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.

Social Media Money

A Lenten Facebook Fast

Tomorrow being the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent, for the next six weeks or so many Christians around the world prepare themselves spiritually for the sacrifice that Christ made on Good Friday, when we believe He died for our sins, rising from the dead on Easter Sunday.  In keeping with the penitential and sacrificial nature of these weeks, many will give up things they enjoy for this period.  They will do so to try to find a way to suffer a bit, and reflect better on Christ’s own suffering, even if only in a small way.

This year I’ve decided to give up Facebook for Lent, something I’ve not done before, but have seen others do over the years. I am sure the withdrawal symptoms will be difficult, although the only real practical issue, i.e. blog publication across my social media platforms, is handled through the WordPress app. Thus, even though I won’t be “on” Facebook, posts will continue to appear each weekday.

I’ve also decided to take a slightly moderated view of the old “no reprieve” versus “Sundays don’t count” debate.  There is an age-old argument among my fellow Catholics as to whether one can return to one’s “give-ups” on Sundays during Lent.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops answers the question for us thusly:

Q. So does that mean that when we give something up for Lent, such as candy, we can have it on Sundays?

A. Apart from the prescribed days of fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the days of abstinence every Friday of Lent, Catholics have traditionally chosen additional penitential practices for the whole Time of Lent. These practices are disciplinary in nature and often more effective if they are continuous, i.e., kept on Sundays as well. That being said, such practices are not regulated by the Church, but by individual conscience.

Sounds a bit like they’re dodging the question, doesn’t it? In truth, there’s good reason for such careful language, as we shall see.

Those of you giving up a food you like for Lent know how difficult that can be. One Lent I gave up coffee, which was pretty brutal, though perhaps the worst food give-up for me was when I gave up potatoes. I went so far as to check the labels of foods I bought to make sure there was no potato starch or the like in them.  Turns out we use potatoes in prepared foods in this country almost as much as we use corn-derived products, by the way.

However the danger withsuch practices is getting to the point with our Lenten give-ups that we risk creating a compulsion out of what is supposed to be a pious act.  In their answer to the question about Sundays in Lent, the bishops suggest that we have to make our own decisions, with respect to whatever practice we take on during this season.  There is no requirement that one even have a “give-up”, after all, even if it is encouraged.  The rules on these are not imposed from without, but rather from within: this is a time for personal growth, not a contest to see who can suffer the most.

Even when giving rules for practices which are in fact required during Lent, the Church does not impose a draconian standard.  For example, although fasting for adults is mandated for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, that rule does not apply to the seriously ill, pregnant, or those with a medical condition requiring them to eat at certain times (e.g. diabetics.)  Manual laborers are also exempt under certain circumstances, since no one wants an ironworker on the 49th floor of a construction site to become light-headed from not eating.  Consideration is even given to those who are required to attend a social or business function, who cannot get out of said event without causing serious offense or negative repercussions.

When it comes to Facebook, which I use  a lot – and not only for fun, either – it will be hard for me to adjust to daily life without it.  It is certainly not my only outlet for connecting with a wider world, but it is an important way for me to keep up with what is going on with my family, close friends, and local contacts.  It has also introduced me to, or allowed me to assist, many people I might not otherwise know or have stayed in touch with.

As a result, I’ve decided to go with a good piece of advice from a fellow Papist on the Sunday question, which is to take a half an hour before going to Mass on Sundays during Lent to check in on Facebook.  Not to goof around, chat, or make new Bitstrips cartoons – more’s the pity – but to see whether anyone needs some help or encouragement.  The hard-core Catholics among my readers will no doubt think this is a sign of weakness on my part, while the more laid-back Catholics will think this is too formulaic.

Yet such attitudes prove the point as to why the bishops are careful when it comes to the ins and outs of proscribing how to make Lenten sacrifices.  We are each called to sacrifice in our own way, not to prove what a good Christian we are, but to try to be more like Christ.  After all, even in His pain and suffering on His way to Calvary, and while hanging on the Cross, Christ took the time to try to comfort and give support to other people, whether it was the women of Jerusalem, St. Dismas (the “Good Thief”), or His Mother and St. John.

