Overblown Hype About Facebook Ads Versus TV Does Social Media No Favors

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Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Mat Morrison, Social Media Strategy Director with Starcom MediaVest Group. You can follow him on Twitter at @mediaczar or his blog.

Generally the social media marketing services industry is its own worst enemy. Time and again we think we’re turning a corner into being a useful productive part of our clients’ businesses, when some cluetard guru suddenly pops up from nowhere and queers the pitch.

“70 to 260 times as efficient”

A little background: I more or less spend my work and hobby time analysing social media data, so words like “analysis”, “research” and “data” are music to my ears. So imagine my joy when I first stumbled upon Kirk Cheyvitz’s post on Pando Daily, peppered as it is with references to data (6 mentions), research (5) and mathematical models (2). Together with some people at his agency, (writes Cheyvitz), he:

…created a mathematical model, drawing on recent research and our own experience, to directly compare the cost of delivering brand messages on TV versus Facebook […]
Since, oddly enough, such a model had not been built before, the finding probably bears repeating, so it can sink in: Not twice as efficient. Not four times. But somewhere between 70 and 260 times, depending on numerous variables. (my emphasis)

That’s the stuff to give the troops! Facebook advertising is 70 to 260 times as efficient as TV advertising? Pack your bags, TV advertising, it’s time to go home.

Sadly, as suggested by the post’s headline title (“Resistance is futile. Yet, they resist: How Madison Ave. wastes clients’ money by denying reality”), the marketing industry has cravenly, stupidly and blindly refused to accept and act on these findings (it’s worth noting in passing that in popular culture, at least, those who claim that “resistance is futile” are most often proved wrong.) Cheyvitz cites an ever-so-slightly-dry paper published last year in The Journal of Advertising Research titled The Power of Inertia, Conservatism in Marketing Resource Allocation which proves (in his words), that

Instead of investing ad budgets primarily in the media vehicles and tactics that work the best, managers spend too much on the ad vehicles that have always been the most popular with their pals and peers.

I read the article. It is quite probably the most thorough and well-constructed expression of the frustrated agency man’s cry, “blame the client!” – a cry that is as old as Sterling Cooper. Blaming the client (or a blind and craven marketing industry) is too often the frustrated evangelist’s get out clause. Does Cheyvitz hope to convert them by exposing their stupidity? That would seem to be a weak pitch strategy.

How did he come up with those numbers?

How did Cheyvitz come to those wonderful numbers in the first place? It’s hard to be sure, but he did helpfully publish his methodology in a post titled Ad Battle of the Century: Facebook crushes Primetime TV. It’s a long read, (and I don’t necessarily urge you to read it) but here are what seem to me to be the germane quotes (with my emphasis):

In the UK, using ITV’s “Coronation Street” as the baseline, TV CPMs are roughly 70 times more expensive than social media costs per thousand impressions.

And…

That 15p CPM compares to a £14.97 CPM on UK television (103 times more expensive) and £38.09 on primetime in the States (262 times more expensive).

It should be so obvious that I hesitate to point this out: one doesn’t really need much of a mathematical background to work out a CPM (for those of you who aren’t in the media world, that’s the “cost per thousand ad impressions”.) But all Cheyvitz ever needed to prove the greater efficiency of social media was to:

…directly compare the cost of delivering brand messages on TV versus Facebook

Social Media impressions cost less than TV impressions, Q.E.D. But that’s not really what Cheyvitz set out to prove, is it? On its own, a lower cost isn’t a valid definition of efficiency: efficiency would entail achieving an equivalent benefit for that lower cost. For any sensible advertiser, impressions are merely a means to an end, not the end in themselves. Some impressions are worth more than others for a reason; that’s part of the joy of the media world. Cheyvitz’s circular argument hasn’t really proved anything.

Weasel words

“The facts clearly show” states Cheyvitz, exhibiting all the fervour of a social media evangelist:

that shifting more advertising budgets to online social platforms could significantly reduce corporate marketing expenses while spreading advertising messages much more widely.

Let’s unpack that a little. “The facts clearly show” is a strong opening. Facts are good; you can’t argue with facts. “Significantly reduce corporate marketing expenses” is also good. But “could significantly reduce corporate marketing expenses”? That’s almost a text book use of “could” as a weasel word, allowing (as it does) its author to make what appears to be a strongly-phrased and meaningful promise – without actually having to commit to anything of any substance.

To be clear, could is nothing more than a statement of faith since it implicitly allows the counter proposition: or it could not without making any judgement as to which is more likely. To put it another way, the following two statements have equal truth value: Cheyvitz’s article could be the most important thing you read this year. Or it could be a load of crap he believes without proof.

The time has come to abandon the evangelists

Being charitable, Cheyvitz might just be a little bit crazy, rather than knowingly misleading. That being the case it’s unfair of Pando to parade his madness for the entertainment and amusement of the public. The days of public visiting at Bedlam are over. It’s time for social media to grow up.

Here’s an admission. In the early days of social media we needed evangelists. We needed people who could tell big exciting stories with big exciting numbers. That is – as every entrepreneur knows – how we sell promising new ideas: by promising big, and by relying heavily on words like “could” and ideas like “everyone else is a lazy, befuddled, herd-following epsilon-minus semi moron, but smart people like you and I share a higher truth.”

Those big numbers, steep curves, and that sense of exclusive insider knowledge are attractive to a very specific kind of buyer; the early adopter. And just as there are early adopter consumers, there are early adopter advertisers.

Those early adopters been fantastic at supporting, growing and defining the early days of our industry. I’d suggest that – for many of them, social media marketing has already become a profitable part of their business. The challenge we face now is how we introduce social media to the mainstream; to the heavy TV advertisers.

We don’t sell to the mainstream the way we sell to the early adopters. The mainstream is more resistant to the big number sell; what they want to hear is that social media is a real thing; a useful and productive business tool. They’re looking for something that’s reliable. And people who throw around big numbers and empty promises don’t make them think that social media is reliable.

To the mainstream marketer, evangelists are just scary crazy people who trade in faith, fine-sounding statements and poorly-sourced infographics. From time to time they may find some – like Kooky Kirk Cheyvitz – who pay lip service to data and ROI: but when they come to investigate them, their numbers and mathematical models collapse into tinsel and glitter.

Social Media needs to change its pitch

Social media needs to change its pitch. We need to persuade sensible grown ups with grown-up budgets that they can profit from investing in Social Media. That it plays an important role in the marketing mix, not that it’s a panacea, or a replacement for TV.

We need to distance ourselves from the crazy people and their crazy numbers now. We need to start taking our numbers seriously, not simply cadge them from the latest nicely put-together SlideShare presentation or infographic. We need to interrogate them, understand them, not simply repeat them like some kind of magic spells. Only then can we really stand behind them.

And – sadly – this means that we may have to turn our backs on those who seem to share our goals most enthusiastically. It’s no longer OK to turn a blind eye to their excesses and inflated numbers. We need to choose our friends more carefully these days, because sometimes with friends like Kooky Kirk, we’re just laying ourselves and our industry open to ridicule.