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What Do You Say When They Insist Social Media Must Work?



This is a guest post for BoxInBoxOut from our good friend, Bill LaPierre.

During WWII, George Orwell, author of 1984, commenting on the British elite’s belief that Britain could not win the war, wrote that “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Orwell had glimpsed something in ordinary folks that endures during difficult times. It is called wisdom.

          Wisdom does not necessarily come with age (as my teenage son will quickly point out). Wisdom comes from experience, it comes from being in the trenches and seeing how your customer lives, and what motivates them to buy. It comes from knowing what really works in your specific business, and what is merely a pipe dream. 

The depth of wisdom (or lack of it) on social media in the catalog industry hit me the other day when one of my readers commented that the owner of his company could not understand why the Marketing Department was not doing more with social media. The owner, who is not an active member of management, seemed skeptical when the marketer replied that it was because their direct mail/catalog efforts worked better than any alternative. The owner accused him of not knowing the latest technological marketing innovations.

          I don’t know the owner directly, but based on the little I know of him indirectly, he is well educated, and well meaning. But he is also probably very naïve when it comes to marketing. He spends no time in the trenches, reviewing catalog circulation plans, or planning budgets. Though he has owned this catalog for some time, he doesn’t have the “gut” wisdom for what is working.  (This particular company sells gifts and home furnishings to moderate income 60+ year old females, for whom the catalog still works great). 

               As I’m sure many of you do, I subscribe to a lot of marketing newsletters and blogs. Almost every single one, at least once a week, runs a story about how to make social media replace all your other marketing.  They rarely give any specific evidence that it works. Sometimes they cite a single company that is doing well with social media. An example was a woman that runs a clothing business, who sells all her product on Facebook. As soon as that story hit last March, one of clients contacted me and asked why she couldn’t do the same thing. The answer is scale.

Most of you will never be able (at least in the next 5 to 10 years) to generate the same amount of business from social media as you do with your catalog and website because nothing “scales” the way the catalog does. Depending on your average order and your response rates, you’d need from five million to 10 million fans on Facebook to generate the same sales that mailing 500,000 catalogs generates. Non-direct marketers just don’t understand that. 

          And, there are hundreds of other factors that enter into the response equation like demographics, age, income, price points, etc.   

 The problem of course, is the relentless barrage of articles and white papers in the trade media that stress that you and your company are doomed for extinction unless you have an active social media program. You know that’s not true, and I know it is not true. But it is difficult to get the casual marketer to believe it is not true. (Note: let’s be clear – I’m not saying that social media as a commerce vehicle will not work for all companies – it will if you have the right offer and right audience. I’m saying it won’t work for the majority of existing catalogs as a solo means of support.)

People believe what they want to believe. That goes for what truly constitutes a new product, as well as the growth potential of social media. And yes, if your business sells to 18 to 30 year old women, than you probably should make social media part of your business plan. Then again, if you are selling to 18 to 30 year old women, you probably do not rely solely on a catalog to begin with.


How many stories have you read about existing catalog businesses selling to an over-45 year old consumer, whether the company was doing well or not, that had closed down their print catalog and that had successfully switched completely to social media (or even just relying on ecommerce)? Sure, there are a few catalogs that stopped printing catalogs, and went completely on-line – REI and Autosport are examples. And in both cases, they resumed printing catalogs, though not to the degree they had in the past, because they simply could not rely on SEO, PPC and email alone to drive enough demand.


So, what do you say when someone – usually a non-direct marketer – insists that social media should work for their business, and that you are, by default, behind the technology curve by not seeing that?


The first thing I do is make it personal, by asking about their social media behavior, such as:

·        How much merchandise have they purchased via Facebook in the past year, and what percentage of their overall consumer spending does that represent?

·        How often to do they use Facebook or Pinterest to find and buy a specific product?

·        Or how often have they heard from one of their friends / followers on Facebook or Twitter, that the friend bought something which the person had recommended on one of these social media sites.

·        In general, how many hours a day does he person spend on Facebook, Pinterest or a similar site?


          I rarely find an active social media user that has unbridled faith in social media as a commerce driver. The more savvy they are with the use of the medium as a general consumer – even if they are not in our industry – the more likely they are to have a basic understanding of the limits of social media. Call it wisdom.  It’s the people that don’t use social media, or that have never used it for commerce/transactions at all, that have unrealistic expectations of the potential.

          Finally, if none of those arguments carry the day for you, just hope that the person asking the questions is an astute enough business person to understand business “hype”. Simply explain that much of what they hear about social media at the moment is pure hype, similar to how bad movies are promoted with well-edited previews. Hopefully they will have the wisdom to see your point.


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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 802-295-6600 x235

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