Off the Media

The Real Thing: Don’t Listen to Coke, Social Media Works . . . At Least As Well As Regular Media

Don't expect the debate to be settled. Because it never was in the first place.

offthemedia (1)Last week, Coca-Cola put out a study declaring that online buzz has no impact on sales. And of course, that announcement drove everyone on the Internet to start buzzing about it.

AdAge, MediaBistro, Motley Fool, Business Insider and dozens of others all weighed in on Coke’s study, which “finds online buzz has no measurable impact on short-term sales”–driving thousands of tweets, likes and comments between them. (By “weighing in,” I mean they repeated the same few facts derived from the same presentation originally reported by AdAge in its “Buzzkill: Coca-Cola Finds No Sales Lift from Online Chatter” story.)

The chatter about this story was so immediate, so loud and extreme that Coke rushed to walk back the claims–reassuring the blogosphere about its devotion to social media. Coke’s senior vice president of integrated marketing communications and capabilities, Wendy Clark, was compelled to post on the company’s website promising that “with social playing a crucial role at the heart of [Coke's] activations,” the company is committed to continuing to invest in social campaigns.

It’s an ironic microcosm of the real impact of online buzz. You can’t say for sure why or how it works, but clearly when there is enough noise in the right circles, it drives real people to do real things.

However, the idea that advertising or chatter on social media is going to drive short-term sales of soda is stupid (and that’s all Coke’s study ascertained). I’m not even sure that social media buzz can lift sales in the long term. Not with a brand so well known.

Perhaps social media isn’t working for Coke because they’re not doing a very good job at it. Perhaps their ads are targeted poorly. Perhaps their 61 million Facebook fans aren’t generating much value because Facebook has surreptitiously walled off up to 85 percent of those fans and charges exorbitant rates for reaching and communicating with them. Maybe nobody wants to tweet (or listen to tweets) about 100-year-old sugar water. Who knows?

None of the potential reasons say much about social media buzz as a whole. (This is why data scientists warn about generalizing from a single example.)

But one thing is well established: social media is incredibly effective at taking something totally unknown and making it known, sometimes in a matter of minutes.

I’ve seen this with my own clients and with myself. A blog mention by Tim Ferriss and your book sales skyrocket. A mention on 20/20, not so much. Look at the musician Alex Day, whom I advise, he’s never been mentioned in an offline media source in his life. And last week, based solely on the buzz of social media, he charted higher than Justin Timberlake.

One needs only to glance at Kickstarter, where projects go from $0 in sales to commitments from fans in the millions of dollars. How do people find out about these projects? It isn’t from the New York Times, at least not at first. Users hear about it from friends who post about their donations, from blogs, and from email and then they spend real money in real time. So we know social buzz is responsible for at least $119 million last year–and that’s on one site. Another company turned $200,000 in Facebook ads into $10 million in revenue. The list goes on and on.

So many marketers and gurus have naturally begun to extoll the limitless benefits of online media and highlighted the decline and influence of other media. But to focus exclusively on that is short-sighted. What they should really be focused on is how to get more from both.

Because in my experience, online and offline media drive each other. Eighty-nine percent of journalists admit to using blogs as sources. Meanwhile, every old media outlet on the planet accuses blogs and social media of profiting unfairly off their work.

Right now, social media is cheap. Its impact is more difficult to track, which has made it easy for charlatans to exaggerate its benefits. On the other hand, other forms of advertising like television, print and outdoor have premiums built into them–premiums left over from when they were the only game in town.

The perfect example of this is Forbes. It’s a 100-year-old media brand … but its business model is exactly the same as Huffington Post. Essentially anyone can publish there (leading to a lot of embarrassing articles and crap). Yet, its advertising rates are comparatively quite high. In fact, they claim that they do not have “remnant inventory (though anyone who has ever read a Forbes article knows how many bogus pageviews the site generates).

If Coke or anyone is buying there–purchasing new media advertising inventory at old media rates–of course it’s going to be ineffective. Old tactics are growing less efficient, but their prices remain high. New tactics are developing, but their value and proper cost is still ambiguous and can fluctuate.

Because of rapid technological disruption and advancement, knowing what works is even harder. At this intersection of old and new, there is all sorts of confusion. What is this worth? What is that worth?

Coke’s study says social media doesn’t work. Facebook and Datalogix have an equally persuasive study that says it does. In fact, they say that Facebook ads work just like television ads, subtly influencing you whether you know it or not. And 50 years ago Ogilvy was trying to figure out if television ads worked at all compared to print. Nobody knows anything.

And that’s my point: don’t expect the debate to be settled–ever. Because it never was in the first place.

Marketing is a mercurial business. It’s based on gut and “creativity.” If it wasn’t, the Don Drapers of the world wouldn’t get to keep their cool offices and expense accounts.

Marketing has always been hard to track–the idea that advertising and PR and “brand awareness” drive sales is, at its core, based more on common sense than it is on data.

And at the end of it, the only thing we can say, whether we’re talking about classified ads or Facebook messages, billboards or online display ads, is this: certainly spending all these billions doesn’t hurt.

That’s all we really know. The rest is opinion.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of  Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and a PR strategist for brands and writers.