Gallup released a report yesterday called the State of the American Consumer that said 62 percent of U.S. consumers believe Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. do not affect their purchase decisions. The polling company also found that 48 percent of millennial shoppers were uninfluenced by social media.
These claims have caused a pretty good media ruckus despite having a methodology that appears flawed on multiple levels. Of all the flags that go up, this is probably the reddest: The social media marketing stats are based on surveys that were performed back in December 2012 and January 2013. In the disruptive world of online marketing, 18 months is a virtual lifetime ago. Nearly every social media platform has gone through significant changes since Gallup collected its data.
Facebook's now-burgeoning mobile ad business was merely toddling, Twitter was honing its nascent targeting abilities, and Tumblr was still a babe in the digital ad woods. Word was only beginning to spread that Pinterest might boost retail and e-commerce. Vine, Instagram and Snapchat—hot properties now—were nonfactors then. More generally, to underscore the passage of time since the surveys were turned in, President Barack Obama had just been reelected, and Psy's pop romp, Gangnam Style, was still mercilessly inescapable. So it's seems to be a leap to treat the report as "a state of the marketplace" for brands that want to decide whether or not social engagement moves the sales needle in summer 2014.
"Social media changes too rapidly for brands to make serious marketing decisions based on the results of one poll taken [more than] a year ago," said David Deal, a consultant in Chicago. "Vine barely existed when the Gallup poll was taken, and companies such as Dunkin' Donuts are capitalizing on its power to build brand love. [And regardless] of what Gallup reports, retailers know that Yelp absolutely influences the purchase decision."
"The data are old," said Rebecca Lieb, Altimeter analyst, who also lamented the general direction of the research.
"You don't poll consumers whether advertisements or marketing make them buy stuff. People will always say, 'No, I am not influenced by advertising and marketing,'" Lieb said. "It's not an objective indicator, and that is why brands and agencies don't use poll data to judge the effectiveness of advertising and marketing. They use other calculations of [return on investment] such as purchase intent and actual conversions and sales. This is just asking consumers, 'Did you see Coke on Facebook and then go out and buy it?' Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people will say 'no' to that. It's just deeply, deeply flawed."
And Gallup told Adweek that some of the surveys were completed through snail mail, though the company would not say how many. While of course there's nothing inherently wrong with conducting research this way, it's difficult to imagine those respondents being on par with normal social media consumption. Brands employ social marketing to reach people who are actually there—not those who are not.
Washington, D.C.-based Gallup didn't respond to emails that detailed industry players' criticisms of its study. Yet its report may also be problematic since it only addressed English-speaking consumers. Nearly 38 million Americans speak Spanish at home, according to Pew Research Center.
"And they are the most likely to socialize," said Marla Skiko, evp and director of digital innovation at Starcom MediaVest. "Leaving them out raises questions because they are over-consumers when it comes to social media."
Gallup's study grabbed headlines from The Wall Street Journal, Time, Business Week and other notable publications. It was a major element in the Journal's article, which ultimately concluded social advertising and marketing have disappointed brands. The story cited digital practitioners from Ritz-Carlton and an Indian restaurant in New York that were shifting their Facebook ad strategies to include smaller, more targeted measures, though the anecdotal examples weren't exactly fortified by the coat of dust on Gallup's data.
Gallup is an 84-year-old company that's practically an American institution thanks to its quick-turnaround political polling, but it probably needs to bring similar speed to analysis about consumers' social media behaviors. Even digital marketing stats that are only two months old can get brushed aside due to their lack of recentness.
"Social media has been quickly evolving," Skiko said, "and continues to do so in terms of monetization and how brands get involved."
At the same time, as seems to be the researcher's wont, Gallup balanced the good with the bad in its social marketing examination.
"When it comes to social media efforts, businesses stand to benefit when they utilize a more service-focused approach rather than one dedicated to simply pushing their products," the polling firm's Art Swift wrote in a post on Monday. "While social media may have more influence than some Americans realize or will admit, these data show that relatively few consumers consciously take into account what they learn from social media when making purchases."
A Facebook rep echoed Lieb's remarks on methodology while weighing in on Gallup's numbers: "The only thing this poll shows is that self-reported behavioral data is unreliable. For decades, studies that look at people’s actual, real-world behavior have shown that ads on all mediums, including social media, [impact] the things people buy."
Part of Gallup's report likely holds up no matter the point of view: that social ads may not stand alone in a consumer's memory while a major brand's message is simultaneously channeled via other media. Though, of course, that could probably be stated about promos run through any medium.
Lastly, in an industry filled with research that's too often commissioned by sales-minded players, social marketing data from objective organizations like Gallup is indeed needed.
But not if it's from 2012.