The Softer Sell

Social media influences the sale more than it converts, but if marketers set realistic goals, they can use it to produce measurable impact and ultimately, ROI.


Social media has redefined communication since emerging as a distinct facet of the online environment at the turn of the century. Helping people share moods, milestones, and missives remotely, early networks such as Friendster and MySpace gave way to more sophisticated platforms that now dominate all kinds of interpersonal interaction.

With so many people connecting so completely, social platforms offer the ultimate word-of-mouth, having transformed the Web into a place where everyone shares their experiences, good or bad, regardless of location. And needing to support themselves, the forums took advantage of this fact by selling ads, much like the old-line media.

Marketers accustomed to a hard sell, however, are somewhat baffled by social media’s ability to put the influence back in the hands of everyday people. And while DRTV companies are no stranger to the kind of viral successes social media churns out on a daily basis (think of all the catchphrases that have entered the lexicon thanks to DR), media fragmentation is challenging to cope with.

No matter how much DR marketers pine for the days when they could “set and forget” their ad campaigns like so many Ronco Rotisserie Ovens, there’s no question that any marketer serious about selling a product today has to have a presence on the social media.

“It’s 2015—if your business isn’t on social media, you should consider taking a strong look at your marketing mix [and] reconsider your direct marketing strategies,” says Lindsey Carnett, CEO of Los Angeles-based public relations firm Marketing Maven. “Even my grandma has a Facebook account. Social media—executed well—drives sales for direct marketers.”

Share and Share Alike
How social strategies drive sales is what continues to mystify some DR marketers. Things used to be simpler—find a product, produce a sensational ad, put it in heavy rotation on late-night TV, and watch the money roll in. Social media makes the selling process more subtle, forcing even one-shot marketers to be build customer relationships—and brands.

“Marketers need to have a social mindset,” Carnett says. “Users know when they’re being advertised to, so marketers need to make their advertising and content informational, timely, visual, relatable, sharable, and have a clear call-to-action. The better service they provide via social media, the more users/fans/customers will tell their friends and family about it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whichever social channel they use.”

The spontaneous sharing activity that’s so central to social media can prove invaluable to product discovery, producing impressions that don’t cost an extra penny to create. “Social media presents a great branding and awareness opportunity,” says Peter Koeppel, president of Dallas-based direct response agency Koeppel Direct. “Any engagement or connection you make with a customer serves as a referral to their network. Now, your brand is being introduced to similar customers without having to spend a dime.

“Shareable content needs to provide some value to the user, and to that user’s network,” Koeppel continues. “What type of content do you share? Generally, some form of content that elicits an emotional reaction—it makes you laugh, it inspires you, it surprises you, or it makes you sad or angry. Learn about your audience, and what they find value in reading, watching, and sharing.”

Like one’s real-life social circles, in other words, social media has an effect on what a person knows, likes, and buys. Interpersonal connections are referrals; “likes” are endorsements. And marketers can use the platforms as a source of continuous education that helps keep their brands top-of-mind throughout the purchase funnel.

“Social media—executed well—drives sales for direct marketers.” –Lindsey Carnett, CEO, Marketing Maven

“An established, active social media presence helps present more information to consumers,” says Jason Levesque, CEO of Argo Marketing, a customer engagement center based in Lewiston, Maine. “Marketers can not only expect to win over customers they would have otherwise lost, but also generate new customers as they begin engaging with and sharing content to their social circles.”

Content That’s Catching
The ultimate share is when a campaign goes “viral” and spreads worldwide. But as much as marketers might want that kind of buzz, it’s the hive mind that decides what is and isn’t a viral success. There is only one thing that can help messages cut through the clutter. “Create great content,” Levesque says. “It’s as simple as that.

“We unfortunately can’t force things to go viral,” he says. “It happens because consumers truly want to share content. So make it funny, entertaining, informative, useful, or something—anything—that makes it seriously impactful, so consumers have a reason to share it. And they will.”

One recent DRTV product to go viral was the Woof Washer 360, a hoop-shaped hose attachment designed to help consumers bathe their dogs. After producing a short-form with Boonton, N.J.-based Concepts TV Productions and posting dog-washing outtakes on the product’s Facebook page, the product became a worldwide phenomenon, with 100 million Facebook shares, 800,000 Web hits, and $200,000 in sales in just two weeks.

“What made the [Facebook] video of Woof Washer 360 so captivating is the fact it didn’t have any audio or graphics on it,” says Collette Liantonio, president of Concepts TV. “And Woof Washer’s demonstration was so magical, people just couldn’t turn away. A marketer would have to spend millions of dollars to gain the same exposure our viral video did organically.”

