It’s fitting that the offices of SocialFlow are located across the street from Grand Central Terminal, which, when it opened in 1913 and transformed the way the country accessed New York City, billed itself as the “gateway to the continent.”
And just as Grand Central’s great Iron Horses accelerated the movement of people and ideas in ways previously not seen, SocialFlow CEO Jim Anderson likes to equate his company’s product as part of a transformation as well, that of algorithms eclipsing human intuition.
As the first social media optimization technology to apply a scientific approach to understand and quantify Twitter and Facebook audiences, topics, and engagement, SocialFlow should change how social media managers decide on what content is best to post—and when it’s best to post (and when it’s best to do paid advertising).
We met Anderson, silver-haired yet youthful, at a conference table in SocialFlow’s 12th floor office. He’s four months into the job, so he’s still commuting weekly from his home in Atlanta, and has the baggy eyes to show for it. He’s trained as a civil engineer, but shifts easily into the rhetorical: “Is it possible that an algorithm will have a better sense of when to post than I will?”
He allows the silence to answer his question, and then adds: “I think it speaks to the maturation of the social media space. You can tell me that you think you know when it’s the best time to post, and that’s fine, but I think that’s social media best practices from three years ago.”
Instead, Anderson suggests, social media managers at SocialFlow clients like Pepsi, Gawker, National Geographic and The Washington Post are now free to perform tasks that require creativity and intuition—the creation of better content, with better sourcing and more potential to resonate with their intended audience.
But what an algorithm can’t alter is the struggle many marketers face when trying to articulate to their management the ROI of a social media program.
“I don't really like the word ROI,” says Anderson. “I think the word should be the ‘value’ of social media, because I don't think it's a mathematic or a financial question, it's a strategy question. Can you describe how social media is going to help your business before you can quantify it?”
Inevitably, though, ROI creeps into the conversation, most typically in the form of, “Will social media increase my sales?”
“I think social media has been challenged with what every new marketing medium has been challenged with in the past: Scale.”
“Will social media increase my sales?”
“That’s the pillar of marketing value,” he says. “Lots of things can increase sales, but they’re hardest to measure. How is tweeting going to help? That's a scale story. I think social has been challenged with what every new marketing medium has been challenged with in the past: I can’t show that I’ve driven up unit sales until I get scale, but I can’t get scale until I can drive up unit sales. The TV business must be laughing, saying: ‘What do you think we've spent the last 50 years trying to do?’
“You just don’t wake up one morning and introduce technology and the world will beat a path to your door. It’s hard work. You have to prove it. You have to pass muster with the marketing department, with the finance department. That's what it takes to build an industry. I have a suspicion that the TV people look to the social media people and think they're naïve about what it takes to run an industry, what it takes to run a real marketing channel.”
Brand affinity, churn reduction and cost savings as ROI
While ROI remains the primary obstacle to buy-in, Anderson sees less resistance to effecting brand affinity (“Coca-Cola and McDonald’s effect, TV did the heavy lifting there, and allowed these brands to be recognized for happiness and bubbles”), churn reduction (“Only if you’re in the subscription business”) and cost savings (“Nestlé used to put a 1-800 number on their packages, and they paid $13 per call to answer the phone. They took that number off and put a social media icon in its place. Now they can answer customer questions and Grandma can say how great the product is.”)
New ways of looking at B-to-B
Anderson doesn’t recommend SocialFlow as a usable tool for accounts with fewer than 1,000 followers—the social media traction of many B-to-B brands. “The whole B-to-B thing is more granular targeting than you're going to get on the consumer level,” he says. “I think B-to-B has been a little bit slower to adopt social, and a little less sure of how it fits in the context of what they're doing.
“But I think you're starting to see B-to-B people realizing, their customers, prospects, influencers and employees are all on social channels. There are targeting differences, obviously, but at the end of the day we're talking about human beings, and B-to-B audiences are people just like B-to-C people are. Maybe the categories B-to-B and B-to-C are outdated, and they should be B to P—business to people.”
In five years
Most brands are acting as publishers—some never will, but Anderson, a ten-year veteran from Earthlink, see the shifting winds. “It’s content that matters,” he says. “It’s hard for me to imagine that in five years brands won’t be producing more content than they are now.”