Oxford professor challenges Ritson’s ‘tsunami of bullshit’ claim but concedes social marketing has ‘vanity metrics’

A marketing professor from Oxford University has challenged some of the views of controversial academic and fellow professor Mark Ritson on digital and social media marketing, but admitted advertisers should approach the channels and their “vanity metrics” with “healthy scepticism”.

Andrew Stephen

Andrew Stephen: “I agree with Mark Ritson in that we need better objectives. Before you think about return on investment, you have to think about return on objective”

Andrew Stephen, the Australian-born head of marketing faculty at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, said measurement metrics of social channels are “not right”, and urged the industry to reach agreement on viewership standards.

But, he argued social channels have the clear potential to offer more accurate information than traditional media and insisted they are major avenues for reaching consumers.

Stephen also warned that influencer marketing will create a “crisis of trust” if the number of influencers continues to expand and more of them demand to be paid by brands.

Speaking with Mumbrella on a trip to his homeland, Stephen rejected Ritson’s notoriously dismissive views of digital and social media, which have generated widespread debate in the industry over the past six months.

“Embedded in some of the rhetoric is a valid point about new marketing channels, in that we need to be careful about how we measure them and compare them to other elements of the media mix, and more traditional channels,” he said.

“If it’s about mass reach, you still can’t get much better than TV for eyeballs during live sports events, for example. It’s expensive but it’s hard to beat.

“As marketers, we need to be experimenting with new things, but we don’t want to go all-in at the expense of well-established and effective, efficient media channels that have been around for a lot longer.

“It’s not to say one is better than the other – which, I think, is one interpretation of what Mark is saying. My view is that it’s about a broader mix and you have to think of who you are targeting, who your customers are and where they live in terms of media.

“They are going to be in lots of different places but, realistically, people are increasingly living predominantly in digital channels.”

Stephen disagreed that agencies and marketers are obsessing about digital and social channels, arguing they are merely displaying a curiosity and willingness to experiment and responding to consumer media habits.

“From a sensible, pragmatic and targeted marketing approach, if people are spending time on Facebook then you need to be looking at what you can be doing on Facebook to reach and engage those people,” he said. “It’s not obsessive. It’s saying media consumption habits are shifting, technology is changing and therefore marketers need to be adapting.

“There is a lot of innovation in the platforms as well as what marketers are trying to do on them, so there will be successes and failures. And I don’t think it’s ‘a tsunami of bullshit’ and nor are there hollow promises being made in terms of the potential.

Social Media Likes and Social Marketing Concept with Businessman Touching Glowing Like Icon.

“If you just stick to your guns – Mark talks about radio – if you just stick to that, maybe you are missing the point because there are other things you should be looking at.”

But he agreed with Ritson’s criticisms of how views on digital and social channels are measured, insisting the issue was “problematic” and called for standards to be improved.

“I don’t think it’s right to say viewing something for three seconds should count the same as a full 30-second view,” he said. “View-to-complete is maybe too high a bar, so it’s about where you draw the line, where you set the threshold for viewership. But we need better industry standards that people agree on.

“They have become vanity metrics, and we shouldn’t forget that behind all of this is the problem with bots and ad fraud – particularly in the programmatic buying space -and not knowing what’s real versus an algorithm.

“But these technologies and platforms have the potential to be vastly superior and effective from an analytics and measurement standpoint than any of the traditional media channels.”

Return on objective

He also stressed marketers must approach social media marketing in a different mindset than some are currently doing.

“One of the things I agree with Mark Ritson on is that we need better objectives. I always say before you think about return on investment, you have to think about return on objective,” he said. “The objective has to be clear and you have to know why you are doing something and evaluate against that goal.”

Too many brands get caught up with a “shiny new toys of marketing” attitude and jump in without having a clear objective.

“I liken that approach to throwing darts blindfold,” Stephen said. “There is a big difference between that – doing something for the sake of doing something – to thoughtful experimentation.”

Turning to influencer marketing, the academic said there was more value in partnering with people “further down the pyramid” than with the Kim Kardashians of the social media world who are paid “hundreds of thousands to push something on Instagram”.

kim kardashian brio

But he warned that current trends in the sector for influencers to be paid were worrying and will erode trust.

“Millennials, in particular, seem to be keen on creating content and monetising it,” Stephen said. “Can it be effective? Absolutely but it depends on the influencer and the authenticity and the relationship they have with the brand and the audience.

“This sense of just paying people, I don’t believe that is the way to go. You lose authenticity. Even moderately sophisticated consumers will not have nearly as much trust if it was paid than if it was someone’s authentic opinion.

“This is the industry challenge and, frankly, the jury is still out. You now have influencers demanding to be paid who otherwise may have never thought about that. They were happy getting a free sample or an invite to an event – a non-monetary consideration.

“But now they say ‘others are getting paid, I had better insist on a contract, too’. So there is an unhealthy way in which this is heading.”


In addition, pressure is growing for such content to be identified as advertising, he said, adding that regulators are cracking down on the issue, with authorities in the US even beginning to prosecute.

Being forced to disclose the commercial relationship could have a damaging impact for brands, he added, citing studies suggesting consumers take a dim view of influencers being paid.

“Some of my research looks at what happens when you disclose. It’s the right thing to do and the ethical things to do, but if you have product reviews, and say this person was paid, we found – probably unsurprisingly – that you get a massive backlash effect and people distrust the information altogether.”

Close up Two hand holding smart phone with Influencer Marketing

Furthermore, the growth in the number of influencers could have a negative impact.

“People are very accustomed to seeking recommendations and product ideas and advice from social sources. That has not changed and it’s not a social media thing. People trust that information,” Stephen said. “But if too many are saying ‘I am an influencer and I am getting some kind of compensation for this’, then it’s hard to know who to trust.

“If you get to the point where everyone thinks they are an influencer, and we all want our 15 minutes of fame, then no-one is an influencer, to the extent that a bubble may burst.

“Hopefully we don’t get to that point, but if we keep going in this perilous direction it will lead to a crisis of trust in marketing”.

One of the objectives of social media marketing should be on creating communities, Stephen added, as he warned brands against “posting for the sake of posting”.

He described such an approach as “wasteful, even irritating”.

“If you see it as another online display advertising medium then it is probably not going to be successful,” he said. “If you look of the rise in ad-blockers, most consumers think any kind of advertising is an unwelcome intrusion, so the challenge is how can you reach these people and speak to them in a way where they welcome it.

“It’s about telling them useful and interesting things rather than force-feeding them.

“The analogy (I use) is, if a friend texts or calls you do you see it as an irritating intrusion into your day or do you see it as a welcome intrusion? That is the way brands need to think about how they engage with customers.

“If we are going to post something or tweet something and it’s going to appear in someone’s feed among all the interesting things that are going on in their lives, is that a welcome intrusion?”


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