I was recently in Moscow, contributing to a panel debate on social media at Russia's biggest digital marketing conference. The panellists and the conference floor were abuzz with the scandal that major brands have been found to have paid for fake fans on Vkontakte, Russia's leading social network. Apparently, it has been relatively common practice for the country's marketers to meet targets by asking their agencies to do so by whatever means necessary, no questions asked.
Of course, that sort of thing doesn't happen here, does it? Well, maybe marketers in the UK aren't going as far as buying fake fans, but it's still relatively common for marketers to be blindly chasing fan numbers without reference to any business or marketing objectives, and to "buy" fans either through bribing people with promotions or through cost-per-action or cost-per-click media spend.
More worrying is that, once having acquired these fans, marketers are subjecting them to ill-suited set-piece campaigns as if their community was a 50s soap-opera audience.
Marketers can't really be blamed for this. Confused by different social media, some seem to be reverting to what they know - the familiar approach of headline audience numbers and buying a big campaign idea from a traditional or "tradigital" agency.
With The CMO Survey predicting that social media spend will move from 7.5 to 20 per cent of marketing budgets within the next three years, it's clear this situation needs to change or we face the prospect of more money being poured down the drain.
Let's start with the myth of Facebook fan numbers as a measure of audience. This figure is meaningless. As Facebook so brutally reminded marketers recently, on the average page, only 16 per cent of fans will see an individual update. Someone being a fan doesn't necessarily mean they see any communication from you, ever.
It's much more meaningful to measure your actual reach (how many people have been exposed to content from, or about, you), your frequency (how many times on average each of those people has been exposed), your level of engagement (the number of people responding to your content) and the number of times, on average, those people are responding.
Engagement is an overused and sometimes ill-defined concept but, in this context, it's measurable. More importantly, it's a key measure of the true value of social media.
Yes, social media is now a mass medium, and it can provide meaningful reach and frequency. But what social media allows you to do - that you can't do anywhere else at scale - is truly engage with customers and potential customers, driving advocacy and word of mouth both online and offline.
Because of the way the Facebook EdgeRank algorithm works (which determines which posts appear in fans' newsfeeds), engagement is also what drives reach and frequency. From our experience, a brand that is engaging well with its community can reach closer to 100 per cent of its fans, and a large number of their friends, through endorsement - which is the advocacy we're aiming for.
So, what drives engagement? It's time to forget everything you've learned from advertising. The traditional "big idea" doesn't work in social media. Real-time and always-on conversations trump the over-produced and often-irrelevant set-piece campaign plans of old. We need to move from the big idea to the social idea.
An entirely different mindset and creative approach are required: start behaving less like a broadcaster and more like a facilitator. Ongoing and timely content that is a natural extension of the conversation drives engagement - whether you're provoking discussion, reacting or simply taking part in it - and it is ever-evolving as it flows through the community. Creating content of the people, rather than at the people. And this is how we do it.
We get to know each community inside out. This means extensive research, listening carefully to the conversations people have about your sector and your brand, the issues that are on their mind and the world they live in. We gather these insights using specialist quantitative research tools. This then helps us decide what conversations to prioritise and how to adjust and evolve the way they behave.
Complementing the quantitative approach are the rich, qualitative insights from day-to-day involvement with communities - conversing with members, especially those that carry the most influence. It takes experience and expertise to get connected to a community's tastes, interests, habits, behaviours and etiquettes and, in turn, be able to produce engaging content that's tailored to those needs.
We apply this research and insight on an ongoing basis to our creative process - a collaborative approach that taps into the knowledge, experience and creativity of everyone in our team. This allows the creation of social ideas that are not only tailored to your business and communications objectives, but fit into the social behaviour of your target audience so seamlessly that they can't help but consume them, interact with them and pass them on.
We continue to listen, respond and create, resulting in timely content that is weaved into the community in a way that feels authentic and credible and drives emotional engagement between brand and consumer. Essentially, it turns your brand into a great conversationalist. One that is interesting and interested. And one that people want to engage with.
This takes time, effort and a huge amount of specialist knowledge and expertise, and we recognise it is hard for marketers to throw away what they think they know, especially about creative "ideas".
But we also know our approach works: according to iProspect's Facebook Engagement Index, we run two of the three most-engaged communities on Facebook in the UK.
As iProspect's Angus Wood says: "It's easy to go out and buy 'fans' with short-term competitions and other fan-bait, but if those users never return, and never interact with the brand's content, it's not an efficient investment."
I couldn't have put it better myself.
Robin Grant is the global managing director at We are Social.
POINT OF VIEW
Facebook or Google+? Pinterest.
My favourite social media is ...
I balance personal and professional in social media by ...
I don't. There is only one me, who's both a person and a professional, and my social media usage reflects that.
I can't forgive ...
Companies that are not making the changes they need to compete, mostly due to fear and ignorance.
The worst thing about social media is ...
That it never stops. It's also the best thing.
In five years' time ...
We'll be surprised how little has changed, with brands facing many of the same issues and problems in social as they do today. They all come back in the end to business objectives, where people spend their time, human nature and organisational change. Expect a bigger, better and more experienced We Are Social to be there to help them.
My fantasy follower is ...