Social Is the Next Great Direct Response Channel

I’ve been thinking a lot about “moving the needle” recently.

Even thinking about this objective is a luxury, usually left to the agencies tasked with delivering big ideas. Let me start by saying that you should never leave moving the needle to someone else. Ultimately, nothing else matters.

I understand. Most marketers are focused on the challenges just executing programs brings. Infusing even the slightest vision while managing multiple business owners, agencies, and the complexities of media and creative across channels and devices isn’t easy. No wonder we’re prone to do what worked last year; there’s no time and without proper resources, it can be quite risky. Even when we start with a strong brief and the agency really digs in, we usually end up with exciting new creative, the same old tactics, and are still without a road map to unlocking massive potential sales.

While you likely won’t be fired for taking the path well traveled, you won’t be the rising star you know you are either.

Moving the needle in digital means being creative, innovating, and executing. Moving the digital needle means finding a new source of consumers by mastering a key marketing discipline, creating an amazing new product, or expanding geographically. My guess is that making a new product or expanding internationally isn’t within your responsibilities.

My recommendation: Master a key marketing discipline and go big. I suggest direct marketing. No matter what kind of company you work for or what part of the marketing department you sit in, if you start developing your direct marketing skills, you will rise.

To begin developing your digital direct response (DR) chops, I’ve found it helpful to look at existing models and examine the commonalities – what is required to drive direct response outcomes in digital?

If you look at search, email, and even direct mail, you’ll see that each has some version of all three of these key components:

  1. Targeted reach at scale
  2. Ability to tune offers and experiences by segment/ad group
  3. Robust conversion optimization levers

Within search, for example, there are rich toolsets (and an entire industry) to buy targeted search advertising that reaches high-value customers. Mature content management systems, website optimization tools, and analytics enable marketers to tune landing pages for each segment/ad group and many levers exist to optimize both ad performance and landing page conversion.

Email has developed similar structures. Both are well-established DR channels that generate tremendous sustained value for brands. But for many marketers who have been using and optimizing search and email for years, moving the needle has become increasingly difficult.

To move away from incremental improvement and toward big opportunities with large impact, it’s always best to look to digital consumer trends. It goes without saying that mobile and social are the most important user trends in our world and as such, are where the next great DR opportunities are emerging.

As I’ve shared before, the largest portion of mobile time is spent in social and 70 percent to 80 percent of daily users of Facebook and Twitter are on mobile devices. Social is mobile and vice versa.

However, until recently, social didn’t have the required elements of a DR channel. Led primarily by Facebook and Twitter, the social networks have been developing their segmentation and ad products. Yet, buying advertising was focused mostly on growing fan communities and, particularly for Facebook, driving mobile app installs. While app installs are certainly DR outcomes, that doesn’t mean the platforms had yet become full-featured DR channels. Most brands were/are primarily focused on the community management and customer service aspects of social, and to the dismay of many executives and analysts, these efforts are decidedly not DR-focused.

In fact, social became the antithesis, the place where direct response was bad. “[It] was like trying to sell stuff to people while they’re hanging out with their friends at the bar,” said Sucharita Mulpuru at Forrester

Have you been to a bar? There’s nothing but advertising. Anyway, that was, like, two years ago. Times have changed.

Now we see things like this infographic from Shopify, who analyzed 37 million visits from social sites to e-commerce and the 529,000 orders placed as a result. At social’s scale, that’s starting to move the needle.

What changed? Let’s use our core components of DR as our guide…

1. Targeted Reach at Scale

As we all know, social networks have been primarily working on this component and have been innovative and successful in using their social graph data to deliver effective advertising to high-value audiences. This has been especially true with mobile in-stream advertising, arguably the best ad unit on the planet. And the tools for advertisers, both native to the platform and in the vendor ecosystem, have matured and are fantastic. Just about any marketer today can buy ads against incredibly targeted audiences and run basic to advanced optimization on segment/ad creative combinations.

2. Ability to Tune Offers and Experiences by Segment/Ad Group

Traditionally this work has been done in enterprise content management systems running third-party optimization tools on top of them. But as with everything else, the shift to mobile and social requires a new set of expertise and tools. While some of the traditional desktop tools for managing and optimizing landing experiences have begun to make the transition to mobile, very few have built deep integrations into the social network ad buying technologies and very few of the ad buying tools go deep into landing page tech. This is a shame because it’s the combination of segmentation, ad targeting, and tuned landing experiences that unlock the third crucial component – conversion optimization. There are a few vendors with tools and expertise in social mobile conversion today and they are leading the pack. More will soon follow.

3. Robust Conversion Optimization Levers

I shared a bit about the power of segmentation and ad optimization but the channel won’t drive sustainable and efficient business outcomes if it doesn’t provide robust tools for conversion optimization as well.

In social, this means lightweight and agile content management tools that create bulk mobile conversion pages tuned to segments and ad groups that integrate new social advertising technologies like conversion pixels, retargeting, behavioral segmentation, and rich card OG tags for posting to networks like Twitter and Pinterest.

I meet brands and agencies occasionally who think they have all the parts of the puzzle – media buyers, a website, analysts, and dedicated IT resources, but I have yet to see a siloed team really come together to make this work. Just having the chops to integrate all the pieces – which isn’t easy – isn’t enough. Social performance marketing is a new DR discipline that requires focus and discipline to excel. That being said, in many ways, the social mobile context forces us to think smaller and is therefore easier than traditional digital marketing campaigns to develop and execute. You can be up and running in two to three weeks as this is more about high-speed iteration than long cycle creative, development, and maintenance.

As the social networks mature and repeatable success stories and best practices emerge, we’re seeing the discussion in the marketplace change, the ad dollars flow to mobile and social advertising. The rock stars are moving the needle and they’re beginning to rise in their organizations.

Everything is still “early days” according to Zuck and Sheryl Sandberg but the truth is, we’re always early in digital marketing and for those that are ready, looking more deeply at social as a DR channel is well worth your time.

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