There’s a great Churchill quote, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing … after they have exhausted all other possibilities,” which I think applies to our long sojourn in the valley of social networking.
Social networking is important and will be a major part of our future, but I can’t help but think that the way we are approaching it is in the “all other possibilities” category. The approach is becoming important to get wrong, too. It’s normal in the early phases of any trend that the marketplace tries many things, many approaches. But often this amounts to bumping into the furniture in a dark room. For whatever reason, it often takes great creativity for someone to simply hit the light switch.
But we’re now getting deep into social territory, and market conditions are a changing. Vendors need better and more reliable ways to identify and approach customers in an era when customers are losing their spending ability to global events like a nagging recession and the spike in transportation fuel prices. So far we have a stampede to an Ashton Kutcher-inspired contact model when we need much more.
Lately, social scoring mechanisms from places like Klout and PeerIndex are joining the conversation, promising what plain old social technologies did but failed to deliver. I am not optimistic about their chances.
Where’s the Sell?
The implicit assumption in social-influence approaches is that if a vendor can connect with the right people, the right channel, that those people — the so-called influencers — will do the heavy lifting and push your product. The approach does have merit; it works well for new, category-busting innovations. Products and vendors with little track record have few skeletons in the closet and a clean slate to write on. People are like that, which helps explain the popularity of social technology — each of us is unique and every day is new.
However, products and vendors have history, and customers have long memories. Most importantly, customers now have social media with which to share their memories. A vendor who relies too heavily on social media and social communities to output messages without first listening to the chatter is taking big risks.
The economic drivers that I look at tell me that we are in an age of marketing or an age of buying, but not an age of selling. The major niches for things that people want to consume have been long established, and with a few exceptions — for instance, maybe you haven’t bought a tablet computer yet — most of us know how to buy them because we’ve bought similar products before.
In that environment, the advantage goes from vendor to customer, and the sales process turns into a buying process. Add to this a continuing slow recovery and tapped-out consumers, and you have a market with a lot more push than pull.
But back to the other possibilities category that Churchill spoke about. By using social media in an outbound way, we are effectively doing our marketing after the fact and wasting a lot of time and effort in the process. Social ought not to be a thing that we use to sift through the great unsorted marketplace. Sorting can be done better and faster and cheaper in the marketing phase through analytics and with drip marketing techniques.
In my experience in sales and marketing, and now as an analyst, it seems to me that we spend too much sales time qualifying rather than closing. That was never much of an issue when markets were booming and travel was cheap, but that’s not today’s reality.
Look around you: Travel is not cheap, and it’s getting more expensive. Oil spiked above US$100 per barrel last week, gas is in the mid-three dollar range, and so is jet fuel. Four-dollar gas was a major contributor to the last recession in mid-2008, a time when the major legacy airlines lost a billion dollars a quarter, each. With jet fuel at $4 per gallon, you’ll see fewer available flights, and at $8, you’ll see fewer airlines. Your selling strategy needs to become more focused on identifying the right customers, their needs and budgets. That’s something that can be done through marketing, inbound social media and hybrid sales teams.
What to do?
I think we’re entering marketing’s golden age. It will be a time when marketers consolidate the tools and techniques amassed over the last decade and combine them with the aggressive management techniques that sprang up side by side. It is an era when we need to aim before we fire, diagnose before we prescribe. The demands of these times will cause us, in Churchill’s phrase, to “do the right thing” because we’ve already tried all the others.