Picture the scene. You’re catching up with old friends after a chance meeting on the high street. To your left is a poster for a band playing just down the road. To your right, a billboard for Hollywood’s next big-budget movie. Coming straight down your central line of vision with a chirpy smile emblazoned on their face? A sales representative offering you an upgrade on your contract phone. Do you pause your dialogue to take in the scenery, or just carry on chatting to your friends?

Social media has allowed us to carry out these conversions when we like, from where we like, and with whomever we choose. The people we want are there: according to Facebook, more than a third of the UK population log on to its site every single day. The technology is certainly there, and with data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showing that only 16% of Brits are not online, connecting with our friends through social networks like Facebook and Twitter is a luxury afforded by nearly all. 

Companies have also flocked to these sites in their droves. The MAGNA global advertising forecast has brands spending $9 billion on advertising via social networks in 2013, boosting the profile of one of the fastest growing marketing channels around. 

Rewind back to the high street scenario and they may have anticipated a frosty reception, but this has simply not been the case. Fortunately for advertisers, web users have been generally accepting of their social presence, recognising that sponsored, promoted or suggested posts all keep their favourite sites clear of the dreaded pay wall. Yet like the high-street salesman, it is the switching of people’s attentions from catching up to paying up that some brands have difficulty with.

The natural conversion

The current situation is as follows. Big brands like Coca-Cola, Nike and Starbucks all have tens of millions of virtual ‘superfans’ spread across a number of different social networks. Consumers are under no obligation to interact or even follow companies on social, but they do so anyway. Part of their willingness could be attributed to the incredible benefits that come with their no-strings-attached membership. There are few better places than social for learning about an exclusive giveaway, catching up on the latest news or just enjoying streams upon streams of quality digital content. 

What brands and social media campaign managers are most concerned about is whether their following has any impact on business outside of the networks in which they exist. Are they in it for the free ride or researching their next purchase? Vikki Chowney, head of social media at London-based ad agency TMW, is one of the many having to ask this question on a regular basis.

“There is definitely that taboo around using social as a sales channel, but the bigger problem is what to do with it all. You have to be sensitive to the fact that the majority of consumers are on social media for personal use, so they don’t necessarily want a sales message to be pushed towards them,” she says.

“You need to be smart in the way you come across and appropriate in what you say.”

For professionals like Vikki and her team at social agency Things with Wings, the result of a partnership between TMW and fellow agency Nelson Bostock Group, planning campaigns for brands like Betfair, Toshiba and HTC is a delicate practice, but one theme always runs true. 

“It’s all about the content,” she states. “For social it’s more important than for any other channel because it’s all about what you’re saying and, more importantly, when you’re saying it.” Vikki refers to the idea of reactive marketing, where brands tailor their content around popular topics of conversation for maximum exposure. 

Taking advantage of the coverage surrounding popular events can be done organically, although any big pushes for sales tend to require an investment in paid media, and advertising on Twitter and Facebook in particular could be one of the ways of creating the social path to purchase.

Measuring progress

Facebook has been forced to radically change the way it pitches to businesses in recent years. Once a network which urged brands to build a community of advocates, increase their social following and then invest in paid ads for boosting these figures, the network was stunned into action following the results of a partnership with data collection firm Datalogix. 

In one study, consumer goods giant Unilever found that for every dollar it spent on social advertising for its Suave beauty and grooming products brand, $8.41 was gained back in sales. Now, with a full range of display ad products available to brands across all key markets, Facebook has a data-driven platform capable of selling anything from Ferraris to fish fingers, providing the consumer has shown an interest beforehand.

Twitter is also up-and-running with its ad services, offering Promoted Tweets to investors willing to pledge money in return for followers and – with a bit of luck – those all-important sales. The site’s commitment to driving ROI was recently exemplified with a release for ‘objective-based campaigns’, a tool which means brands only have to pay for their ads when they contribute to an agreed goal.

