Over the past few years engaging in organic/unpaid social media marketing has gotten a bad rap.
As Marshall Manson, the CEO of Ogilvy UK, recently put it in an eMarketer report: “You might as well take your [organic social] budget to the bank, cash it out in greenback $20s, pile it up in the parking lot and light the money on fire.”
While that take may be particularly harsh, it fits with the belief held by a number of experts that brands should abandon their unpaid efforts and only engage in paid advertising on social.
There are good reasons for this opinion. Over the past decade, social networks have increasingly moved from being open places where brands have unfettered access to audiences, to closed platforms that often require spend for content to be seen.
However, although this shift to a pay-to-play model is indisputable and continuing, it does not mean that brands should only use social networks for advertising.
There remain compelling motivations to think of social as more than simply an ad channel. Specifically, these six key reasons justify brands continuing to engage in organic social tactics.
1. Social Media Is a Customer-Care Channel
When talking about the role that social networks play for brands, the focus is often on how they serve as content/advertising platforms. What’s sometimes overlooked is that they serve another role that is equally as important: customer-care channels.
Over the past few years, consumers with service issues have become comfortable with using social media as a way to reach brands. Sometimes this happens in a one-to-one format—via a direct message or chat—but it can also happen via comments on posts, public replies, and a host of other ways.
Given that trend, having a robust engagement/customer care social strategy has to be a high priority for any brand—especially one that has a following.
What’s essential to keep in mind is that you need the right people in place when utilizing social as a customer service channel. These are often different types of conversations from those related to content and advertising. Have a plan in place and smart individuals on the ground (or at the keyboard) to maintain the social elements of your brand voice while also servicing your customers’ needs.
2. Social Is Where Consumers Go to Talk About Brands
Along similar lines to social networks serving as customer service channels, they also act as outlets for consumers to publicly express their feelings about companies.
Whether the experience is good or bad, people want to be able to share their brand experiences with others.
This, of course, may not always be pleasant, and you may wish it were not happening on social media. But, to quote Jeff Goldblum playing Dr. Ian Malcolm in 1993’s Jurassic Park: “Life, uh… finds a way.”
Consumers will use social media to vent about your brand—and sometimes to also give positive shout-outs—and you should embrace it.
If you don’t give your customers a place to share their feelings you’ll simply force them to go and engage where your brand can’t respond. By devoting resources to dealing with public comments on social media you can manage the situation. Most of the time consumers just want an apology if they feel they’ve been wronged, and by acknowledging their issues and treating them with respect, you can turn a detractor into a lifetime supporter.
3. Organic Content Resonates with Engaged Communities
In general, it’s true that organic content from brands increasingly does not break through social networks’ algorithms and into feeds.
However, there’s an exception to every rule. In this case, the outlier is when brands/vertical areas have highly engaged communities on social media.
Time and again, you can see the difference a passionate audience makes on the engagement and awareness levels of organic brand posts.
For example, take firearms manufacturers. Although these types of brands cannot promote their posts on platforms such as Facebook, their fans still engage at a very high rate with their content. The network in this case is often used similarly to how a forum for experts is used, where people ask questions, give responses, and generally share their thoughts on a given subject—all under the umbrella of brands’ posts. Reach is also often high because consumers will set brands’ posts to “show first” or will actively navigate to their pages.
This all comes down to passion. Fundamentally, when there is a will from a motivated consumer to find content from a brand, there is a way.
4. Social Posts Allow Brands to Engage in Public Conversations
There are all sorts of things happening on social media that cannot be responded to with advertising. These range from debates about news topics to riffs on fresh memes.
Social networks, especially more open ones such as Twitter, still serve an important role in allowing brands to participate in these public discussions. Chiming in on a trending topic or responding to a mention from a consumer can expand word-of-mouth and build relationships.
This sort of conversational and fluid interacting serves a significantly different role from rigid advertising campaigns (which still have their place, of course). Quick quips and short shout-outs also require less effort and fewer resources than longer content pieces.
Of course, you should only do what’s natural for your brand. Don’t be sassy or take stands on issues if that’s not what you—or your customers—want. Also, if a trending topic fits your brand, and your voice will add to the conversation, then go ahead and post. But if your brand will be seen as being inauthentic or appropriating something for profit, then don’t jump on the bandwagon.
5. Social Networks Are for Listening as Well as Posting
This fact is sometimes forgotten in the debate over organic vs. paid tactics: listening is free.
While connecting content to individuals often does require ad spend, seeing what consumers are sharing publicly is not gated. With any number of software tools you can easily receive high-level sentiment views about your brand, as well as detailed information about reaction to specific products, services, locations, and even employees.
This data is invaluable because it gives you a direct pipeline to consumers’ feelings about your offerings.
That said, it should not be used in isolation. Social insights help to get a feel for the zeitgeist of the moment, but they need to be paired with data from research and customer interactions so that you can get the full picture. Ultimately, social listening is one piece in the puzzle; used correctly, it can help reorient focus on pain points and identify unknown opportunities.
6. Content Can Be Both Paid and Organic on Social Media
Finally, it’s important to recognize that paid and organic are not mutually exclusive when it comes to content on social media.
For example, you can post a piece of organic content to your social accounts and then promote it to the right audiences. The potential customer may see it a number of times as they move from awareness to purchase, and eventually transition from seeing via ads to seeing it on your pages. Similarly, you can engage people with branded, non-salesy organic content in their feeds and then promote specific discounts when you feel they’ve been primed properly.
Also, keep in mind that individual content units can involve a mix of organic and paid approaches. You may invest spend in a sponsored post and then engage people in the comments to move them down the path to purchase.
At the end of the day, it isn’t about whether you should use paid or unpaid social tactics—every company should use both. The more important debate is which specific mix of tactics is right from your brand. Some firms might benefit from focusing more on advertising, while others might benefit from focusing more on organic approaches. Ultimately, it’s finding that right balance—rather than going to one extreme or another—that will have the biggest payoff for marketers.
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