In the years since it entered marketers’ radar screens, social media marketing has often been described as conducting “conversations.”

But the facts just don’t bear that out.

The dominant setting for social media is Facebook, made king by its nearly 1.25 billion members worldwide. But are brands having conversations there with fans?

“Any marketers who believe they’re having a conversation [with brand’s fans on Facebook] are delusional,” Forrester Research VP/analyst Nate Elliot recently told VentureBeat.

‘Just a place to buy ads’

The language of “conversations” dominates the way many companies talk about social media marketing. To take just one example, in March of last year Arkansas-based marketing communications agency Martin-Wilbourn Partners posted on its blog under the heading “Brands Seek to Humanize Themselves Through Social Conversation”:

“Engaging customers through social media is a primary goal of modern marketers. … Many businesses are attempting to do so by developing a unique personality or voice for their brand. … The personality presented in this type of conversation will be tied to the overall marketing campaign. … Contact us today to start a conversation about how social media can be leveraged to grow your brand.”

But without much notice, evidence is accumulating to dispel the idea that brands’ comments and other content can organically generate conversations by engaging customers or would-be customers.

Elliott said Forrester’s research has shown, “For the top 50 global brands, on average, less than one tenth of one percent [of visiting users] like, share, or comment” with the content.

This “exceptionally small” engagement, Elliott said, cannot be called a conversation in any reasonable sense. “If you have 3 million fans, you will get a few thousand likes and a few hundred comments. If you’re a social media true believer, you can look at [only] hundreds of comments [out of 3 million fans] and say, ‘People are having a conversation.'”

A central reason for the minute engagement is that so little of a brand’s message is getting through Facebook’s relevance algorithm. “Everyone who clicks the like button on a brand’s Facebook page volunteers to receive that brand’s messages,” noted Elliot’s October 2013 report for Forrester on Why Facebook Is Failing Marketers, “but on average, Facebook only shows each brand’s posts to 16 percent of its fans.”

The Forrester report adds:

“By comparison, the average marketing email — another channel a brand’s customers might sign up for when they want to receive that brand’s messages — is delivered to more than 90% of the people who agreed to hear from the brand again. It’s safe to say that if your email service provider was only delivering messages to 16% of your mailing list, you wouldn’t think twice before firing them.”

Approaching zero

It gets worse.

The 16 percent figure from Facebook was from 2012. More recent data from digital agency Social@Ogilvy shows that the “organic reach of content published from brand pages” on Facebook had dropped from the previous 16 percent to 6 percent by February of this year.

“For large pages with more than 500,000 Likes, organic reach hit 2 percent in February,” the agency said.

In fact, Ogilvy said, “Facebook sources” are unofficially telling the agency the organic reach percentage may near zero at some point “in the foreseeable future.”

With so little of the brand’s organic messages reaching fans then, the number of fans actually engaging with organic content will be a fraction of a fraction.

Forrester says the very low engagement rates also apply to Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Google+, and LinkedIn.

The exception: Instagram, where 4.2 percent of Instagram followers engage with brand posts. Why? According to Elliott, it’s because Instagram has less clutter than other social sites — including fewer brands posting their messages there. Also, Instagram doesn’t filter out posts to brand fans, as Facebook’s relevance algorithm does. In addition, the median age of its users is younger than Facebook’s.

Elliott writes in his report that Facebook “has quietly become almost entirely reliant upon Web 1.0-style display ads and simplistic targeting — and marketers say those display ads just aren’t working.”

Despite its promises as a social media platform, he said, Facebook is now “just a place to buy ads.”

Even one percent can matter

recent study by social media optimization platform SocialFlow points to a similarly tiny amount of engagement.

It found that 99 percent of organic social posts through its system had little or no engagement. It’s not the same finding as Forrester’s, because it does not explicitly factor in Facebook’s gating algorithm, but it similarly shows only a tiny level of engagement.

The consolation, SocialFlow CEO Jim Anderson told VentureBeat at the time the study was released, is that the scale of social communications is so massive that even one percent can matter.

Some social marketers acknowledge that “conversation” may be too high a reach for organic social media — and perhaps other terms are needed.

For the most part, “No one [in social media campaigns] is having a conversation,” chief marketing officer John Andrews of North Carolina-based social media agency Ignite Social Media told us.

Less than one percent engagement is “tiny,” Andrews told us, but “just because engagement rates are low, doesn’t mean that it’s not a viable channel.”

Echoing SocialFlow’s Anderson, Andrews said that, “if one percent can be replicated and scaled, if your total reach is 100 million impressions, [the resulting million impressions] probably does have a continuing impact for a brand.”

But the “audience size is irrelevant,” he said. The key is engagement.

‘The model has shifted’

Andrews added that one of Ignite’s customers, Olay, actually had a somewhat higher engagement rate, approaching 4 percent. The reason, according to Andrews: Olay employs the added touch and expense of a community manager to help increase user engagement.

Social media based conversation is possible, Andrews said, “But it’s not happening with most brands.”

“It’s hard and it doesn’t scale.”

Forrester suggests adding social tools to one’s own sites to encourage engagement. Its Facebook report advises, “Marketers tell us that adding social tools to their sites — such as branded communities, blogs, and customer ratings and reviews — remains a powerful way to engage users through relevant interactions.”

And Ogilvy advises that a paid media campaign, such as on Facebook, could become the driver for what we might call shared information:

“…[T]he model has shifted. Previously, brands were using ‘owned’ [brand pages] to fuel ‘earned’ [word-of-mouth]. Going forward, they’ll need to use ‘paid’ to fuel ‘earned,’ but that doesn’t make the earned any less valuable.

“As Facebook evolved into a platform for broadcasting shareable content to communities of fans, the conversation model evolved as well, built on the recognition that one-to-one conversations don’t deliver the scale that brands are usually aiming for.”

Becoming ‘part of the culture’

A key source of the problem, digital marketer Mitch Joel told VentureBeat recently, is that “Most brands and their agencies that work for them see [social media] fundamentally as an ad impression channel.”

Joel, president of Canadian digital marketing agency Twist Image, authored a blog post a few years ago that presaged this evolution.

Joel’s 2010 post, entitled “The End of Conversation in Social Media,” noted, “There is not much conversation going on at all,” citing little back-and-forth in comments on blogs, the difficulty of having a conversation on Twitter, and the banter that is “more chatty than conversational” on Facebook wall posts and status updates.

With brands pushing out material that is “abysmal,” he told us, it’s no wonder users are failing to engage.

Instead of lame content, he suggested, brands could offer “a video tutorial on YouTube to show [a product or could] build a catalog.” Even if the brand is as mundane as a loaf of bread, he said, “What if a picture ran on Instagram [with descriptions] of the type of bread we make?”

In terms of being able to generate conversations from content, Joel said, “We may be beyond the pale because of what has gone on for the last 10 years,” but some brands will still break through.

GoPro “got it into the hands of influencers and got people talking about it,” he said. Red Bull, “another amazing brand,” has similarly offered imaginative content to think about.

“Most brands go, ‘How do I sell to these stupid people?'” he said. For them, Joel told us, Ogilvy is correct that “if you start mass advertising to let people know you have beach blankets,” they will find out and possibly start talking about the blankets.

But “smart brands,” he said, “ask: How do we become part of the culture?”

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