In addition to the “cute” factor, the campaign’s secret was a soft sell. “It wasn’t cramming the spot down consumers’ throats,” Carnett says. “You can’t force something to go viral. Humor and feel-good stories perform the best. If you’re authentic as a brand and offer a product or service that makes someone laugh or truly care, you have a great chance of consumers and media rallying around you.”

Companies can poke life into the social media, of course, to expand the reach of “earned” mentions. In managing a social strategy for Swedish Hødnebø Møbler’s Spinnaker chair, for example, Marketing Maven sent press releases to a variety of interior design, luxury, and lifestyle publications in print and online. After editors at Uncrate and Gizmodo posted items about the chair, Marketing Maven liked and retweeted the posts. Within a few days, the firm had secured more than 2 million impressions and more than 100 order inquiries.

Finding a Social Setting
For companies to connect, they need to understand their target demographic, what those people are doing on social media, and which platforms will help them reach those people. With more than 1.5 billion users worldwide, Facebook offers the broadest reach, but smaller networks have strengths among millennial and Generation Z consumers, women, and other segments. (See “Sites & Segments” sidebar.)

“The millennial generation is more engaged on social media,” Levesque says. “Generation Z is on its heels, and when they reach fruition in regard to purchasing, all markets and products will be dependent on social media. The need for instant gratification that the millennial generation brought is only enhanced by Generation Z, and without social media, marketers won’t be able to break through the noise to reach them.”

The product, too, has an effect on where a social strategy begins. Beauty and apparel products perform well on visual platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest. Items requiring demonstration such as kitchen appliances or makeup will have a home on YouTube. Pet products are a natural on Facebook and Pinterest, while B2B and events marketers will want to be active on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Levesque points to companies such as Hearthware, Inc., which builds customer engagement by sharing photos and recipes to help consumers create amazing meals in and on their NuWave ovens and cooktops. Pinned on a user-curated Pinterest board, the typical recipe garners nine repins—and the implicit endorsement of the product from real users. “They’re creating share-worthy content for their customers,” Levesque says. “Customers then organically share their content, comment on it, and engage with it, increasing its reach.”

To cut through the clutter, “Create great content. It’s as simple as that.” –Jason Levesque, CEO, Argo Marketing

Brands can also use social media to engage directly with users to answer questions and concerns for a truly 21st-century, omnichannel customer experience, he adds. “By having a customer service team ready and available through social channels, marketers are ensuring their customers are receiving quality service on the channel of their choice, creating a positive customer experience. Multichannel support is necessary—if you answer the phone for a customer, you need to also answer their tweets and Facebook messages.”

Selling via Social
As social media has blossomed, the major networks have developed sophisticated advertising options to build revenues. Facebook, for example, now has advertising and targeting options that are as robust as any from search giant Google. Segmenting customers based on its vast database of personal likes and mentions, the network can target display and video advertising to likely prospects as well as people with similar histories.

“From a conversion perspective, the advertising capabilities available present great opportunities,” Koeppel says. “Brands are able to target existing customers, people similar to those customers, users who have visited your website, and many other demographics.”

Worldwide, advertising spend on social networks is forecast to reach $25.1 billion in 2015, according to eMarketer, up 40.8 percent from 2014. By 2017, that total is expected to reach $41.0 billion per year, and with almost two-thirds of billings in each of the next three years, Facebook and Instagram are expected to dominate. But Twitter, Pinterest, and a host of emerging platforms aren’t far behind with promoted tweets, pins, and other paid options.

Platforms can segment audiences in order to serve relevant content and advertising to those most likely to take action. And for advertisers wanting to secure leads and close sales immediately, many networks now offer call-to-action buttons that invite users to “Shop Now,” “Learn More,” or “Buy.” “Social media can be just as direct as traditional DRTV advertising in terms of driving sales,” Carnett says. “Social media is effective for branding, buzz, and conversions.”

The average company spends 10.1 percent of its marketing budget on social media today, she says, and that number is expected to increase to 18.1 percent by 2020. As with any expenditure like this, “marketers need to have a clearly-outlined goal and focus,” Carnett says. “Advertising on social media will help amplify any content that is pushed through Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, etc. Marketers need to know what their advertising mix will be.”

Measured Media
Borne of interruptive ads and telesales, DR prides itself on exacting attribution—and marketers won’t always get that from social media. But that’s not to say that it can’t be measured; marketers can track any number of variables, including page views, likes, shares, downloads, click-throughs, “reach,” traffic, leads generated, and conversions.

Testing is the key to realizing new sales, Levesque says. “You’ll discover which types of content work, at which times, on which channels, and you can simply scale up what works. You’ll build a brand and a strong online presence in the process.”

