I was at business school between 1998 and 2000, during the frenzied inflation of the great dotcom bubble. Students packed the halls for the dotcom-related subjects, which then accounted for more than half of the MBA electives.
Occasionally, during one of those crammed lectures, a brave soul would ask a very basic question: how will these start-ups ever make money?
There was rarely a direct response. The question would be met instead by a pained silence and looks of something between sympathy and disdain: another lost fool who didn’t ‘get it’.
Should the questioner summon up the courage to persist, there would be an airy assertion that this was “a new business model” – followed by the anecdote that the market valuation of Amazon.com already exceeded the entire GDP of Finland.
Times change, but our predilection for mass certainty built on thin evidence does not. In our industry it is a combination that has shifted to a new arena: social media.
“What’s our social-media strategy?” has become an inevitable and urgent question in marketing meetings, with little quarter given to anyone who seeks to probe whether it’s the right tool for this particular brand or situation.
And to be fair to those, usually more senior, marketers who do voice concerns, it isn’t easy to be the Luddite in the room. Doubters can be made to feel like deniers, the misinformed and irresponsible fools who cannot see what is so transparently self-evident to everyone else.
For those who wearily persist in asking awkward questions, the ‘everything-has-changed’ brigade has garnered a cache of stories to bolster its cause.
They might point to the waiting lists achieved by Lancôme, which seeded its DreamTone serum with influential bloggers to foment ‘must-have’ desire. Or to Ford, which loaned pre-launch Fiestas to 100 fashionable young drivers for six months, to earn the kind of buzz advertising can’t. Or Kellogg, which has built a teen fanbase for its Krave cereal through a series of quirky videos from YouTube vloggers.
At this point, doubters could be forgiven for capitulation: if even the straight-laced marketers from Battle Creek are embracing the trend, perhaps it’s time to get on board.
Not so fast. When euphoria meets anecdote, that is precisely the moment when sane marketers need to hold their nerve and insist on answers to some very basic questions:
- Consumers may love to talk about beauty and cars, but do they really want online ‘conversations’ about, say, bathroom cleaners or gas suppliers?
- In any case, what is the commercial value of these conversations?
- What kind of ROI metrics are in place to show that social media justifies the huge marketing resource – time as well as money – that it tends to consume?
In the end, those brave students willing to question the dotcom model way back were right to voice their doubts, because we know what happened next. While Amazon and a few others made billions, an estimated 85% of those dotcom start-ups went bust.
I suspect that ‘earned’ social-media campaigns will go the same way. A few will succeed wildly and become the folklore that keeps the bubble intact. The vast majority will sink without trace, and the losers will keep their anecdotes to themselves.