Is Social Media a Waste of Resources?

An interesting article caught my eye on the Wall Street Journal this morning, thanks to a posting from a friend: it seems many businesses are starting to asking themselves what they are getting out of social media, and whether they ought to continue to invest in that aspect of their online presence.

In a fascinating Gallup survey, a whopping 62% of respondents indicated that social media had no influence at all over their purchasing decisions. Only 5% of respondents indicated that social media had a significant influence on their purchasing decisions.  Not surprisingly, 94% of respondents indicated that the primary reason they used social media was to keep in touch with family and friends.

In response to figures like these – which a reasonable person could have predicted – it seems more businesses are considering dialing back their online investment, particularly when it comes to social media.  If a re-tweet on Twitter or an up-vote on Reddit is not, in most cases, going to result in greater sales, then the amount of spending going into a business’ presence on such sites will decrease.  As the Gallup report concludes, these venues “are not the powerful and persuasive marketing force many companies hoped they would be.”

The present situation reminds me somewhat of the first tech bubble in the late ’90′s. Back then, the term “internet millionaire” was coined to reflect the fact that, in the Wild West-atmosphere of those heady days, people were able to strike it rich by persuading investors that their online product was worth millions in potential revenue. Businesses felt the pressure to get in on the online game, because everyone else seemed to be doing it.

At the time it always seemed to be a bit of an Emperor’s New Clothes situation. Companies were spending exorbitant sums on what was often little more than hype.  When the bubble burst, millions of people lost their jobs, their savings, and so on.  If you were looking for employment back around 1999-2000, you will remember what a terrible time that was for many workers, particularly those in industries with ties to the nascent online industries.

Although time and technology have marched on, the underlying question remains the same, only this time with regard to a company’s social media presence: how is digital media going to make my business more profitable?  In order to properly consider that question, however, let me suggest that we need to weed out a few types of online experiences to examine the issue at hand.  There are profits to be made through digital media, but for many businesses it seems to me that the trick is to understand what you can and cannot achieve with your online presence.

First let’s put to one side the use of social media by those having no profit motive:  your Tumblr account about funny pictures of cats, for example.  Let’s also discard sales portals for the purchase of goods and services: companies like Amazon or Ebay, craftsmen who sell their work online, virtual travel agents, etc. These businesses use all kinds of digital media, including social media, to present the consumer with images and information on the types of products they offer for sale. Although far faster and more comprehensive than any printed catalog, when you get down to brass tacks the business model here is really not that much different from something like the old Sears Wish Book.

What we’re left with, in terms of the opportunity to make a profit, seems to be advertising, as indeed it always has been. What many companies didn’t understand 15 years ago, and which they don’t seem to have learned about social media until now, is that sites which do not engage in direct sales should be viewed primarily as public relations vehicles, not profit-generators, unless you happen to control the sale of advertisements on that site.  If you are a producer of a good or service, you want to have a consumer view your product in a positive way.  A component of your marketing strategy online should be to make your presence attractive on social media, but this is simply a variant of creating a beautiful showroom, running clever ads in magazines or on television, and so on.

There is also a question to my mind as to whether many of these companies have been more focused on building altars, rather than storefronts.  Sadly, more people today spend their Sundays worshiping professional athletes rather than God, and the profits to be made from areas such as merchandising and advertising the exploits of these athletic entertainers are enormous.  Yet whether they are cars, phones, or entertainers, the businesses that have to sell these products have done a great job of bringing together fans of their products through social media, but apparently without significant monetizing of those social connections.

Thus, while thousands may click “Like” on the Ritz-Carlton corporation page on Facebook, how many of these people are actually staying at Ritz-Carlton hotels on a regular basis? While the Gucci account on Twitter has over 1 million followers, how many of those followers can even afford to buy a pair of the company’s iconic Italian horsebit loafers?  It’s all very well to be popular in social media, with thousands of hits on your YouTube video.  Yet from a profitability standpoint, if that popularity is not generating sales, then are you wise to continue the same level of investment in it?

If the WSJ piece is to be believed then, more companies are waking up to the fact that having a presence in social media is worth some level of investment, but only up to a point.  Just as 15 years ago, companies needed to create websites in order to be part of the conversation and remain current, so too they needed to hop on the social media bandwagon when that began to roll along several years ago.  Their expectations in doing so don’t seem to have been matched, in many cases, with the anticipated level of return.

Until the next big thing comes along, however (virtual reality, anyone?), one doubts that business is going to be leaving social media altogether any time soon – even if it may choose not to spend as much on it in the future as it does in the present.

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Conjuring the ’90′s: 7 Thoughts on the Vatican’s “New” Website

In the First Book of Samuel, in the very famous scene between King Saul, the (dead) Prophet Samuel, and the Witch of Endor, the lesson to be learned is, poking about with things that are dead and buried is never a good idea. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this story in checking out the Vatican’s new web site today. If you thought it was a mess before – and oh, it was – you ain’t seen nothing yet. I don’t know why the tech department at The Holy See is trying to conjure up the spirits of web designers from 15 years ago, but they’ve succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

So here are seven quick observations, just on a brief attempt to actually use the site:

1. Scrolling Banners: I mean…really? Where are the flying toasters and the Dancing Baby? And what’s worse is, it’s not just a scrolling banner, it’s a scrolling banner of the different @Pontifex account tweets. That’s like playing “Pong” on an X-Box 360. Actually no, it’s worse.

2. Language: The default language setting for the site is “Italian”, and fair enough, since the people who maintain it are in Italy. However, virtually any site can be coded to detect the browser’s country of origin when a visitor lands there, and will adjust the language setting automatically. Why isn’t this possible here?

