Social media numbers don't tell the whole story

What do Walgreens, Intel, Walmart, and American Express have in common? Each has a Facebook page, Twitter handle, and Foursquare account, aggregating millions of followers and "likes."

What do Walgreens, Intel, Walmart, and American Express have in common? According to an analysis of Fortune 100 companies compiled by PRWeek on July 26, each has a Facebook page, Twitter handle, and Foursquare account, aggregating millions of followers and “likes.”

Coca-Cola tops the charts with just over 33 million total fans, followed by Walt Disney with 28 million, and Walmart is third with nearly 8 million. Interestingly—but perhaps not surprisingly—Apple has no engagement on any platform.

The ability to boast millions of fans and followers in a company's network might be enviable, but according to Stephanie Agresta, EVP and managing director of social media at Weber Shandwick, brands should be “implementing a community-building strategy” that looks beyond sums.

John Bell, global managing director and executive creative director at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, concurs. “You might see 64,000 fans for Caterpillar and 32,000 for Allstate,” he points out. “But the 32,000 for Allstate might be far more engaged.”

Companies are discovering that effectively engaging fans and producing measurable results is very difficult, which can make them wary of investing heavily.

Nadina Guglielmetti, VP of digital strategies in North America for Waggener Edstrom, calls it the “I don't get it so I'm not going to do it” trend. “But it's something companies will increasingly look at in terms of ROI,” promises David Armano, EVP of global innovation and integration at Edelman.

Understanding how to use each platform is a great place to start. Facebook is more of a numbers game—information is limited to fans that have shown an interest in the brand and their friends. “Then it comes down to whether that person is connected to the kinds of people that matter to your company,” states Armano.

Anyone can see a tweet—lending Twitter the perception of being a news source and a convenient conduit to the C-suite. “Twitter is the broadcast engine,” says Bert Dumars, VP of e-business and interactive marketing at Newell Rubbermaid.

Foursquare is a little harder. “At this point,” admits Armano, “I don't see a lot of opportunities between Foursquare and corporate communications.” Even many b-to-c companies aren't sure how best to leverage Foursquare to their benefit, with fewer than one in 10 Fortune 100 companies creating official pages. But the few who took the plunge have found success—Walgreens, American Express, and Intel garnered nearly 130,000 Foursquare followers between them by informing followers where to check in and how to receive discounts and giving them chances to win prizes.

Sometimes certain social media channels aren't relevant to a business objective. “When you get into a lot of the numbers, you can go into the weeds and disconnect them from your business goals,” says Armano. And Ogilvy's Bell admits brands “are still working out how they gain evidence that this is moving their business.”

Guglielmetti points out that if the target audience is moms, Twitter won't be useful.

Many companies in the Fortune 100 list that lack a social presence work in a regulated sector such as healthcare, and this requires a more careful and comprehensive approach. Others are holding or parent companies and don't take into account specific brands or products underneath the corporate umbrella. Ford Motor Company's Facebook page, for example, has fewer than a million “Likes,” but Ford Mustang's alone has over 1.5 million.

Arguing that social media does not move the needle is a difficult stance to back, but its effectiveness can be difficult to prove, too. Dumars provides this example: “If Ford gains a fan today who isn't ready to buy a car yet, in two or three years, is being a fan on Facebook going to influence them to buy a Ford vehicle? That's a possibility.”

The consensus is that social media, and especially Facebook Likes and Twitter followers, are neither a tool, nor an indicator. There is no definitive answer to the assessment of the value of a digital fan, suffice to say that effective marketing clearly extends far beyond simply numbers games and “fan collecting.”

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