The Era of Free Social Media Is at an End, Says IPG Social Chief

Eric Weaver, chief social officer for Interpublic Group Mediabrands, describes himself as a cheerleader for social media and the great value it can bring to brands. But this past year the cheering went out of the marketing crowd concerning social media’s impact on their bottom lines.

“There is a massive crisis of faith in the practice of social media marketing. We’re seeing fear, uncertainty, and doubt everywhere. My clients are calling up angry, wanting to know what we’re going to do about it. Organic reach dropped to zero for some of our clients,” Weaver told a group of beverage industry marketers at the 2014 eBev Conference in Atlanta.

Social media triumphs by Walmart and Dove, and events such as Oprah going on Twitter, fueled the excitement about the channel in the marketing community, Weaver said—until this year. “That’s when the shiny vehicle called social media stalled and all the money put into this vehicle materially came to a halt,” he said. “This whole idea of social media being free…well, it’s not. And it’s come to an end, in my opinion.”

CFOs and CMOs, Weaver said, are asking how they can justify the costs of social teams and listening platforms against what they spend in more traditional channels like TV and radio. The stuff hit the fan in 2012, when all brands got on the social train and ignited an explosion of posting. Reach of beverage industry messages plummeted to 5% on average, meaning 95% of them were not being read by brand fans, let alone the universe. “You only catch them when they come online or when they refresh and your post rises to the top,” Weaver said.

But supercharging social media with paid media makes the maturing marketing vehicle run like it did back in 2010. As an example, Weaver showed a table of posts an IPG agency made for a tire brand before and after boosting with paid ads. One went from 2,000 opens to 40,000, another from about 5,000 to nearly 900,000.

“Facebook has clearly changed the game to where you have to spend money. The only way you’re going to get seen is by boosting your social with paid,” Weaver argued. “You have to do this, end of story. It’s now a requirement.”

The key to selling this to senior management is establishing an earned media value (EMV) for social. Weaver said that IPG has been honing a system over the past four years that assigns dollar values to social that allows comparison of social media campaigns with more traditional media methods. “EMV has been used by agencies for years. When measured correctly, it’s a good linga franca to use in budget meetings,” Weaver said. “What would I have to pay for social versus TV and radio? Then I have a happy CFO who can compare apples to apples.”

Weaver noted that more and more outside vendors are developing more exacting valuation systems that assign attribution via coupon codes, beacons, and other marketplace technologies. “We’re getting there,” he said.

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