How Social Metrics Can Lure Brands Into a Repetitive Rut

Growth comes from pushing boundaries and leaving comfort zones

Brands will find growth when they branch out to a new audience. Getty Images
Headshot of Adam Pierno

With the help of a squadron of digital tools, brands are chasing their tails. Like people in your Facebook feed, brands respond to positive feedback. Likes, clicks and other shallow metrics drive the content brands create each month. They’re easier to access, easier to understand and easier to act on. Success with your Instagram picture of avocado toast yields another image of avocado toast or (worse yet) a video of avocado toast. If something worked last month, don’t reinvent the wheel the next, conventional wisdom might think.

Platforms provide access to streams of fantastic data, but the overwhelming amount of information is creating artificial limitations to brand growth. Ad tech makes it easy for brands to think this is success. Tracking all the data is ridiculously complex, pushing many to focus on the few bits they can understand and use tools in a way that feels lower risk. Top-of-funnel consumer behaviors that can be measured are heavily weighted despite being less impactful than behaviors that can’t be. This is marketing efficiency. Ad tech also makes it easier to launch display and social campaigns with extremely tight targeting.

The ease of pushing out campaigns to known consumer types makes it hard to remember the benefit of finding new audiences. Whatever results are being measured should be boosted however they can be. And it happens that new audience acquisition is only one easily measured number lost in a sea of metrics on the dashboard. Most other metrics relate to measurement of behavior of the existing audience.

Brands concentrate on the 90 percent of the dashboard that represents their existing audience. They reach them as efficiently as possible to earn a like or share. What happens when you’re only talking to people who already like your 10 pictures of avocado toast? Brands can’t grow by keeping an audience the same size. To be clear, the goal isn’t to have the best dashboard. The goal is growth: growth of distribution, growth of customers, growth of sales.

Using social follower and look-alike data feels smart. It feels like the data is informing some action. Unfortunately, it’s the same action over and over again.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with brands creating content they know their existing audience will like. But that usually doesn’t lead to growth. It merely placates the audience—hopefully customers and not just followers—that they already have. A brand with a wide audience may have several million followers, which is nothing in comparison to the adult population in the U.S. alone. But the focus remains on the relative few they have. Any brand stuck on appeasing their current audience has nowhere to go but down unless they’re aggressively focused on acquisition as well.

When we’re creating content for the like-minded, we aren’t making a strong effort to engage with, much less win over, our competitors’ customers. The numbers provided by ad tech’s glittering dashboards teach marketers to use facts. Facts are powerful, but they are not as powerful as truth. Advertising and content based on a truth has the power to motivate and inspire. The content based on facts is only used to reinforce beliefs.

The goal is growth: growth of distribution, growth of customers, growth of sales.

The ideas we create, the tactics, the very language we use when we’re trying to recruit new customers is much different than the way we communicate with existing customers. The first 20 years of the internet was about finding commonalities. The last five have been about dividing people. Ad tech is a part of this division, dividing people up into small micro-targets we should be running from if we’re hoping to increase brand understanding at scale.

Segmenting people is made easier when the digital tools are all designed to deliver thousands of data points. That means more avocados delivered for the specific audiences that like them this way or that. Ad tech provides the means to pick consumers apart at a granular level, especially those who opt in.

As we’ve moved away from mass media, we’ve happily abandoned mass reach. Brands are glad to trade highly targeted messages to people they have already won over for mass reach (decried as waste) and the ability to bring in new customers. There has to be some balance to acquisition to bring growth.

If you have a politically minded friend or social media connection, you’ll know exactly what I mean: The person who posts pointed, one-sided links all day supporting their preferred party. They base the next post on the reaction they get to the last. Their link to a cable news segment is your avocado toast. They’re not trying to convince people from the other party or with another point of view. They’re chasing likes from the people that agree with them.

Brands following this example are just as frustrating for potential customers trying to break in. When we’re responding to the dashboard of likes, we’re reduced to pets coming for the ringing bell at meal time. To stand out and earn shares, brands have to find bold ways to enlighten people about a human truth. Advertising and content meant to engage non-customers has a completely different tone and strategic approach and must be considered differently.

@apierno Adam Pierno is avp marketing strategy at Arizona State University's Enterprise Marketing Hub.