Social media as a marketing channel is still new enough the debate about its effectiveness as a driver of ROI and consumer action rages on. Panelists at a discussion during today’s Future M conference in Boston, “The Future of Social is Action and ROI,” disagreed on how effective social media is as a driver of direct sales but agreed it is critical to engaging customers with your brand. 

Engaging, Not Selling

Anthony van Dijk, brand manager of the Global Gillette Venus base business, was emphatic that social media should never be used as a direct sales channel, but is necessary to build consumer engagement that drives action. Van Dijk said Gillette has been using social media as a marketing tool for six or seven years and has learned from experience about how to properly reach out to consumers in the social arena.

“We created a Facebook page and Twitter account that were extensions of our website,” said van Dijk. “We talked like a product. People only want to hear about how many blades our razors have so many times. It’s the last place you want to peddle a product.”

van Dijk said that Gillette discovered social media enabled it to have its first ever “real” dialogue with consumers in real time, as opposed to focus groups. He shared what Gillette discovered about its mostly male customer base.

“Guys want to talk about what they’re into, not share fashion tips,” he said. “They want to talk about sports and the general excellence of our products. It allowed Gillette to become a human brand.”

Social media is best used as a means of engaging, learning about and reacting to customers, according to van Dijk. “It’s not the right place to hardcore sell a product,” he advised. “We have other means of doing that.” (see: Socially Devoted? A Challenge to Be More Responsive on Facebook).

Engagement Leads to Sales

John Federman, CEO of online media startup Dailybreak, offered a differing opinion about the effectiveness of social media as a direct sales channel, arguing that engagement and sales are intertwined.

“Direct advertising and sales won’t happen without real interaction with your customer,” he stated. “Unless you’re entertaining and rewarding in a presentation, you can’t sell to a customer. The consumer needs an experience they’re enjoying that speaks to the qualities of your brand or your sales efforts are mistaken.”

Jason Kodish, SVP of strategy and analysis, North American analytics lead for digital advertising firm Digitas, said that a firm link between social media and direct sales does not currently exist. “If you set goals for trackable sales through social media it offsets efforts to justify it internally,” he warned.

The New Trumps Tradition

Interestingly, despite concerns about the effectiveness of social media as a standalone direct sales channel, all four panelists, including Mullen mediahub SVP and Director of Digital Media and Social Influence, Sean Corcoran, agreed that if they had to choose, they would drop traditional media (such as print, TV and radio) in favor of digital media (such as search and social networking) as a marketing channel. The general consensus was that digital media represent the future and will only gain importance at the expense of traditional outlets in coming years.

Related research: Adobe's Global Digital Advertising Update Sees Increase in Social Engagement and Mobile Traffic.