“Most Consumers Don’t Want to Be Your Friend”: Six Axioms of Social Media.

We’ve been sold the grand myth of social media marketing based on some rather flakey ideas. In particular, the ad biz has somehow convinced itself that the vast majority of consumers have a driving desire to be a company’s friend. Now a study by the Harvard Business Review and the Corporate Executive Board suggests there are significant limits to a company’s potential intimacy with its consumers.

This study started by looking at consumer relationships with qualified counter help – like the people at an airline counter. In studying physical behavior and shopping behavior they concluded that people very often avoid idle counter help and opt for automated systems (like ticket kiosks or supermarket self-checkout). Building from this work, they researched other consumer relationships with companies – including social media. In the end, they conclude that the majority of consumers really don’t want to be close to most companies.

I couldn’t agree more. Consider my own situation. We have a lot of brands in the house. But if I remove commodity brands, there are only 200 to 250 brands where a significant connection is even a consideration.

But you know what? I don’t want to be friends with any of them.

Why would a social media connection with Dial Soap benefit me? Or Cascade Detergent? Or Sony for my TV & my DVD? Or Levi’s for jeans? Or Ethan Allen, Sherwin Williams, Dania, Ikea, Nintendo, Lego, or… It simply isn’t worth the social media and email clutter. (No, I do not want most of your brand emails.)

But there’s an even bigger shocker: I’m pretty passionately connected with my Apple products yet don’t even want to “friend” Apple. Why? When other people write about Apple it’s fascinating. But, their corporate communication is brochure copy (like it needs to be) and so it’s really not very meaningful in a relationship. Besides, I will go get information when I need it (it’s right there on the web).

And this leads to a set of key axioms about people interacting socially with companies. My reading of the current research points clearly to these axioms. But research into social media has been conducted primarily with wide-eyed awe and avoided the tough questions. So I know some of these are based on intuitive jumps more than steely-eyed review of hard numbers.

The six (6) axioms:

1. Most consumers don’t want to be your friend. They may like you. They may even love you. But that doesn’t mean they want to be connected with you online.

2. Consumers who will be your friend on Facebook or any social media outlet are a very small segment of your target market.

3. Consumers who will be your “friend” are usually not those customers who generate the most money for you.

4. The influence of active social media consumers is overstated. There is no reason to believe that consumers who will be your “friend” are important influencers – nor your best influencers. (This conclusion comes from some excellent research on the “Million Follower Myth” that I’ve written about in another blog post.)

5. The vast majority of consumers have at most a handful of companies or brands where they will build social connections.

6. The most powerful social media connections are through narrow social media – like your company’s social media site. It’s always been true in marketing that focus delivers higher returns. Somehow, we need to re-build that understanding in social media.

What does all this mean?

Social media is exciting. And it’s here to stay. As companies evolve their marketing, it’s very smart to plan a social media strategy. But social media agencies are using classic “FUD” salesmanship – casting fear, uncertainty, and doubt on your future “unless” you spend a lot of money with them.

In fact, there is a big danger of social media work taking both energy and budget away from more highly profitable investment opportunities. This danger is made higher by the consuming nature of social media work. I find that staff who work on social media become quickly hypnotized by their new toy and lose their sense of perspective.

So after all this, the first and most critical step I recommend for your company’s social media work is choosing where and how you will limit investment until social media is proven to return commensurate sales.

Copyright 2010 – Doug Garnett

About Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett is an expert introducing innovative consumer products and services to market while driving higher return on innovation investment. His career has been spent in innovation and he is the president of Protonik, LLC - an innovation consultancy focused on marketing and innovation. Prior to founding Protonik, he was founder and CEO of ad agency Atomic Direct.

10 Responses to “Most Consumers Don’t Want to Be Your Friend”: Six Axioms of Social Media.

  1. George Campbell says:

    Great piece Doug.I have seen evidence of all of your points over the past two years.
    One place it does seem to work:
    When you give away stuff for free, as Chik-fil-a did with their spicy chicken sandwich on Facebook.
    My “relationship” heated up with them for a moment, but then fell right back into normalcy.
    They bought my friendship with a cheap lunch.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      George –

      Thanks for the good thoughts. Appreciate your Chick-fil-a example. Issuing deals, discounts, and coupons through social media is a smart thing. And, it can be cheaper than other ways of issuing coupons.

      What’s fascinating is exactly what you observe: often coupon-attracted associations (ala a cheap lunch) with consumers end quite quickly.


  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention “Most Consumers Don’t Want to Be Your Friend”: Six Axioms of Social Media. « Doug Garnett's Blog -- Topsy.com

  3. Pingback: Five Reasons Consumers will “Friend” Your Company. | Consumer Packaged Goods CPG Brokers

  4. Rob C says:

    I am a lifelong marketer, but just a recent student of Social Media Marketing. The question I keep asking is, who are the people participating and what is their penetration and contribution to the bottom line? I am fascinated by what I’m learning and find participating in social media very intellectually stimulating, but your article struck a cord with me as I intuitively believe that the participators make up an extremely tiny percentage of most company’s income and therefore Marketing managers need to be very thoughtful in how they incorporate social media into the mix, how much time and resource is invested, etc. I agree it is here to stay and will evolve over time, but let’s not jump off the cliff thinking that since everyone else is jumping that it means it is the right thing to do, or has to be done in a certain way. Explore, test and refine. Find what works well and then grow further. Thanks – nice thought provoking article.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Rob C.

      Appreciate the confirmation. The evolution will be interesting to watch. And, at some point we will finally get some clarification on exactly how it should fit within the marketing mix.

      Thanks for posting thoughts. As an author, I appreciate feedback because it always helps me continue to develop clarity.



  5. Pingback: “Most Consumers Don’t Want to Be Your Friend”: Six Axioms of Social Media. | Consumer Packaged Goods CPG Brokers

  6. Pingback: Five Reasons Consumers will “Friend” Your Company. « Doug Garnett's Blog

  7. Pingback: Humanity, Humility, Statistics & Brands. Thoughts About “How Brands Grow” by Byron Sharp « Doug Garnett's Blog

  8. Pingback: 4th of July Reading: Research Helps Segment Social Media Users for Advertisers « Doug Garnett's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: