Why Aren't You Swimming Upstream? Why Social Media Is About More Than Marketing

Philip Guarino

By Philip Guarino, Elementi Consulting

Social media discussions often focus on the nifty new tools that businesses now have to market products and services. A more comprehensive observation would note that consumers are communicating and interacting differently. As younger consumers shun their television sets for the internet, their iPads and iPhones, the growth in the use of social media is set to grow even faster. Facebook, for example, now accounts for a vast share of the time spent online.

But are boardrooms and marketing executives really understanding the implications of this shift in societal behavior? And more important, do we understand that changing dynamics will inevitably impact not just how we market—but how we operate as companies?

The traditional (read: outdated) model of marketing has been “push”-based. Companies devised a message and then communicated it to potential customers through multiple, yet largely static channels. Companies controlled their unidirectional downstream message, as the upstream consumer response or feedback was slow to come, difficult to measure or (shh, dirty secret!) actually never made it back to headquarters.

Social media technology has forced change. Like it or not, consumers are engaging with one another- sharing ideas, discussing products and customer service. Someone, somewhere is likely discussing your company. They are probably even discussing the very advertising and marketing campaigns themselves! Certainly word of mouth isn’t a new concept, but social media tools have amplified the speed and sheer quantity of information that is shared. The impact can only be tremendous.

For example, think about the impact on marketing budgets. Engaged companies can now see who their biggest influencers are and to reach out to them. When 23-year old Michelle Phan can generate 200 million views of her videos showcasing Lancôme, it calls into question the value of a $40 million celebrity sponsorship or $200,000 single-page display ad. Marketing directors and board members will soon take note and advertising budgets are almost certain to become a battlefield.

Unfortunately many companies have only halfheartedly embraced social media, utilizing tools as yet another “push,” downstream marketing mechanism. How many Twitter or Facebook pages have you visited with staid corporate news or press releases? Dynamic and engaging? Hardly. So what’s missing?

What’s often missing is a real understanding of the upstream value of social media. The upstream flow of information provides organizations across a variety of functions with valuable feedback with which to improve products, processes and resource allocation. If I know what my customers are liking that I can quickly alter my marketing spending, slow production of a less-liked item or inch my pricing higher after I receive lots of likes, shares or positive comments. So the impact doesn’t stop with the marketing division any longer. Operations and finance executives are about to join marketing, advertising and customer service directors in one room. How’s that for organizational change?

Before any of this internal change can happen, however, companies need to do three things:

Ask the tough questions. Start with an honest corporate assessment. Ask yourself, “Is my company effectively engaging its customers? Is it inviting sharing and eliciting feedback? And is it listening to that feedback? “If it is, the company will gain insights into what customers like, into what are they saying about the company’s service or performance. If it isn’t, it has in effect opted out of the social media dynamic.

Focus on content. Marketers need to create compelling and valuable content that appeals to affinities, that in effect “ask” to be shared and effortlessly enable consumers to be spokespeople and promoters. More dynamic media such as video, short films and even games are engaging customers in new ways, building brand affinity and communicating authenticity in more ways than traditional “advertisements” can.

• Listen to, follow and integrate the feedback customers give. Ultimately, the most important shift that must occur is in the board room. Understanding that powerful channels of communication have been opened, and that social media can actually bring greater returns is the music executives want to hear.

Philip Guarino is an international strategy and business development consultant based in Boston and Milan. He works extensively with firms to help them leverage interactive media for international business growth. He is a graduate of Harvard College and of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (MBA).



  1. Paul Martin on April 11, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    Very much enjoyed your article. You are right on target about social media!

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