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Social media does not do what the suits think it does

by Brian Clarey

Social media does not do what the suits think it does

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in my Facebook feed as of late: big, boxed notices informing me of my friends’ fondness for companies like Walmart and Verizon.

My Twitter page, likewise, has been surreptitiously slipping in unasked-for updates from television show characters, a McDonald’s contest and something called Copper TV.

That big corporations have been trying to co-opt Facebook and Twitter — and You- Tube and Reddit and blog comment threads and just about every other form of social, digital media — is not news. From the very beginning, the big boys have wanted a share of Facebook’s eyeballs. Well, maybe not from the very beginning, but from the moment they heard their kids and grandkids talking about it.

And then they were all, “We really need to establish a social media presence, generate some buzz, build brand awareness, maybe get a viral video going.”

But most of us who regularly use social media know that’s not how it works.

I had a young woman in my office the other day who is preparing for a career in public relations. Because she is a recent college grad, I suspect, every job she’s applied for has stressed that her role will focus on each company’s social-media strategy. We’re talking about real estate companies, software developers and businesses of that nature.

“What do they expect you to do for them using social media?” I asked her.

She shrugged her shoulders. “Make a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a video on YouTube, I guess,” she said.

“I don’t think that’s going to do what they think it’s going to do,” I said.

“Neither do I,” she said. Because while social media works for a few niche, local businesses — restaurants posting daily specials, one-of-a-kind fashion retailers with rotating stock, food trucks posting their locations, newspapers alerting readers to new articles, music clubs with changing lineups and a few other examples come to mind — it does relatively little for Walmart, Verizon or Integrated Synergistic Software Solutions.

People don’t use social media to find out about new and exciting products. They use it to see which of their high school friends got fat.

But hey — you do what you gotta do to land a job in this economy. More power to her.

Remember the late 1990s, when the commercial internet was born? That was the era in which people of my generation perpetrated a lasting hustle on those who came before us.

“You got to get online!” my cohort implored. “Everything is moving there! Books! Clothing! Pet food! You think people are going to go shop in a grocery store when they can just click a few buttons online?” And so the corporate suits kicked it into gear, acting on the advice of the foosball-playing minions who promised a brand new digital economy, fomenting the dot-com boom of 1995-2000.

Pets.com. Prefix investing. IPO sprints. Cisco. William Shatner’s famous deal with Priceline. You would have been crazy not to get on board.

But it turns out, almost nobody wanted to buy cars, or autographed sports memorabilia, or even groceries online.

But then came the bust. Amazon.com dropped to $7 a share — though it has since recovered nicely, as did Yahoo, which dropped from $118 a share in January 2000 to just $8 in 2001. Hundreds of other dot-com startups were not so lucky. The city of San Francisco emptied out as wannabe internet moguls realized their companies’ stock had become worthless. I know not what happened to all the foosball tables, but I do know of guys who were able to cash out before the crash — one of them is Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who unloaded now-defunct Broadcast.

com to Yahoo! in 1999 for $5.9 billion in stock, quickly flipping $1 billion of it for cash.

Something of the same sort is happening now with social media. It began in 2005, when some grifter managed to sell MySpace, the dead shopping mall of the internet, to Rupert Murdoch for $580 million. More recently, Mark Zuckerberg, though his Facebook had a disappointing IPO, still managed to maintain his billionaire status. And then Facebook went on to buy Instagram, a company with zero revenue, for $1 billion. Twitter has been infiltrated by big businesses who pay handsomely to send relentless streams of largely ignored pitches.

Now GM has pulled $10 million out of Facebook’s paid advertising program. Others will follow, because people on Facebook aren’t shopping, they’re spreading political propaganda and looking at pictures of cats.

It’s gonna take a while for the suits to figure out that Facebook “likes” and click-throughs don’t translate into sales, that Twitter is a conversation and not a pitch, that videos about hygiene products don’t go viral.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like are all excellent things.

They keep us in touch with our friends, give us outlets for expression, alert us to interesting articles and news developments.

And they’re enormously popular. For now, anyway. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be profitable, except for the entities themselves and those who feed off them.

But if all you’re after is brand awareness, you may be in luck.

A website called buylikes.com is currently selling Facebook “likes” for your product or service, subscribers to your feed or virtual attendees for your Facebook events. For $35, they guarantee 1,500 new “likes” within 72 hours. And they take PayPal.

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