attuned, it’s deeply hard-wired.

Then we protect it in a way that is really primal as well, to your point, this idea of safety. We feel the pain of social disconnection in the same way, in the same place in our brain that we feel physical pain. Let that sink in for a minute. It’s pretty amazing. That’s why we use words like heartache or a gut punch after a rebuke, because we are feeling it in the same part of our brain as physical pain.

And we protect it in the same and in the same network as well. That same impulse to pull your hand away from a hot stove protects social connections and wanting to feel safe. Ants coming to the rescue and swarming around that threat is a really good analogy. That’s exactly what we do, and we do it in social groups as well.

Matt: We are protective of our communities, whatever they’re about. Everyone has a different definition of what community means to them, but we are very protective of that.

You mentioned in your book and you’ve talked a lot about the data, the data that marketers are using. Data that I have to say is coming to us primarily from these same social media platforms that we’re using. You talk about that data being flawed or being questionable, and yet we’re making sometimes pretty monumental decisions based on that. I’d love to hear what your finding in terms of flawed data and where maybe we could do a little bit better.

Aaron: We looked at well over 50 social media marketing studies to try to confirm but also find some new information around the ineffectiveness of social media marketing. One of the key things we found was that the data that’s out there that we’re making decisions on is coming from the tools themselves. That’s really the fox running the hen house right now and it’s a really interesting dynamic.

In fact, there is a study from Altimeter and Hootsuite that found that 74% of marketers rely on the tools themselves to measure how the effectiveness of those tools are.

Matt: Guilty.

Aaron: Right? We’ve kind of been gaslighted into believing that engagement and followers and fans and all these things that they like to throw at us as growth is meaningful, and it really just isn’t. Those aren’t business results. Those aren’t even really top of the funnel results. So, we’re kind of being gaslighted around all of that.

It’s hard to wade through that. It’s basically put out there like any content marketer would put out content for their client, very biased, promotional in nature. We take in something from Hootsuite or Facebook as a legitimate study, and it really just isn’t, and we’re kind of confirming our biases that we want social media to work as marketers because we’ve put so much into it, or we see all of the promises, or we like it ourselves, or whatever those biases are, and it just continues to confirm it. I think it’s calcifying our inability to make rational decisions based on it.

Matt: Sorry to interrupt you before, but I’m definitely guilty of that. Because it’s easy. Right?

Aaron: Yes.

Matt: It’s easy. They’re providing this data, but if we stop and think about it, the reason they’re providing this data is to keep you in the platform, to keep you using it. It’s this idea of a walled garden. Whether you’re using it for social media purposes, you’re using it for advertising purposes or marketing purposes, whatever it is, the idea is to keep you in there.

Aaron: That’s right.

Matt: I’m not going to say anyone is being dishonest or disingenuous, but as you pointed out, there certainly are some flaws in the entire precept and the theory around all of this.

Aaron: I think you’re right.

Matt: How do we course-correct, how do we wean ourselves off of that as marketers? We’re all so used to just looking at what our pay-per-click ads say or what LinkedIn tells us our ads are doing and how performance is. How do we take those blinders off?

Aaron: I get that question all the time. It’s hard because we have entrenched ourselves with budgets and people and agencies and all kinds of things. It’s hard to peel away the biases. There’s a cognitive bias you’ve maybe heard of before called the endowment effect, where we think something is much more difficult to change than it actually is. I think the endowment effect is on steroids in this space, for sure.

I think the first place to start is to just start having honest conversations about the data. If you have a dashboard, your agency has given you a dashboard you’re a CMO and you’re looking at the dashboard from your digital marketing team, start asking questions about, “Does this drive business results? Am I looking at anything that is telling me that these are actual business results?” Again, top of the funnel is not engagement on Twitter. Top of the funnel is leads or inquiries, or whatever your context is calling them.

Start asking that question. If you can’t get to that, then start asking, “How do we measure that?” You can set up goal completions with analytics and Tag Manager, and actually use social as a channel to determine whether or not it’s driving the kind of business results that you want to see. I think that’s the place to start, because once you start talking subjectively, “But I love TikTok, look how fun these videos are,” you’re in a malaise, you’re not going to get anywhere. Data gives you a much more objective way to frame up the discussion.

By the way, there are people who are making sales off of social. I’m not here to tell you to stop doing it. Of course, if you can measure that, then measure it. But I think, to your point, if you want to start moving in a direction, that’s the place to start, honest conversations about data.

Matt: There’s this idea that I have been faced with, at least, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of other marketers were. It’s this idea of behavioral momentum, like I’ve been doing this thing and I’ve been basing my data off this thing. We’ll use LinkedIn as an example, because we’ve used LinkedIn a lot lately. I’m basing it off of that, and I consider myself a reasonably intelligent mammal, so I wouldn’t be doing something if it wasn’t good.

I’m intelligent and the things I’m doing are things an intelligent person would be doing. There’s an element of me personally, psychologically, that thinks if I have to admit to this, does that mean I’ve been doing something wrong? Does that mean I’ve been an idiot for the last X years using this?

I think that’s a psychological barrier that we all have to get passed, this behavioral momentum. Just because you’ve been doing something, even if it’s working to some degree or whatever, it’s okay to look at that critically and say maybe that’s not exactly the way we should have been doing it. It sort of falls under the idea of we’ve always done it this way, it’s just easier to stick with it. But, as you said, when you start looking back at it objectively and start moving a little bit away and get rid of that myopic view that you have, some clarity might come out of that.

Aaron: I think you’re right. Why my book Leading in the Social World takes a whole new approach is to try to take the lenses off, because it’s so difficult to overcome that “this is the way we’ve always done it.” A big place where that rears its head, I think, is in this channel thinking that we have around social groups. Social groups are not channels. In fact, the science will show you and the book talks about they’re much more akin to a murmuration of birds. They have agency, they move, they change, everybody is involved.

