Social media - above or below the line?

A yellow and black sign with the words Social Media printed on it

In 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. Below the line 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. Is there such a thing as above or below the line anymore?

Mass media or one-to-one?

I periodically get emails from business contacts asking me if I want to get together for a catch-up. The subject lines have my name in them and ask if we could meet up. But as I read on, I realise that most of these emails are a standard (albeit personalised) message that had been sent to lots of people.

This is a classic case of blurring the lines. 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 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".

Above the line 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. 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 to raise their profile and build their brand. Now they can broadcast thousands of online messages every year - and the main cost is time.

Social media marketing

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

Attitudes to social networks have changed. 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 general audiences tend to get a "so what?" response.

Research suggests that a majority of UK consumers would abandon social media sites like Facebook if mass marketing were to bombard their personal wall.

In addition, the rise of 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.

The online evolution

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 - have come to the fore.

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.

Written by Rachel Miller editor of Marketing Donut.

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