Thinking Twice About Investing in Social Media Ads?

If so, you aren't alone. Two of the world’s largest consumer goods companies have made waves by rolling back their spending on social media ads. What should associations make of that?

Social media is having a pretty tough run of bad press at the moment, and it has everything to do with its massive influence.

Folks in the technology sphere are making rumbles about the addictive nature of technology, with Facebook and Google among the main targets of ire. YouTubers with big audiences are making dumb mistakes and unwittingly tarnishing the network as a whole. Closely watched federal investigations are tying social networks to political propaganda. And, as if to put a cap on the whole thing, there’s a Photoshopped image of a punch-drunk Mark Zuckerberg on the cover of Wired.

If anyone’s going to have some serious thoughts about these kinds of attacks, it’s going to be Madison Avenue, which has invested in social media as if it were television in recent years. And some of the biggest spenders are getting nervous.

This is not something that can be brushed aside or ignored. Consumers are also demanding platforms which make a positive contribution to society.

Last week, Unilever—the company that makes Hellmann’s, Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, and Surf—called out the major social networks, threatening to drop its ad spending if it didn’t feel those networks were doing enough to drain the digital “swamp” of the at times controversial, sometimes offensive content that often fills its walled gardens.

“It is acutely clear from the groundswell of consumer voices over recent months that people are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of digital on well-being, on democracy—and on truth itself,” Unilever’s CMO, Keith Weed, said at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Leadership Meeting last week. “This is not something that can be brushed aside or ignored. Consumers are also demanding platforms which make a positive contribution to society.”

Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter? You’re on notice.

Unilever, arguably, is late to this outcry. Back in 2016, Procter & Gamble significantly cut the amount it spent on targeted Facebook advertising, but did so for reasons that were less political and more practical: The company didn’t think it was getting its money’s worth.

And that point was proven quickly: After it dropped $100 million in digital advertising spending the next year, it saw no negative impact on its business.

“We got some data that said either it was in a bad place or it was not effective,” P&G CEO David Taylor told the Wall Street Journal last year. “And we shut it down and said, ‘We’re not going to follow a formula of how much you spend or share of voice. We want every dollar to add value for the consumer or add value for our stakeholders.”

All of this may reflect an increasing savvy among major brands. They seem to realize that, after years of heavy investment in social networks from an advertising, marketing, and brand-nurturing standpoint, they give the social networks a lot of their power, and they can use that power for good.

Maybe that good is “social good,” for the world at large; maybe that good is “business good,” for the sake of the bottom line. And, honestly, maybe it’s both. Maybe the scope of the problem is significant enough that the two might overlap.

Time to Pull Back?

Associations may work at different scales from companies that sell consumer products, but they spend money on social networks, too, and they represent people and companies who might have stances on certain issues.

And as Facebook in particular is pushing organizations into pay-to-play, it’s understandable if your discomfort level is increasing, too—whether from rising additional costs or from the sociopolitical criticism that seems to be growing about these networks.

I don’t think there’s an easy solution here, but I do think there’s an astute one: Spend smartly, and execute in a targeted way.

That’s what Procter & Gamble is doing. Yes, it’s still spending money, just a lot less of it. The company scored a major social media win with its Tide ads during the Super Bowl, which was the biggest discussion driver of this year’s big game. According to AdWeek, Tide made a big investment in social listening, complete with a “war room.” (Great way to get people to forget about the Tide Pod Challenge.)

For a company that’s cutting its budget left and right, that’s pretty impressive work—work that builds on its existing marketing spend in a way that spreads it, rather than wasting it. Organic reach still works if you plan for it correctly. (It also does point out that P&G’s marketing budget is way more than yours, admittedly. But the lesson still stands.)

Ultimately I think paid social has its place. But if the issues around social networks that are driving all this negative attention bother your organization, now might be a good time to speak up. If Procter & Gamble and Unilever think they can push their weight around, there is definitely room for other voices in this conversation.

There is something of a comfort level around the corporate world taking a stance on political issues right now. Know your audience, but if you think they might be receptive to a shift like this and it works to your mission, now might be a good time to speak up.

It could inspire some important, possibly necessary changes in the ways that major social networks function.

(zakokor/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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