Social media - above or below the line?

By: Rachel Miller

Date: 30 April 2014

Social media - above or below the line?/ Social MediaIn today's online marketing world, I've been wondering if the old marketing divide - above or below the line - still applies. Are these distinctions still relevant or has the line blurred?

Back in the day, above the line advertising - in print, on billboards and on air - was all about driving awareness and brand-building. Meanwhile, direct marketing - such as mailshots and telemarketing - was all about personalisation and conversions.

Today, email newsletters and social media straddle this line completely - they allow us to talk to the world and have a one-to-one conversation. Online marketing has to achieve both widespread awareness and real results - all at the same time. So, is there such a thing as above or below the line anymore?

Are you talking to me?

Recently, I got an email from a business contact asking me if I wanted to get together for a catch-up. The subject line had my name in it and the title asked if we could meet up. But as I read on, I realised the email was a standard (albeit personalised) message that had been sent to lots of people.

This is a classic case of blurring the lines. Yes, email can be a form of direct marketing but when you send a standard letter to a group of people you are no longer marketing one-to-one. You are broadcasting. And your message must reflect that. You can't have it both ways.

It's exactly the same when I get an email from someone who I don't know from Adam asking me to connect with them on LinkedIn. It looks like a personal message but the truth is that this person has probably sent hundreds if not thousands of these requests. They are broadcasting. And I hit "ignore".

Broadcasting is not dead

Twitter allows you to respond directly to people, retweet their messages and build individual relationships - all while sharing your thoughts with a larger group.

So is Twitter above the line or below the line? The fact is that it's a mixture. To get it right you need to apply the rules of above the line advertising and adhere to new, more personal, social mores.

It's the same with email marketing. If you send a newsletter to a niche group, you can personalise it, target your messages and use a friendly, conversational tone of voice. But you know, and your recipients know, that you are broadcasting. And there's nothing wrong with that - unless the one person you really want to reach would rather hear from you directly.

Businesses once spent shed-loads of money devising, testing and rolling out ad campaigns that would raise their profile and build their brand. Now they can broadcast thousands of online messages every year - and the main cost is time.

At the same time, though, social media "broadcasting" can be thoughtless and boring. It's so easy that many businesses forget to be strategic.

The online evolution

But attitudes to social networks are changing. There was a time when businesses, much like teenagers, sought to attract as large a following as possible on Twitter and Facebook - going after so-called "vanity metrics".

But it can be tricky to hit the right note with large and disparate groups of followers. As Jonah Peretti, ceo and co-founder of Buzzfeed has pointed out, bland messages to these general audiences tend to get a "so what?" response. You can read more about these trends in this blog by Angela Everitt.

Recent research by Pitney Bowes has found that 60% of UK consumers would abandon social media sites like Facebook if mass marketing were to bombard their personal wall.

In addition, the arrival of "dark sharing" or private messaging seems to support the idea that social media users don't necessarily want all their online social interactions to take place in public.

It seems that after the initial attraction of the "above the line" broadcasting possibilities offered by the likes of Twitter and Facebook, "below the line" opportunities - targeting messages, attracting niche followings, building one-to-one relationships - are now coming to the fore.

There's no doubt that online marketing platforms straddle the old marketing divide. But valuable lessons learned over many years around above and below the line marketing are still relevant today. The media has changed but perhaps your messages - no matter how you send them - should sit firmly on one side of the line or the other.

Rachel Miller is the editor of Marketing Donut.

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