June 5, 2015

Companies and people, beware of the growing social media nonsense

When we started writing this piece, we thought we'd analyse how social media was bulging into a bubble and why it would burst and hurt the gullible. However, as we studied research papers and reports and examined the social media scene, we felt that social media is yet not a bubble and it might not cause mayhem if it really bursts soon; we were faced with the way social media is mal-functioning. The major ones that we noticed:

One, the fake numbers.
You start a discussion among friends about social media and are likely to be flooded with fancy numbers about how many likes their leader or star’s Facebook page has got, how many followers their Twitter accounts have, and so on. Part of it is true, but a big part is either fake or artificially jacked up - mostly for the sake of vanity or to show that one is bigger than the competitor. Before the 2014 general elections in India, many politicians' social media accounts got thousands of visitors overnights - and from places remotely interested in Indian politicians. Even @NarendraModi's Twitter account has numerous followers that are apparently not spontaneous and therefore suspect. We see reports about some popular Brands using unethical means to show how they are popular in the social media. If people and brands are investing in fake following, it is like fooling themselves - you don't get any goodwill or returns from such followers, do you?
(But the social media giants themselves are faking their numbers: do you know how many accounts and pages there are of Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram? You will never know the real numbers.) 

Two, huge real numbers - so what?
Getting thousands of followers or likes do not mean proportionately more business. Brands and politicians may use fully ethical SEO practices to get more likes / followers but that SEO influence would hardly translate into action when it comes to purchase or donation or enrolling for a class or voting. So, in all likelihood, the hype created by marketing guys or back-end teams may serve their own purpose and a significant part of investment in social media might be continuously going down the drain.

Three, the dead numbers.
Even in blogs (which are supposed to be taken more seriously than other social media platforms), we have found that there are blogrolls with dead blogs, questions in comments that have not been answered, directories and reviews of blogs that have long vanished. As we shared earlier with our visitors, at one time, we had more than 50 thousand Indian blogs in our database, and out of them only less than ten thousand were blogging in months. 

Four, the sleeping numbers.
Most followers of politicians have been found to be inactive. People might get influenced by some campaign or SEO tricks and follow you, but then they switch off unless you keep them engaged. Even in personal accounts (these are supposed to more intimate, isn't it?), Facebook friends are found to ignore the stream of posts from friends except for the ones they are curious about.
On social media, friendships seem very transient; people come, survey, take an action (e.g. click on 'g+' or 'like' button) and forget that account.

Five. The tech fuddle.
You search for a simple term like "how to get traffic to website" and get thousands of results that take you to shops that claim to get you millions of hits and great business. They have presentations to trap you into believing that all others have been fooling you so far and only this shop has a miracle formula that would get you millions of dollars. In companies, tech guys brandish jargons to prove how ignorant you are and how you will mint millions by following their technical advice. Some smart consultants and companies would give you social media analytics and trends and what not - that convinces you of your follies and the need to spend more, but 90% of that might be crap. 
The game is played almost everywhere offline, online and on mobile. Some of these also tell you later that whatever gains you made in the recent times were because you bought their product / service or followed their advice. The sums people and companies waste on this self-serving field is enormous.  

Six. What drives the social media?
A large part of social media is driven not with the intent to get digitally social but other intentions. Such intentions (vanity apart: browbeating opponents in politics or other spheres, spreading hatred, crime networking, pornography etc) give social media the wholesale numbers, but these also lead to social media being snooped by intelligence agencies, blocked by governments, used by criminals for trapping people - all actions and reactions against the very spirit of 'social' media.

Seven. The chances of the bubble bursting.
It also seems that investors have posed too much faith in social media companies. Some of them are riding the crest, having grown thousand-fold in a few years and having rewarded investors handsomely - and there has to be consolidation. We also see occasional huge volatility in their shares, as any rumour that lasts a few hours is able to badly rattle traders and investors. We are also seeing numerous start-ups from young grads with starry eyes. As the space will get more crowded, it might lead to consolidation, even bloodbath. In addition, the hype created during IPOs and the astronomical PEs (price to earning ratios) of beyond 100 are not sustainable and would bruise if not butcher retail investors one day.

Enough of theoretical discussion, no? Let's see what is the takeaway from this all. Go for social media in a big way but know its limitations. Don't fool yourself with numbers and don't get fooled by jargon. Focus on quality links and quality engagement (e.g. with your customers and potential customers).