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Has Social Media Really Become The #1 Advertising Channel?

March 21, 2014 No Comments

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Social media, PPC, media buys, traditional print media, promotions — would-be advertisers hear a lot about some of these in the news, but which of them are actually the most effective?

Currently making waves in the blogosphere is social media with its myriad possibilities and — attractive to many — low-price or no-price cost-of-entry. Social media raises the hope of reaching thousands of potential customers all around the globe simply by starting a Twitter feed and hiring a fresh-out-of-university “social media manager” to post promotions interspersed with cat photos. But as many businesses are discovering, social media is not necessarily all that the “buzz” makes it out to be.

Next to social media, business owners have a litany of more traditional options. From paid Internet traffic to physical give-away objects, most of these cost money and many take some expertise to deploy, but all have been proven to deliver results. Where, then, do social media and other cutting-edge methods fit into this portfolio of advertising possibilities?

Understanding Social Media’s Role

To call social media an “advertising channel” is not, strictly speaking, correct. Certainly, there are many players out there who attempt to use social media in the same way as traditional advertising. In many cases, these people are known by the colloquial term “spammers.” The reason for this is social media does not work like traditional media.

Rather than facilitating a “broadcast” style of “I talk, you listen” conversation, social media is oriented towards dialogue. Attempting to simply broadcast a commercial message repeatedly, like print and TV and radio advertisers do, is not interesting to social media users who are there to interact with other people.

To understand the mindset of social media users, consider who uses it and when. By and large, people do not go to social media to conclude business deals, shop for products, or locate who can provide a service they want to hire. Rather, social media users tend to be whiling away time chatting with friends, procrastinating at work, or simply seeking entertainment. They are also used to controlling what kind of information comes their way — social media users choose what feeds, channels, streams, etc they follow and read.

This makes social media an excellent platform for starting a conversation with customers and users. Many large companies have, in fact, had great success rolling out marketing campaigns in the social media sphere which activated their brands, brought their messages to life, and helped potential customers relate to the brand as a human face instead of a logo on a billboard.

Even more important for many of these companies is the use of social media as a customer support and “firefighting” mechanism. When customers are unhappy with a product’s failure, or when they’ve received lackluster service, social media is nowadays often the first (rather than the last) channel they use to vent frustration. By having an active presence in social media, companies can deal with the resulting reputation “fires” while they are still small flames, rather than after they’ve grown into large conflagrations which make the news.

What About Advertising?   

In general, though, social media is not well-suited to up-front advertising. Where it works, social media advertising is usually done through clever (and often disguised) promotions which contain an emotional “payoff” in addition to the sales message and which are correspondingly expensive to produce. (Or, through viral messaging campaigns which require a great deal of expertise.)

For everyone else social media is therefore not an ideal advertising channel. Much more reliable are paid methods of promotion. When advertisers pay directly to put their message in front of the consumer — as with PPC, media buys, or promotional campaigns — the interpersonal etiquette of “do I care that this person wants to sell something” is no longer an issue.

Consider the case of traditional promotional products. If the business hands out promotional metal pens at a trade show, to customers at their establishment, or via a booth at the mall, there is no “social complexity.” The prospect understands the business would like to make them a customer, and is happy to accept the price of a logo on the pen in exchange for the benefit (a free pen). And, as the pen remains on the prospect’s desk for days, weeks, or years, it acts as a constant nagging reminder that this company in particular cared enough to give away a pen.


To say social media has become the “number one advertising channel” is incorrect. Social media may be, and probably is, one of the top marketing channels in use today, but it is not and probably never will be a major advertising channel. Social media is oriented towards building and protecting a brand, but it’s difficult and often unwise to use it for specific advertising tasks. For that, traditional advertising methods still excel.

Alex Pejak is an economist currently working on a few projects in Australia. She is interested in topics related to project management and business IT.




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