The posting of "false news" on social media is now being examined for its role in the 2016 presidential election outcome, and major social media outlets are making an effort to ensure that their quality of information in the future will be higher.
This is not heartening news for marketing managers who use input from social media to gauge the strengths of their brands in the marketplace and the consumer response to products so they can make decisions about how to invest marketing dollars and structure campaigns.
In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission alleged in United States v. Spokeo Inc., C.D. Cal., No. CV12-05001, that Spokeo, a people search engine that organizes white pages listings, public records and social network information, failed to assure that its consumer report information was as accurate as possible. Because of this, Spokeo violated Section 607(b) of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Spokeo's reports included information gleaned from social networking websites. Marc Roth, a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP in New York at the time, told Bloomberg NA that the FTC's accuracy allegation likely was related to the use of social media data. "Given the inherent uncertainty and lack of verification, I would strongly advise against relying on social media information for consumer profiles," said Roth.
So what can marketing managers do to avoid getting faulty results from their social media data and making the wrong campaign decisions?
Use social media in concert with other marketing inputs
Always use other information sources as inputs into your marketing besides social media. These might include your own customer surveys or comments that consumers leave at brick and mortar sales outlets. Also mix your marketing inputs to reflect where your consumer base is coming from. Are customers primarily shopping online? Or do they personally visit your sale outlets and do face to face business? If most of your business is foot traffic, you might get more accurate readings from short customer surveys that can be filled out in-store, or by looking at your in-store sales and traffic to determine consumer preferences and demographics.
And while you might think that you and your marketing team have captured every salient fact about your purchasing public, you should check in with other areas of the company before you launch a campaign. For example, customer service to see where consumer complaints have been most prominent, or even with warehousing, to see which products have been returned the most. The closer you can get to a 360-degree view of your customers, the more effectively you can market to them.
Look at what's worked before and why
If you're in banking, you know that your customers favor a "skip payment" option on their credit cards before the holiday buying season, and that it's popular to launch a boat loan promotion at the beginning of the year, when the boat shows are being held. This is cyclical buying. As long as your business model remains relatively stable, you can continue to roll out these campaigns in specified timeframes on a regular basis.
If you're planning to launch a new product, start with a small pilot campaign that is limited to a certain geographical area or a certain segment of your customer base first. This enables you to test both your product and your advertising outreach effort—and to make any needed refinements before you expand it to a larger audience.
Check your social media sources
Some social media sources will be more accurate than others—a flash point that we are still in the process of determining! Since standards of reliable information are still very much in the air, marketing managers have to consider the source when they use social media—and that some people, when they leave comments, might not even be using their true identities.
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.