Aaron Shapiro

Limitations of Twitter, Facebook & Youtube

Originally published in Notes on Digital, September 17 2010

Social media is still young and limited in its capabilities for marketers. First, there are only three major players. Whenever I am asked by clients to formulate a social media strategy, I know what they’re really asking is, “What should I do with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube?” Each platform, even with Facebook’s regular innovations and Twitter’s new redesign, has distinctive strengths and weaknesses. But each also has a limited range of uses.

Twitter is good for two things: promotions and customer service. Take JetBlue. It has developed a following of 1.6 million users by offering travel tips, answering specific travel-related questions (like, can I bring an unopened bottle of wine in my carry-on?) and announcing promotional deals. DellOutlet, which also has nearly 1.6 million followers, does the same. They answer customer questions and announce promotions. Best Buy’s Tewlpforce pales in comparison at 29,731 followers, but really focuses in on the customer service aspect of Twitter. Tweet a tech problem to @twelpforce and their techies will tweet you back some advice. Then there’s also promoted tweets and promoted trending key words or hash tags. Both are simply vehicles for, you guessed it, promotions, albeit to audiences beyond existing followers.

Marketers primarily use Twitter to interact and promote themselves to already interested consumers—a task once done primarily through email lists. But Twitter makes it easier because the customer chooses to follow the marketer, not the other way around. There’s no convincing consumers to give out their email addresses. Consumers participate because the marketer is providing something of value. It’s a simple equation and a win-win.

The drawback to Twitter is that it is not a good platform for group conversations and creating community. Each marketer using Twitter for customer service ends up populating its feed with messages addressed to specific individuals. If you’re not the person the brand is speaking to, you’re excluded from the one-on-one conversation. And there’s no way easy fix this; that’s how Twitter is set up.

YouTube is good for visibility. There are two ways this works: through search optimization and sharing. First, SEO: YouTube is the second most popular search engine—powered largely by its inclusion in Google searches. Make a video and power it up with good SEO plan, and it could gain a marketer some recognition. Second, sharing: some of the most viewed YouTube videos are those that are created by popular vloggers with large networks of friends or are so entertaining they go viral. Instructional videos are also popular but not as likely to be shared. Producing content for YouTube is the ultimate hit business: most videos launched on YouTube will get almost no traffic, but a few lucky videos can go viral or hit the SEO lottery—and that makes the investment in YouTube worthwhile.

The drawback to YouTube is that there’s minimal conversation surrounding a YouTube video. Comments generally are spam-like and when consumers share a viral video it’s not implied that they are fans or followers of the brand—it just means the video is worth watching.

Facebook is good for engaging consumers and consequently gaining valuable word-of-mouth momentum. The main way to get involved is to make a fan page that offers something of value to the consumer like interesting group conversations, casual games or tools for convenience. The end-goal for gaining word-of-mouth value is to get consumers to “like” your fan page. When they do, it’s announced on their feed to all of their friends and the fan gets regular updates from the brand. While brands can do much more on the Facebook platform than on Twitter and YouTube, in the end most successful initiatives have been driven by promotions, similar to Twitter. For example, if someone “likes” the 1-800-Flowers.com flowers page, they get 20% off and the ability to order flowers without leaving Facebook. Currently 1-800-Flowers has 45.885 followers.

The main drawback to Facebook is that while there are more ways to customize branding messages and create engagement, it’s still ultimately boils down to persuading consumers to “like” the page.

For marketers, these three frameworks means the ways they can socially connect with customers is pretty limited. Imagine if there were only three ways to strike up conversations, three primary reasons for having the conversation, and three sets of frameworks limiting for how it the conversation could go.

The Near Future

There’s clearly room to grow, and that’s why marketers and social media users are attune to any new social media platform gaining traction. Take the attraction of foursquare from marketers like Hardee’s and The Gap as well as users. Leaders in the field know it too. Facebook made Places to capitalize on the new “check-in” trend. Then there’s Twitter’s slow-to-roll-out redesign. It adds video, photos, keyboard short-cuts, “Tweets near You” and a larger right-side sidebar. We’re yet to see how marketers will use the new functionality. Our guess? Display ads. But still that’s nothing new for the marketer set. In May YouTube’s co-founder and CEO, Chad Hurley, admitted there are more opportunities to be had in video. He said to The New York Times that newcomer ChatRoulette, “demonstrates that there is still so much more that can be unleashed with video online.” And even ChatRoulette with its NSFW content has attracted advertisers and thousands of users.

The boilerplate offerings of the current social media marketplace leave advertisers and consumers wanting more. The question is who will give it to them. Perhaps it will be Google with its new social tools coming this fall.

*Tessa Barrera, Social Media Strategist at HUGE, contributed to this article.