We think of them like a channel or an audience, like we’ve been trained as marketers to throughout the years. It’s just not the case. We get this myopic focus of follower and fan growth as a way to demonstrate success on social media. We’re obsessed with it. Our bosses want it from us. As agencies, we report it to brands. There’s no evidence that large fans or followers do you any good.

In fact, a University of Maryland and Duke study looked at 170,000,000 unique users across 3,000 brands on social media and found that word of mouth is subject to negative bias in these brands that they looked at. When it affects performance, it tends to damage it. Get this, let this sink in… The larger the following, the more likely the word of mouth is to be negative, and the smaller followers lean more positive.

When you talk about undoing what it is that you think is valuable and what it is that you’ve been investing in so much, channel thinking and thinking about social groups in the same way that you think about direct mail and advertising is a place to start.

Matt: I have said this to multiple bosses, and I’ll say it to my next one and the one after that, and anyone who wants to bring me in to talk about community; I would rather have 100 highly engaged followers and that be our community than 100,000 people who are there but don’t give a shit, frankly. Pardon the language, but I would much rather have that, for the exact reason that you just said.

One, it’s more manageable, of course. That’s the top level, that’s easy. But you get more out of it. It’s so hard when you get to a certain number. I don’t know what that number is, it’s different for everybody, but it’s hard to continue to drive engagement, have meaningful conversations, and provide anything and get anything of value out of your community because it really is a two-way street. It can’t be all push, it can’t be all pull, it has to be a two-way street that is constantly moving.

I like your bird analogy because it is something that is not only back and forth moving, but it’s moving and repositioning itself. One day it’s over here, the next day it’s over here, one day it’s down here. That’s the beauty of a community is that it can, but that gets unwieldy when you get to a certain threshold, it’s much more difficult to do that.

Aaron: I wish I would have met you before I wrote the book, you would have been an awesome source. Second edition will be quoting Matt Snodgrass, for sure.

Matt: You talk about approaching social with a new mindset, with a leadership mindset rather than our traditional marketing mindset. I’m curious because a lot of us that are in the social world, that have jobs that are social media manager, social media community coordinator, whatever the title is, a lot of us maybe don’t feel like we are in a “leadership” position. Not formally or in the organizational structure and the hierarchy of our roles. How do we tackle that if we don’t necessarily consider ourselves a leader, how do we take a leadership position?

Aaron: I love that question. We could talk two hours about that, I get so excited and passionate about that. There’s a couple of things.

First of all, as marketers, the actual craft of marketing, at least when we’re talking about marketing communications, is about influence without power. That is what we do every day. In different ways and in different contexts, we are influencing without power. That is very much of concern to leaders. It’s talked about and written about exhaustively. I’ve learned personally way more from the leadership discipline on how to lead without power than I ever have from the marketing one. Seeing what you do as a leadership challenge is a first step.

The second thing is what we do is also leadership almost more than marketing within our organizations. When you think about something like rebranding, that’s a significant change effort that you’re leading. It really has less to do with marketing and more to do with how to align everybody in the company to be engaged and inspired and be advocates for this new brand. Then we put marketers with no formal leadership training in charge of that. That’s one example where marketers are involved in leadership as well.

I think you need to just see it that way, take it seriously, and then invest in yourself as a leader to actually step up and do it. Then of course we are leading people, we’re leading creative departments, we’re leading project managers, we have all kinds of different types of people that we have to hone in a really sophisticated leadership style because marketing is so diverse in terms of the minds and the types of people that are attracted to it. We have to figure that out if you want to manage people as well. I think that’s key.

Real quick, I hope I’m not taking too much time with this question. The last thing is once you enter into a leadership kind of conversation about what it is you do, leadership takes, I think, moral decisions and ethical decisions a lot more seriously than marketing does, in my experience. We as marketers need to step up and start having more sophisticated conversations, in my opinion, about what our role is in things like the growth of Facebook and the growth of Google and misinformation.

Not that we are putting misinformation out there, but we’re responsible for Facebook, marketers have paid for Facebook to become what it is. What is our role and what is our responsibility ethically and morally in a dynamic like that? I don’t think we have those kinds of conversations enough in sophisticated ways. I think if we think of ourselves as leaders, that tends to move us over there a little bit more effectively.

Matt: That is awesome. Aaron, thanks so much for your time today. This was a great conversation. Like you, I could go on for two more hours. We might have to do a part two of this one of these days. Thank you so much for your time today and for being with us.

Aaron: Thank you, Matt. I really appreciate it. I enjoyed the talk.

Matt: If folks want to learn more about you or about your book, where can they find out about it?

Aaron: Just AaronTempler.com, there’s the book, there’s the blog, everything you need is there.

Matt: Awesome. Folks, thanks again for listening to another episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast. I do need to make one clarification, because I got an email on the last episode, because the last couple of episodes I have asked you all for one favor at the end of this, but I have said in preface to that that I don’t care about podcast reviews on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, you don’t have to do that. That is not true, we absolutely definitely care, and it makes a difference.

If you want to leave us a five-star review, I would absolutely love it, leave us a review and tell us what you thought. But what really makes a big difference to us and what really helps grow the podcast is just you finding one person and sharing it with them. One person who is interested in building a community, who is interested in being a marketing leader, who is doing social media management and would benefit from hearing this podcast. Share this with them. Tell one person, then they tell one person, and they tell one person, and soon we have conquered the podcasting world.

Until we conquer that podcasting world, thank you all for being here. I will see you in the next episode.

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