In a blog post announcing its release, Christine Lee, Twitter’s head of product, even used the example of a brand attempting to boost conversions via clicks driven through paid ads. Twitter’s selling capabilities have been boosted further by enhancements to the way its ads are made. Twitter ‘Cards’ can help brands add greater detail to their paid-for media by attaching images and descriptions to the link being promoted. The site’s reporting tools then enable the tracking of key metrics from these campaigns, ranging from downloads for an app to direct conversions. 

Third-party tracking tools are also available for companies wanting to discover how social impacts the bottom line.  

For smaller brands, basic tag management tools like Bitly and Google Analytics can be used to track referrals from social media and assess where their organic and paid-for posting chipped in with traffic. As for the businesses with slightly bigger social budgets, they can call on the likes of ExactTarget to instantly establish which social messages are weighing in with site views and conversions, and which are letting the side down. 

The big conundrum for brands and marketers has to be where they can prove ROI. Of all the metrics to focus on, which are the most valuable?

ROI is…

It just so happens that sales would be an obvious way to show how each post made a contribution to the wider business. This will not be the case for all; it is doubtful that non-profit organisations like charities and educational institutions will be looking too closely at how social impacted earnings at the end of their fiscal year. However, as highlighted by Jeremy Waite, the head of digital strategy at SalesForce ExactTarget @MarketingCloud, commercial brands should have no shame in evaluating how their posts convert into cash.  

“If you’re not a political party or a charity, why else would you join social media? Customer satisfaction is interesting, and a lot of brands are using customer satisfaction [as a metric]… It is just that if you’re in a commercial world and you’ve got one million dollars for a social media programme, how are you going to prove that it did anything?” 

For professionals like Jeremy, measuring the success of a campaign often boils down to one of two things – ROI or NPS (net promoter score, used as a way of gauging customer satisfaction).

In the grand scheme of things, soft metrics like ‘reach’ do little to prove the effectiveness of each paid or organic post. Yet by simply gathering this data, brands can look into how social has an impact on their agreed objectives.

“Once you can start to put conversion metrics on that data, and say: ‘150 people created ‘that’ many sales and ‘this’ much sharing voice,’ that’s when things start to get interesting. At the moment, people just stop before all of this, mostly because they don’t have the technology to measure it,” says Waite.

The tracking technology is all ready to be used, but there seems to be a great deal of confusion over what brands should be looking for when trawling through their data. It is for this reason why some brands will eschew an investment in more expensive reporting tools for the risk of not knowing what to focus on.

Conversions, it seems, wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

The advice? 

Social networks may not be the most natural of selling tools, but paid advertisements on these sites have been known to have clear effect on conversions. In a July 2014 study from marketing developer Kenshoo, the company found that complimenting a paid search campaign with ads on Facebook delivered a 19% uptick in conversions, inspired by users who had seen both forms of advertising.

The question has to be when – if ever – the sales message needs to be pushed, and how brands can switch consumers from a browsing to buying mindset. Predictive analytics can provide a way for companies to analyse historical posts and use this data to make suggestions on the future movements of their social followers. Predictions shape personalised content, and content – as any social marketer will testify – can make or break a campaign. 

The starting point has to be the data, and Waite believes there are plenty of rewards for brands who recognise this. 

“If you’ve got enough intelligence about your audience, you’ll know when’s the right time to say something; when the right time isn’t; when’s the time to give your sales message and when is the right time to keep quiet. It is just when you want to do your job.

“The future is going to belong to the brands that have that respect but with the intelligence that goes behind it. The ones that think ‘we can use predictive [analytics], we can sell more stuff’ with a short-term click-to buy mentality, of course they’re not going to be around that much longer. People see through it.”

In 2013, 70% of marketers answering to Adobe’s Digital Distress report claimed their industry had changed more in the last two years than in the last 50. Channels like social media can open a world of opportunities for boosting sales or driving traffic to a website. Yet brands cannot afford act as carefree as they did in 2011, or even before then. It takes a thorough understanding of each and every consumer to know which people want to buy through social media and which are just happy to share their experiences. 

American popstar Katy Perry has over 55 million followers on Twitter. Coca-Cola has a virtual fanbase of 87 million on Facebook. While these numbers might appear to mean a great deal, there will always be a bigger picture to consider.