After the Goldrush: Counting up the cost of social

Social media predictions tend towards superficial chatter about the rise and fall of channels - with every self-proclaimed social media 'ninja' or 'guru' claiming the inside line.

The tides will surely come and wash away the underperformers with predictable regularity, but the next social tsunami will appear with little warning. Social media is a field with creative disruption built into its DNA, nigh on impossible to predict, and trying to do so is an exercise of little actionable value.

Besides, that misplaced focus is really sidestepping the more important questions about social media's development. Agencies and their clients aren't really interested in whether Google+ is going to grow or shrink; this is populist social media reportage for the Mashable generation. It has little effect on strategy - fluid strategies allow for focusing and refocusing on channels as their relevancy fluctuates. Instead, it's a much safer and sensible bet to think about what applies across all these channels, as the big names of Facebook, Twitter et al represent an established industry that, sure as any other industry, now has discernable trends and patterns developing across it.

For Greenlight and our social media team, the biggest shift has been towards social advertising. Nothing too extraordinary, you might say, but it's starting to get interesting. It was once considered a fact of inconvenience that social media return on investment (ROI) was some foggy, obfuscated, unachievable holy grail of marketing. It was often sold to clients as such - don't expect any sales gains; social is just about branding. But any other above-the-line branding exercise would still expect to generate an accountable sales lift, or at least a marked increase in enquiries or footfall, so it's no surprise to see social is no longer exempt.

Measuring ROI has come on a great deal since the costs of social have risen. Facebook has slowly depleted the natural reach of fan page posts which has increased brand reliance on paid activity, and Twitter's sponsored tweets model is starting to bed in (the jury's still out on whether this is good for brands, though. (See http://www.theguardian.com/money/2013/sep/03/businessman-promotedtweet-british-airways). Complacency,reluctance, ignorance - whatever it might have been that initially delayed the better justification of social media spending has since been shaken up as the viral gold rush, the social free market has slowly dried up.

Whilst we at Greenlight would hardly complain if offered greater natural reach for free, our role as digital marketers is to communicate the optimum message through whichever method is dictated to us by the market. The challenge presented by paid social advertising will only make us even more economical with copy, even more creative with our messages and even more focussed on producing the best content strategy for the highest possible ROI. It's sometimes a disappointment to see wonderful content fall short of expectations because natural reach limitations impinged on its progress too soon, but even this is a fresh challenge to be savoured.

The goalposts have moved for everyone, after all. Sure, the big spenders out there will dominate when they can afford more social ad space than you, but there's nothing to stop a great campaign matching them step for step in terms of ROI. Social media marketers can never be scared of change. We say, bring it on.

Catch up with more of our predictions for SEO, Paid Media and E-commerce in Edition 10 of The Greenlight Magazine, 'The Predictions' issue.

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