Branded social media has gone from golden boy to punching bag in the past few years.
Ad fraud, influencer fraud, organic decline, and metrics gaming are all taking the shine off
social media. And many are now questioning whether social media engagement has any
business value at all, or enough to justify the expense.
But this argument paints too wide a brush, since B2B and B2C social media must be considered
two quite different ballgames.
Is It Truth vs. Beauty With Social Media?
It's become a trendy claim that B2B and B2C marketing are really not all that different.
And I agree that many of the underlying principles are the same. The marketing funnel is
the same. People decide with emotions. Branding is important. Yadda, yadda, yadda. But
each is still very much its own discipline in the real world, especially when it comes
to social media.
For social content to be engaged with, it must offer something the audience values. But
there are differences between B2B and B2C marketing in how that value is created, what
audiences are receptive to, and most importantly, what they're likely to share.
The B2C social content game is won largely through entertainment, working along those
principles in terms of audience wants, such as humor, beauty, novelty, inspiration,
intrigue, reassurance, etc. B2B social content, on the other hand, is largely a matter
of education, with audiences preferring content that is useful, valuable, or that makes
them seem useful or valuable.
The key difference here is that entertainment is largely subjective, and therefore a
matter of intrinsic value. If something is funny, it gets shared. And that's it. It
doesn't matter so much who shared it, or who made it. What matters is that it's funny.
B2B social media doesn't work like that. Education is knowledge, which is largely a
matter of objective value, with some subjectivity thrown in via authority and reputation.
For example, if somebody offered you a choice of free identical online course materials,
except one set was from your local college and one was from Harvard, you'd probably
choose the latter.
But Is Social Media Engagement Worth It?
The subjective value of entertainment gives B2C brands more options in terms of tactics
for social media engagement, but its intrinsic value also creates a big interpretation
problem. To use an extreme example, a B2C brand could ceaselessly post TikTok videos of
cats and babies doing adorable things and probably get very good engagement, and maybe
a lot of followers, but that engagement could provide little to no value to the brand if
they don't sell baby clothes or cat food.
Could all B2C brands sustain themselves on such empty calories? No. In fact such
tactics would probably hurt brands such as banks and insurance companies, as these
brands depend heavily on perceptions of trust and authority to drive sales.
B2B brands are like this as well, which is one of the big reasons why branded glitter
doesn't really work with them. Another reason is that need for objective value in
content that I mentioned earlier. Sizzle can certainly help with a B2B conversion (think
HP's "The Wolf" series
), but you've gotta have the steak -- you won't get clicked without
While with B2C social media, the sizzle often is the steak.
The Problem of Many Hats
A common retort to such B2B marketing heresy is, "But we're all human."
And my retort to that is, "Yes, we're all human, but we're different people when we're
with our colleagues, our friends, our spouse, or our kids." And the hat we wear among
colleagues, in particular, has a big impact on the social media content we share.
If a vendor of business continuity solutions weighed in on the latest plot twist in
"Stranger Things" on LinkedIn, three things are likely to happen. One, the audience
loses respect for you. Two, some people would think your account has been hacked.
And three, few would share it (except to mock it), because it would make them look
stupid, and because the sheer dissonance of seeing such a non-sequitur on LinkedIn
would be unpleasant to some.
And nothing goes viral without sharing.
What This All Means
I'm not saying that B2B social media engagement is inherently more valuable than B2C.
I've seen B2B companies get so enamored with being busy that they end up creating
content that gets consumed but that doesn't really drive leads (HR content, employee-
generated stuff, blogs on tangential subjects).
And while such content can have some brandbuilding value, especially if it's good quality
stuff, it might not be the worth the time of your skilled content people if you're a
or other non-leader
brand with limited content resources.
But with B2B social media being primarily an education game, successful engagement is
inherently reinforcing for your brand. If you provide good intelligence and advice, you
gain respect and authority. If you don't, you lose people, and business down the road.
But with B2C, respect and authority aren't always the game. Do funny tweets from fast-food
restaurants build their brand? Perhaps not directly, but they do indirectly, since they
do win followers, which, at a later point, are eyes and stomachs for your "two for $2" sale.
Of course, B2C social media content isn't all branded prom dates
. There's plenty of
educational content out there in the form of how-to videos, guidebooks, and the like.
And plenty of brands (Grammarly) are creating legit entertaining content that builds
on their brand in some way. But with the sheer variety of social tactics available to B2C
brands, interpretation of the data they generate is tricky, and requires more scrutiny.
B2B has fewer options, and thus fewer shortcuts, making engagement interpretation
relatively straightforward, and easier to take at face value. B2B won't go viral on empty
calories alone. Metrics can still be gamed to a certain extent, and any social media
practitioner worth their salt will know the tricks, but those tricks will largely enhance
or exaggerate, they won't make bad content good.
As to the larger question of whether social media is worth it at all, I feel that this is a
moot point until someone comes up with a better idea, especially now. We're in an age of
small screens and cord cutting. SEM, SEO, and retargeting are good ways to reach people
who are already looking, but you still need to get your message in front of people who
aren't yet looking.
Someone might respond at this point, "But branded social media sucks."
And my response would be, "Your point being? Most advertising sucks
." It's always
been that way. Most TV commercials are terrible. Most radio ads are annoying. Most
print ads are unmemorable. But great ads do slip through the approval process
So why don't we have more great branded social media content? I think it relates to the
nature of the medium, and how it's changing. Social media is inherently a marathon, a
dripfeed. It's always moving, always scrolling, with content often consumed out of the
corner of your eye. This limits the incentive for a brand to publish great content
And pay-to-play causes brands to treat social media more like a sprint, which really
doesn't fit. You simply cannot command an audience's full attention with social media
like you can with a less shifty medium. And there are often too many layers of approvals
involved when the social is paid. Too many boxes to tick. Too many stakeholders. Too many
cooks. Resulting in bland copy with half a dozen hashtags
You need good marketers and good creatives to create good social media, not corporate-types
trying to do the jobs of good marketers and good creatives.