Why I’m Conservative About Emerging Social Media Apps

Frequently, my colleagues are surprised by my reluctance to join in the fanfare around emerging social media apps. They know me not only as a social media enthusiast, but also as someone who has spent much of the last several years helping advertisers leverage social media to grow their brands. As a result, I'm often confronted with looks of disappointment when I do not share in the market's enthusiasm about the newest apps. Just because I might enjoy the latest app to hit the market, doesn't mean it's ready to be included in a serious marketing plan. That's because what makes a communications medium ready for a thoughtful and strategic marketing plan is not engagement--it's reach. Until an app has demonstrated meaningful reach, it has not yet proven its value as a marketing medium.

While the conventional wisdom has always been that reach drives business growth-specifically, the more people who know about a brand, the more customers it will have-not everyone is aware of the connection between this idea and an empirical law in marketing science known as "Double Jeopardy." The Double Jeopardy law simply states that big brands differ from small brands in that big brands have a lot more customers than small brands and that big brands' customers are only slightly more loyal than those of small brands. 

This was discovered in the early 1960s and has been confirmed across numerous product categories and countries through research conducted by marketing scholars such as Andrew Ehrenberg and Gerald Goodhardt, leading brand marketers, and large research companies. Interestingly, it was reinforced in an analysis of 10,000 brands in the U.S. by researchers with no prior knowledge of the law, which you can read about in Meaningful Marketing: 100 Data-Proven Truths and 402 Practical Ideas for Selling MORE With LESS Effort

It could be that big brands just have extremely loyal customer bases. However, that is not the case. In fact, while big brands' customers do purchase their products more frequently than small brands' customers, the difference in almost all circumstances is marginal. In other words, what really makes the difference between a big brand and a small brand is the number of customers. It also follows that the more people who know about a brand, the more potential customers it will have. Thus, Double Jeopardy is critical for marketers because it helps us focus our marketing plans on the sole factor that's been proven, time and time again, to drive brand growth almost all the time: reach.

Reach is something that none of the emerging social media platforms possess at the time of their launch-hence, my conservative approach. Of course, there is an argument that says waiting until the platform has achieved critical mass precludes any possibility of exploiting any potential first-mover advantage. However, are the potential gains of first-mover advantage worth spending precious resources on a medium that may never play a role in driving brand growth? Consider that-according to a Gartner, Inc. report from last year-less than 0.01% of consumer mobile apps will achieve success through 2018. Therefore, it would appear that investing marketing resources in a social media platform before it has proven its reach potential is risky.

This is not to say that brands should not explore and invest in new ways to reach potential customers. Rather, it's simply to say that, even in the new world of digital and social media, marketing fundamentals continue to hold. Therefore, as these new platforms emerge, marketers need to remember the fundamentals and find ways to mitigate the risk. One possible way is to invest in apps that are extensions of established media brands that already possess mass reach. Another way is to wait until the available evidence suggests that the app is beginning to achieve a degree of mass reach, as seems to be the case with Snapchat.