Marketers can turn to hashtags to track response, or stage sweepstakes to qualify leads, but what produces ROI may still be fuzzy. “The best recommendation is to approach social media with specific and realistic goals in mind,” Koeppel says. “Determine how you’ll measure those goals, then begin strategizing the tactics you can use to achieve them. As you implement these tactics, monitor your metrics to see what works.”

“A marketer would have to spend millions of dollars to gain the same exposure our viral video did organically.” –Collette Liantonio

If one defines a click-through as a conversion, every ad on the Web today is a direct response ad, so the game hasn’t really changed that much; its rules are just more complex. Instead of shouting “Buy Now!” repeatedly, even DR marketers must occasionally engage consumers in a more casual conversation that tells them why and how they should buy, and how whatever it is will enhance their lives in the long run.

“Social media can have an enormous effect on a brand and generating buzz,” Levesque says. “Some marketers are also using it to convert prospects, though. They do that by requiring customers to submit information before accessing content. Or they simply put out a piece of good content, collect e-mail addresses by including an optional sign-up, and share the heck out of it.”

Sites & Segments

Today’s leading social sites appeal to a range of end users, and marketers can take advantage of differing demographics, targeting tools, and advertising options. Here’s a rundown of what some of the biggest social platforms offer brands.

Facebook is the granddaddy of all social networks, and only increasing in importance and influence. With more than 70 percent of U.S. adults active on Facebook, it helps brands reach a wide audience, and fan pages representing a particular brand or product are practically a requirement. Facebook also offers some of the most sophisticated ad targeting and retargeting tools on the market, and can help track prospects across the Web and mobile. “There’s no way around it,” Marketing Maven’s Carnett says. “It has the best advertising options, and lowest cost-per-click for driving direct traffic.” But success has cost Facebook a certain level of authenticity. “Facebook would be the one channel I would recommend if a brand could only do one,” Koeppel Direct’s Koeppel says. “The downside is that the platform is shifting to a pay-to-play model, and the reach of organic (free) postings is continually decreasing.”

Twitter can create a lot of chatter for brands within its mobile-friendly, 140-character limits. But its real-time missives make it more of a socially-enabled communications platform than a sophisticated selling tool. “Twitter is so noisy, and advertising is super-expensive,” Carnett says. That said, Twitter offers an excellent way for brands to “listen” to what people are saying, and respond to their questions and problems directly. “Twitter is fantastic for customer support, building a brand, and monitoring consumer sentiment,” Argo Marketing’s Levesque says. “They’re testing the ‘Buy’ button [now], and it will allow users to purchase a product with a few simple clicks. Marketers: Build up a following, integrate customer service, launch a ‘Buy’ button, and tweet away.”

Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo-sharing site, is the place to tell a story visually. Apparel and beauty brands do particularly well on Instagram, and since its 400 million users are able to create hashtagged selfies that include their favorite products, it’s an excellent place to build user engagement and awareness with behind-the-scenes exclusives and ideas. “Followers can truly focus on your content, one image at a time,” Carnett says. Mobile-centric, Instagram attracts urbane Gen Xers and millennials with an interface that is not yet overwhelmed with paid ads. “When done right, it provides great awareness for your brand,” Koeppel says. “It has also just launched a number of advertising options with targeting capabilities matching Facebook’s. The downside is that outside of advertising, driving traffic to your website is done solely through your account bio.”

Pinterest is an excellent showcase for products in the beauty, fitness, housewares, and kitchen categories, as well as supporting content built around those products such as event ideas and recipes. Advertisers’ “Promoted Pins” are relatively inexpensive and offer excellent targeting options, but even with a new “Buy” button and other shopping options, the platform’s largely female user base is still geared toward product discovery more than purchase. “It’s great for pinning images and increasing exposure, but it’s limited in what you can do,” Levesque says. “Pinterest drives high click-throughs, but Facebook drives more conversions,” Carnett adds.

YouTube and other video platforms present DRTV marketers with an easy transition from their primary media outlet, as well as a place for marketers and brand aficionados to demonstrate product use and share tips. “A few platforms to keep an eye on are coming from the video side, which is definitely a growing area in social media,” Koeppel says. Maxing out at six seconds, videos posted to Vine are practically born viral and attract a mostly Gen Z audience, while

Periscope and Meerkat are currently battling for live-streaming supremacy. With new sponsored channels, Snapchat’s ephemeral video platform is now offering advertisers inroads to millennial audiences with videos and product information that don’t disappear immediately after viewing. “Many brands have been experimenting with this platform with younger demographics, and advertising options have become available as well,” Koeppel says. –IPM