Truthfully, I can’t come anywhere near that level of sacrifice or help to others. My “give-up” is absolutely nothing but an insignificant little drop of rain in the ocean.  Yet I do it because I love, and because I want to love better, as He did.  Hopefully, that will be the end result of this Lenten experience.


The Man Behind the Avatar

Recently I have been thinking a great deal about those engaged in social media, particularly those who feel hurt or isolated in some way.  Some of these people turn to social media for an outlet, to make connections to help them with their troubles, and some turn that hurt into motivations to attack others.  So yesterday I posted a question to my Twitter followers, asking whether they would follow or befriend someone on social media out of a sense of charity.  I was surprised to receive a huge range of responses, and these generally fell into two camps.

The overwhelming majority of those who responded said they would not connect with someone, such as following them on Twitter or befriending them on Facebook, simply because they seemed a bit out of place and had few connections.  To do so was described, among other things, as potentially patronizing, or encouraging stalker behavior, particularly because the more active one becomes in social media, the more often one does not actually know all of the people with whom one interacts online in real life.  These respondents indicated that while they might be willing to interact with someone who appears to be alone or friendless, a feeling of empathy alone was viewed as too transitory a basis for creating a relationship that in the end could not hope to be real.

The other, much smaller group of respondents, suggested that connecting with someone who seemed shy, lonely, or non-adept when it came to using social media, was a good thing, but needed to be considered on a case-by-case basis.  Pity was not seen as a legitimate reason to establish an online relationship with someone else, in this view, but it was however legitimate to consider whether a great deal of good could be done to encourage someone else by making such a connection, provided there were other commonalities.  Apart from celebrities, of course, most people get their start on social media platforms with few connections, and so as was rightly pointed out, everyone has to start somewhere.

In the end though the single best response I received was one which does not answer the question I began with, but which goes to the heart of the matter: we have to remember that each of these accounts is run by a human being.  Whether the person is famous and has thousands of friends or followers, or whether they have no friends or followers at all, or even if they are a troll, i.e. someone attacking others online for whatever reason, these are all our brethren, with souls and consciences, thoughts and feelings, needs and wants.  After a fashion, this even includes the infamous Twitter spambots, i.e. those accounts set up to automatically send links to how one can get a cheap mortgage from some bank in Vietnam or how one can purchase a bride from Russia.  Even if those spam-sending accounts are automated, they were of course set up by human beings.

Unless one feels a compelling need to go out and minister online to those who are lonely, in sorrow, and so on – and I know some who in fact do this – most of us are not called upon to befriend, follow, or connect with everyone online who happens to reach out and connect with us in some way.  That would be decidedly odd, and ultimately unsustainable.  However it is also decidedly too easy, through the anonymity of the internet, to treat each other as though we were androids.

None of us are going to achieve perfection on social media – whatever that might look like – any more than we are in real life.  We do not have to always accept social media connections out of charity, any more than we always have to sit idly by and allow someone to spout untruths or insults at us without responding to them.  Whatever your problem is, if you bring it to me online in social media, the way that you bring it to me is going to determine, at least to some extent, how I respond to you.  Hopefully I do so with charity, or where necessary with some aspect of restraint, but let’s face it: both of those can be difficult, at times.

That being said, recalling the fact that behind each of these accounts is an individual, ought to give us at least a moment’s pause.  We ought all, this scrivener included, to take a bit more time for the sake of civility to try to think of a measured response, whether we are expressing support or criticism.  This is not a responsibility to be taken lightly, because if each of us active on social media is, in effect, a creative contributor, then we ought equally to be aware that what we put out into the world has consequences.  Sometimes the consequences can include drawing people to do us, and sometimes the exact opposite.

Being aware of this fact, then we must also be aware that if the medium drags down the culture, because it is not being well-used by ourselves and others, then surely it is our job to try to pull it back up again.  Perhaps a kind word to the fellow with 5 followers, or a restrained word to the fellow with 10,000 who is spouting garbage, may be a far better response than either ignoring or simply blindly attacking. These are not simply avatars who type, but human beings just like ourselves.


“Baucis’ Landscape” by René Magritte (1966)
Menil Collection, Houston