As I understand it, human children learn to count at or near the age of two (not sure when non-human children start to count; will look into that for a future column).
The interesting thing is that they tend to count only to two for a number of months. It's not so much that they don't know the number three, but rather that they aren't instead of counting, they are simply distinguishing between one object and many objects. "Two" doesn't mean two nearly as it just means "more than one." This is just a transitional phase and they quickly start to count everything. Most kids grow out of this phase and simply count the things that are important to them.
Some, however, become interactive marketing professionals and never, ever get tired of counting anything and everything that could possibly be counted no matter what that number could mean.
You know who you are. You are the ones who are thrilled by Facebook's recent announcement of a whole new crop of data becoming available through its ad platform and insights tool.
People Are Talking. Is Anyone Listening?
Facebook's new tool exposes a whole lot of new data points to marketers using the platform for marketing and advertising. Among the new data points, the one getting the most interest is the awkwardly-worded "People Talking about This" (PTaT?). This is a raw number of people who have mentioned a particular brand either in a post, as part of an RSVP, in a photo tag, or any other way on the service. You can imagine the sorts of things that are in this broad net: "Ready to kill someone waiting for [SERVICE PROVIDER] to show up for the appointment"; "Here's that photo of Bob heaving into his [BRAND X] toilet. Man that was a wild party."
Now, I am always willing to hear any bright ideas. It is entirely likely that someone out there will see the PTaT score as the most essential number being generated by a campaign or as the missing piece that enables her to finally understand the value being generated. But, mostly, I imagine it becoming just one more number, plucked randomly from the wild, reported only because it is able to be counted, and provided as some proof that advertising dollars are being effective.
I don't mean to say that your PTaT score is completely meaningless. I also am not going to go on another rant where I tell you that you need to stay focused on your real goals of driving business (although you should). No, instead I'm going to chastise Facebook for putting this number in such a prominent position.
If you look again at the screen shot on the ClickZ article, you'll see that PTaT (love calling it this) is near the center of the screen and in a pretty big font. That clearly is the marquee spot in the interface. Plus, Facebook is giving this data point as a raw number - an actual count of how many people are talking about you. This is the brand narcissists' worst case scenario. Who will not fixate on this as a key element of success on Facebook? After all, the primary reason that people use Facebook (and other social channels) is that they want people to talk about their brand, so Facebook is just giving people what they want.
But why do we want this? Why is it good that people are talking about a brand? I know the standard responses: "Better they are talking about it than not talking about it"; and "Lots of talk means lots of awareness and therefore lots of sales."
I'm actually OK with the first response. But I've always found the second one troubling. The idea that buzz leads to sales seems like a tenuous link. The reasons that I've heard that this works tend to sound like voodoo to me - something in the air will cause people to make a decision. But people don't operate like that. People are mechanical and, despite the best intentions of pundits, ideas don't operate exactly like viruses. You have a decision to adopt an idea and believe it is true (and take an action). A smart person in a room full of ideas is not the same as a healthy person in a room full of germs.
Which is why this number and its prominence is worrisome. Please don't think that you simply need to fill up the air with lots of people talking about your brand to generate value. You need to get lots of people believing in your brand and feeling emotions because of your brand. Don't settle just for talking.
You know what you can do? Simply remember the old catch phrase "Talk is cheap" and budget appropriately.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
December 12, 2013
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT