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Social media misses the mark when it matters

July 16, 2013

By Mike Flanagan

Mike Flanagan

Mike Flanagan

It’s hard to follow any real news story these days without stumbling over some hokery about how important social media has been at influencing events.

But a bizarre coincidence of announcements about Bangladesh last week fundamentally undermines much of the waffle from the gushier end of the PR industry about the power of Facebook and Twitter.

When one and a quarter million people sign an online petition telling Gap “to immediately sign an enforceable Bangladesh fire and building safety agreement, or risk fatal damage to your brand image” – and Gap doesn’t – the “social media kills” doctrine says we’re going to see some impact on Gap sales.

The online petition to get major garment buyers to sign up to the Accord on Fire & Building Safety in Bangladesh (Accord) was launched by campaign organising website Avaaz on 3 May, after Gap and some other US buyers had said they believed the Accord was not in the interest of their shareholders.

By 21 May, Avaaz had attracted a million signatories. But Gap claimed there could be a different plan offering workers the same protection as the Accord, and it needed time to agree with North America’s other big buyers.

So activists picketed its annual shareholder meeting, where Gap continued to argue for a plan it couldn’t reveal because it hadn’t been agreed – and scarcely a single shareholder disagreed with Gap management.

As Gap’s Facebook pages became inundated with protests, Gap set up its own site to explain its position. Within a few days, that site attracted 669 postings, all, as far as I can see, criticising Gap, and most promising never to shop at a Gap store again.

Since that shareholder meeting, another quarter of a million people have signed the Avaaz petition, though only another four have bothered going onto Gap’s site and criticising the company. So Gap’s sales must be hurting, mustn’t they?

They’re not.

In May 2013, Gap’s like-for-like sales grew 7% on the same month a year earlier, as US clothing retailers’ total sales grew just 3.8%. In June, growth accelerated to 8% – while US apparel retailer sales growth was just 4.8%.

Two good months don’t prove that much (who knows whether Gap’s sales might have grown faster if they’d signed the Accord, for example). But it puts the onus onto those who claim “social media makes or breaks businesses” to provide evidence that any of those million signatories intended to do more than press the “send” button on a screen.

As a colleague once put it to me about a group of demonstrators who’d got up at 5am to chant slogans in the rain all day outside one of our stores: “They look nasty. But will they shop the shout?” Read the rest of the column in just-style.

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From → Analysis, Commentary

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