Yesterday, while riding in a cab to go meet a friend for First Friday’s Dupont Circle art studio shows, I overheard part of an NPR story discussing the significance (if any) of Lacoste reaching 10 million fans on their Facebook page. The brand and some fashion media outlets made a big hoopla about this milestone, but many also brought into question the significance of this story. I was saddened to hear this story even aired on such a reputable media outlet, but relieved that there was a level of scrutiny placed upon how brands perceive this transparent metric on Facebook.
Less than 12 hours later, I awoke from my slumber unconsciously opening my Facebook app to get a morning dose of social gratification, only to see yet another brand celebrating a faux milestone in their illustrious history:
I was taken back by two things:
- The fact that brands actually think their fans/followers give a damn how many other fans/followers they have
- The fact that I wasn’t more vocal in the past when clients I have worked with wanted to celebrate these absurd milestones
We are seeing a new phenomena in marketing of brands celebrating the size of their audience. Brands never made commercials celebrating the number of people they reached with TV ads. Nor did brands, in the earlier days of digital marketing, scream from the heavens when their email list reached a certain size (though I know some organizations that did).
So, why do brands feel compelled to celebrate when they reach a specific audience size on social media? The easy answer is transparency. At no other time in marketing history were brands put in a position where the number of people they are directly marketing to through a channel, which was generally confidential information, was displayed for anyone in the world (with internet access) to see.
This new phenomena can be compared to college freshman guys talking about how many girls they have had sex with. Imagine you are a 18-year-old guy fresh out of high school living on campus, and away from home, for the first time. When your peers ask you how many girls you shacked up with, the number probably gets exaggerated a bit…or a lot. Who cares, right? No one will ever be able to find out the truth, it’s locked away in your mind. But, introduce a 3rd party that actually kept track of how many times people get laid and forces you to wear a badge displaying that number to the world, then you start to get really self-conscious about it.
The same thing is happening on a grander scale with brands. They feel compelled to increase their audience size to reflect the magnitude of their reach. Don’t get me wrong, you can make a business case for it (increasing brand awareness, having a larger pool for direct marketing, etc.), but to most brands a large audience size is a shiny sticker showing their accomplishments. Corporate social media teams are going to great lengths, spending millions of dollars, to build up this little metric, and have no idea what the real impact this audience is having on brand metrics or their bottom line.
Just as freshman guys become paranoid that people will find out they are inexperienced or, even worse, virgins, brands are paranoid that the public, and their board members, will realize people really aren’t connecting with your brands. So, social platforms introduce paid opportunities for brands to grow their audience by spending millions of dollars, just as a college freshman can pay a prostitute to be able to say he got laid. In both cases, while you have satisfied your need your immediate gratification, both brands who pay for fans/followers and freshman guys who lose their virginity to a prostitute don’t really know what the long term outcomes of their actions will be. But, despite that, there is this false sense of accomplishment that settles, the delusions of grandeur begin, and brands boastfully brag about the large crowd of “loyal” and “engaged” followers they have gathered.
This new prhenomena of brands bragging about the number of fans and followers they have reminds me of the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Brands, being representative of the Emperor, have been swindled by social platforms, the tailors, into thinking that they will be provided something of great value in their large follower base. But, the truth is, people see right through this number or probably don’t even look at it. Yet, brands continue to match in procession through the crowd as their audience calls them out for what is really going on.
Again, there is value in having a large audience on social media, just like there is value in building a large email list or getting more visits to your website. But, you need to look beyond the surface and focus yield, not just reach.