Maybe Nobody Knows Nothing

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Consumers are fundamentally ahead of brands when it comes to technology and social media.

You may have heard this line before. I use this line in my presentations, in articles and in past blog posts. It is the battlecry by which us marketers hope to shake and wake brands up to the realities of our new world. Consumers are both connected (to the Internet and one another) and untethered (thank you, smartphones and tablets). Brands are still grappling with basic social media chops, better conversion on e-commerce sites and nearly nowhere to be found when it comes to providing value through a mobile device.

Maybe consumers are not as sophisticated as we would like to believe.

Before you laugh, slam your keyboard in disbelief or start ranting at me in the comments section below, please stop and think about it. How great are people at truly understanding the difference between a blog and a website? What about setting up and properly using channels like Facebook, Twitter, tumblr and beyond? Do consumers know which of their content is public and which parts are private (or by invitation only)? How many consumers do you think fully understand the process of downloading, using and managing their apps? According to a MediaPost news item published today titled, Study: Consumers Don’t Fully Understand Social Media, Search, consumers may not be as great at this stuff as you might think.

Is it bad?

According to the news item: "Some 70% of adults online know how to post to a Facebook wall, but only 54% understand how Facebook generates revenue… Men demonstrate a higher understanding of Facebook’s monetization strategies at 57%, versus women at 51%, according to findings from The Search Agency and Harris Interactive‘s study ‘2012 Online User Behavior and Engagement,’ which analyzes consumer behavior and knowledge around social networks and search engines…. When asked how search engines make money, nearly 29% of survey respondents believe brands pay annual dues for use, while 20% believe that users pay for premium search features. More than one-third of U.S. online adults believe search engines sell users’ personal data to marketers."

Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do…

Granted, this is a sampling of about 2000 people and I’m sure this is the type of research that people like Tom Webster (more on him here: SPOS #336 – Stats, Lies And Data With Tom Webster) can turn into Swiss cheese, but it’s an interesting thought (regardless of how accurate the actual data is): are consumers that sophisticated and knowledgeable about how these social media channels work, how they make money and what their full (and true) capabilities are? Or, is this a non-starter for you? If we have millions upon millions of connected people using everything from the Internet to mobile devices as a way to stay connected (to friends, family, brands or whatever), but the majority (or a large minority) really don’t know how to leverage that, does it make you change your brand strategy, engagement and more?

Playing to the one percent.

Maybe there’s something beyond the financial one percent and we’re living in the area of the digital one percent. Maybe, it’s actually a small fraction of people (like you and I) who truly understand what they’re doing, how what they publish makes them a media channel and just how empowered the individual now is? This research report reminds me of the constant strains I hear from executives about their marketing efforts: namely that they feel like they are behind and not adept at this brave new world. Perhaps the brands are not alone. Perhaps there is a vast majority of the population that feels the exact same way as these brands do.

It’s something to think about. Seriously.


  1. I think the fundamental lack of understanding is what breeds the massive outcry when things are pointed out in plainer terms. People feel blindsided because they didn’t understand how the platform was using their info, their data or their activity. (Like we saw with Instagram, recently) As someone who follows blogs, writes and works for a social startup, I forget how few people really pay attention and just hop on board. Another thought provoking post, as usual Mitch!

  2. I would go a step further to say that most people don’t think about being “behind” or even care. So much “about” social media is hype. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big user and fan of the opportunities, have studied social media and use it in my daily work mix. However, even within my profession, communications, there is a woeful lack of understanding and utilization.
    This past year or two, it’s felt like the digital experience has become stale. It’s not about the earlier promise of connecting, sharing and making the world a better place. It’s about being a product and that doesn’t feel good to most people.
    Just my thoughts in reply. Your blog is always timely. Appreciate you speaking up.

  3. The barometer I use when trying to understand a particular subset of web traffic is, “do they or would they shop at Amazon?” Not sure this expands on the thoughts raised, but I have always found it useful in discussions on the topic.

  4. Hey Mitch,
    I’m not sure I understand the value of your argument.
    Why exactly does it matter that common consumers understand the monetization tactics behind Facebook and Google or Mobile? Are they supposed to? What is the value to them?
    My understanding is that consumers are on these channels regardless of if they understand the underlying tech and business models and that they have needs or predispositions for non essential needs.
    It’s not the consumer’s job to figure out how the user experience works to provide a convincing experience to convert to buying.
    Are consumers expected to understand the science behind a store shopping experience and how that shop makes money at the end of the day? Or a restaurant dish, do I have to understand the subtleties of cooking and blending flavors to be hungry and enjoy a fine meal?
    I don’t believe that it matters to the consumer. What matters is that Marketers, Product Managers, and Merchandisers do understand these touch points, and the importance of user experience, and ad messaging and know how to leverage them to meet the consumer’s needs in a social local mobile world.
    Most people don’t know what Web browser or search engine they’re using but they still socialize, browse and buy on the Internet.
    Did I miss the point?

  5. Your comments are salient. My point was more that consumers don’t understand fully what they’re doing when they create media. The perception that brands have is that the consumers are all-powerful and all-knowing. It turns out (according to this data), that the consumer isn’t all that sophisticated with both how the technology works and how it makes money. It’s interesting to me, because consumers know that when they watch TV, it’s paid for by the ads. They seem to be less in tune with digital. Not a huge revelation, but interesting to me.

  6. I think this also speaks to the assumptions that so many in the tech and marketing worlds make about users. It is imperative, more now than ever, that we understand our target audience completely and handle our messaging based on that understanding. Smoke and mirrors are no longer necessary. We have actual data now! Great post as always Mitch!

  7. As businesses integrate digital into the way that they do business, they are key in educating their customers and clients/industry in the ways of social. Those who know how to navigate those platforms will use those platforms to find businesses that meet their needs and provide value. However, businesses that know can inform their customers and clients that don’t, as to how to navigate those platforms to interact with their brand. Another way for a brand/business to set itself apart in their niche?

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