Alternatively, on many sites there is a very obvious place to select what language you want to use, and on subsequent visits the site will remember your settings. Instead, every time you visit the Vatican site, it seems to default back to Italian. What’s more, the language selection isn’t an obvious thing, such as little British, French, and German flags you can click on to select a language. Instead, it’s a drop down menu headed by the word, “Italiano”. What if you don’t know the word for “Italian” in Italian is “Italiano”, assuming you even see it? What happens to the menu selection bar when people from countries which do not use Latin characters visit the site?

This brings us to the next issue, of long-standing duration.

3. Wallpaper: We still seem to be stuck with the pinky-orange blotting paper that someone at the Vatican thinks looks like a historic parchment. It doesn’t, especially if you’ve ever handled genuine papyrus or vellum. This combined with a small, skinny font in some sort of brownish-gray color makes the entire site difficult to read. STILL.

4. Menus: There are multiple menus, all over the place, leading to all sorts of different subsites within the site. Take a look at the sort of jumbo-menu, for example, sitting in the middle of the revamped page. Why is it there? Why are there other menus above it, and a circled-off menu next to it, full of things about Pope Francis?

And for that matter, why does the Pope Francis section look like a collection of those poetry refrigerator magnets you can buy? You know, where you rearrange the pre-printed words to come up with a haiku? Couldn’t they have just settled on a couple of overarching themes for their section about him?

5. Calendar: Click on “Calendar” in the middle of the page and you get…Ha, ha! Those tricky Cardinals! No, not today’s calendar with a listing of what Pope Francis is up to today, so you could see whom he is meeting with or where he is traveling. That would be too logical.

Rather, you get a list of the months in 2014, which you then have to go click on to find out what is happening. Once you land there, the layout, the colors, the fonts, everything is completely different from the home page. It looks like it was designed and maintained by a different company altogether…which is probably true.

6. Photos: Moving on to the “Photos” section – where even though the tab is in English, all the album titles are in Italian – you would expect that clicking on an album title would take you to a new page. Then you could see an online album full of pictures of Pope Francis, the Swiss Guard, the Vatican Museums, etc. Again, you would be entirely wrong, silly web user.

In fact, if it opens at all, which apparently is a struggle for it to do, whatever album you click on opens a mosaic of teeny tiny little thumbnails of the photos in that particular album. They are so small, that you can barely tell what they are, like something out of Geocities or Tripod back in the late 1990′s. In an age of Flickr, Tumbler, etc., this seems rather unforgivable, if you’ll forgive the expression.

7. Video: Clicking on the “Video” tab, one is connected directly to what at first glance appears to be the Vatican’s television feed on YouTube. This streams through a small YouTube window embedded inside the menu itself. That, at least, would seem to make sense.

Ha, ha! Fooled you again! Because in fact all you are looking at is a webcam, perched atop Bernini’s Colonnade on St. Peter’s Square. Yes, that’s right, a webcam. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good webcam as much as anyone else, particularly the newer and better ones with better-quality audio and video. But for an organization that has its own television studios, one would think that the Vatican might be streaming something a bit more interesting on its home page.

Those are just a few thoughts on the site revamp. It’s a pity that this continues to be a problem, because good design is like a calling card, especially for potential new customers. You’re not going to draw people in if they think that you’re not paying attention, or are sloppy. Let’s get it together, amici.

Samuel had warned King Saul not to let the Witch of Endor try web design.

Samuel had warned King Saul not to let the Witch of Endor try web design.

Tonight: The Hermit Will Be Televised!

So I have some terrific announcements this morning:

Tonight at 8pm Eastern my friend Brother Rex Anthony Norris will be the guest for the hour on EWTN’s “Journey Home” program.  He’ll be talking about not only how he came into the Church, but also about his life as a Franciscan hermit.  I hope you’ll tune in to watch, or catch the re-air or archived video when they appear.

Oh and for those of you watching the game tonight, it doesn’t start until 9:10pm Eastern: therefore you have plenty of time to watch Brother Rex, and still get your snack and beverage array ready in time for tip-off.

Regular readers know that recently Kevin Lowry, Jon Marc Grodi, and yours truly founded the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage.  We’re trying to establish a permanent hermitage for Brother Rex and his successor hermits up in the Diocese of Portland, Maine.  You may already have bookmarked the FLPH site, where Brother Rex posts brief spiritual reflections daily, and will gladly take your personal prayer requests.  And if you haven’t already done so, please follow us on Twitter or “Like” our Facebook page, because we’re about to add some new materials I think you’ll appreciate as much as we do.

So beginning tomorrow, Tuesday, April 8th, and continuing every Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks, we’ll be featuring guest posts on the FLPH site from some very gracious, generous friends in Catholic media: people whom you probably already read, watch, or listen to on a regular basis.  They want to help us draw greater attention to this project, so we can get a permanent hermitage established.  They’re also speaking to the value of the life of intense prayer that Brother Rex and others in the eremitic life are living out in the life of the Church.

The Catechism explains that since hermits spend so much of their time every day alone in prayer, they’re really powerful prayer warriors for all of us.  “Hidden from the eyes of men, the life of the hermit is a silent preaching of the Lord, to whom he has surrendered his life simply because he is everything to him. Here is a particular call to find in the desert, in the thick of spiritual battle, the glory of the Crucified One,” Catechism of the Catholic Church, #921.

I hope you’ll be watching tonight to see and hear why Brother Rex is such a terrific guy, and in the weeks ahead, that you’ll check out some of the great guest posts we’re going to have to help out this effort!

Franciscan Hermit Brother Rex Anthony Norris

Franciscan Hermit Brother Rex Anthony Norris