Why it takes so long to achieve social media success

If you’re impatient, social media is probably the wrong marketing channel for you. Here’s a chart that illustrates why.

social media success

This is data from the recent research released by Social Media Examiner. This is not a scientific study, but it is a view from nearly 4,000 marketers, skewed toward small businesses. So we can’t regard it as absolute truth but it is probably directionally correct. Let’s take a close look at what we can learn from the feedback provided by these active social media marketers.

First, let’s examine the expectations they have from their social media initiatives:

social media success

A pretty comprehensive list. It’s interesting that “soft benefits” like awareness and loyalty are at the top of the chart when everybody seems to be preoccupied with ROI. Perhaps marketers are beginning to finally acknowledge the important qualitative benefits of social media marketing.

Social media success takes time

Now let’s refer to the chart at the top of the post again. When we compare a soft benefit like awareness with a “hard” benefit like sales, we see that most people even just starting with social media recognize an immediate benefit on the awareness front. In fact about 80 percent saw results in the first year compared to 35 percent who saw an increase in sales right out of the gate.

This chart would imply that you have to work hard on your social media marketing for at least 3-4 years before most businesses see an impact on sales. And the most successful businesses realizing a true ROI may have been at it five years or more, a category where 70 percent of the respondents could see an increase in sales.

Weak relational links

Why does it take so long for the sales to kick in?

One of the biggest problems many businesses face is they compare social media marketing efforts with advertising. That is an inaccurate comparsion because the mechanisms and benefits are different. If you need to drive rapid awareness or pump up sales with a coupon, advertising still works really well (assuming people see your ads!).

While social media has many benefits including marketing research, customer service, and collaboration, for many businesses it’s primarily about building relationships that lead to sales. But social media connections are weak relational links. Social media platforms simply open new doors, and it takes time to turn those connections into strong links that are actionable.

Instead of comparing social media marketing to advertisng, it might be more accurate comparing it to the benefits of attending an annual trade show or networking meeting where it takes time to build relationships that lead to sales.

So yes, the immediate benefit of social media marketing is awareness and that is IMPORTANT because awareness leads to engagement. Over time, that engagement may result in trust. And it’s not until we get to that point that we can begin seeing some cash coming in the door … maybe years down the line.

This is why social media marketing can be a hard sell to executives who are accustomed to the overnight results of advertising. Unfortunately, many traditional kinds of advertising present diminishing returns as people spend less time with newspapers, local radio, and network television. For this reason, it makes good sense to start moving up that social media sales curve now, right?

Note: If you enjoyed this article, you will find more helpful insights on social media measurement in Social Media Explained: Untangling the World’s Most Misunderstood Business Trend.

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  • It’s so surprising that after years and years of social media marketing, we still have to remind people about the awareness and engagement model. People always talk about how certain companies suddenly gained massive traction on social and brought in six figure sales in months – and usually, the reason is because that kind of success is attributed to 80% product, and 20% great social marketing. If you’ve got a stellar product, it will sell. Even if you market it badly (maybe), but it’ll go through the roof with good marketing.

    Similarly, if you’re going to start just another cafeteria and start marketing it on Facebook, yeah – you’re going to have to do some stellar social marketing to stand out as compared to the guys next door that have an established presence (offline and online both maybe).

    Just because a certain company achieved great success on social doesn’t mean that everyone can, it’s like saying Peyton Manning is a great quarterback, why can’t my neighbour John be too? He plays!

  • You are simply one of my favorite marketing minds in the business. Every time I see you comment I know I am going to learn something. Your comments are true gifts to the blog community Avtar. Thank you!

  • Great write up Mark, thanks so much!

  • Hi Mark. Helpful post. Whenever a client gets a little aggressive with me about the ROI of social media, and poo-poos the qualitative benefits, one of the questions I ask them is, “What’s a better alternative?” “Do you really believe it will be in your company’s best interests to ignore social media and those strengthened relationships with current customers, and prospective new customers?” The bottom line is that it cannot be legitimately ignored by any business serious about marketing. It’s here to stay, and no matter how you slice it—like it or not, qualitative or quantitative, low ROI or high ROI, etc., etc., it’s a tremendous marketing value.

  • Thank YOU for the research!

  • Amen to that Jack.

  • Hi Mark,

    The insights into the study reflect reality very well. When I wrote my ebook last February I said that mass marketing and the mindset behind it is what’s hurting businesses when then come online.

    It’s not about just posting our stuff – because we know they won’t just come. It’s not the field of dreams.

    The truth is that any type of content marketing be it a blog, video, podcast, commenting or social media posts take time to establish us as being competent and it’s competency that people buy and fire on in the end.

    In the 2015 B2B Web Usability Report it stated that on average it takes 10.4 pieces of content for someone before they will initiate some form of engagement or buying opportunity.

    That’s a lot of content for one person to consume and that’s why I think this trend you’ve brought to our attention is important for us to understand.

    Thanks for an insightful post Mark!

    ~ Don Purdum

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  • Awesome insights Don! Thanks so much for this excellent comment.

  • You’re welcome Mark. I appreciate your insights as well. I’ve been listening to your podcasts and I’m deeply enjoying the show! ~ Don

  • So true Jack. I tell my clients this “You will be on social media either by choice today or you will be forced to use it because other channels will become less effective” 🙂

  • “The bottom line is that it cannot be legitimately ignored by any business serious about marketing” -> THIS. It still surprises me sometimes how hard it is to get buy in for anything Social.

  • I like that way of framing it too, Ali. Thanks.

  • Thanks, Larissa.

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  • RyanMacJones

    Yep, if more folks had a better understanding of the short vs long-term ROI benefits of social that would help. Most folks don’t get the long-term network effect benefits on certain platforms…

  • This is hilarious! I’m definitely going to be sharing this with some of my team.

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  • Noud Wilders

    So true, I regret to admit that I am such an impatience person but I would also like to point out that there is a reason for this: not many businesses survive their first 4 years. So, startups need to accelerate their business fast. Maybe they should not worry about social and save their time/resources for a different marketing approach?

  • Thanks for commenting Ryan.

  • There are other options. It takes time to build an audience so in a start-up situation there is always the option of borrowing trust through influencer outreach. A legitimate away to get traction fast through the large, engaged audience owned by others.

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  • Ahhhh I had to look this blog up again today. Thank you!

  • Silicon Harbor PR

    Mark, this is a really great post. Thanks for sharing your data and insights. I’m fond of telling clients there are two forms of social media marketing – engagement and advertising. With engagement you have to earn your friends; with advertising you have to buy them. Engagement takes longer but can lead to true brand loyalty; ads… well, you’re just paying for clicks. Neither should be expected for instant gratification.

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