Social Media Guruism: Mostly Harmless

One of our commenters, WebsterJ, recently made the astute observation:

So Derek calls out SEO as a scam while touting social media - a field that is quickly cornering the market on snake oil. Fast talking social gurus charging boring clients with nothing interesting to say big $$$ to make Twitter profiles, blogs and Facebook pages that will bring in zero return. They just make the client feel like they are "doing social media."

Heh. Indeed.

Social Media Guru Snake Oil

Social media, used as a means to make money, is - mostly - useless.

Now, before a gaggle of unemployed social media gurus accuse me of doing the same thing as Powazek, I'm going to hedge my rant.

But first, let's have some fun.

Why $ocial Media Doesn't Work

Social media - and by social media I'm mostly talking about Facebook & Twitter - doesn't work for many businesses, and never will, because the medium is not the message.

Yet that is how a lot of social media marketing is approached.

Companies are being encouraged to create Facebook pages and open Twitter accounts to announce to the world they have nothing to say. Well, that would happen if anyone was actually listening.

Which they're not.

People aren't listening in the same way they're not reading email newsletters they signed up for a few years back and can't remember why. They'd unsubscribe, only that would require effort.

Highlight. Delete.

Likewise, most Tweets and Facebook entries dissolve into the ether, unread and unloved.

Obviously, just using the medium is not communicating, building brand, or creating engagement. That requires reflection, strategy, focus and having a story worth listening to. If a person or company has nothing to say, then creating a social media channel isn't going to help.

First, they must have something worth saying. Then they must say something people want or need to hear, and say it in a way that resonates with the audience.

The problem is....

Many People Have Nothing To Say And Few People Are Listening

In the past few minutes, I've seen the following tweets:

"Head hurts. Going to bed early..."

"Trying out tweetie2"


Riveting stuff, certainly.

Sure, I'm being facetious. Selectively pulling out the personal stuff. So how about people doing social media business?

If you're a masochist, or a psychologist examining the growing problem of delusions of grandeur amongst generation Y, you could do a lot worse that following a few social media gurus on Twitter:

"Marketing is a vulgarized concept. That's why we see so many brands lacking credibility in the digital world. Windows, not mirrors folks"


That's almost as bad as some of mine! And to think, some people are worried that Twitter will get innane when it becomes mainstream.

Here's a good example of implementing a social media channel with seemingly little thought given to the message or the audience:

Twitter. Check.

Facebook. Check.

Something worth saying? Erm....

There's not a lot of strategy behind much of this stuff.

Show Me The Money

Count up the hours you spend on Twitter or Facebook, then figure out how much money you made for each of those hours of effort. I'm guessing the result for most people is somewhere around zero. Now deduct your hourly rate - and other opportunity costs - for each of those hours.

But wait, I hear some people say. "Social media is about attention! About getting noticed! Getting on radar!"

They didn't really say that. I just made that up. The only person here is me. But it sounds like something a social media guru might say, especially if they were charging by the hour at the time.

People place a lot of importance on getting attention. They point to the number of followers as if that metric means something. It doesn't, of course. The important metric is how many of those followers are paying attention and then engaging in a way that contributes to the bottom line.

How many social gurus are measuring the bottom line, I wonder?

Argument By Selective Observation

But wait, some imaginary social media guru interjects, pausing only to push his sunglasses onto the top of his head:

"What about They killed with their recent social media campaign that netted $1,000,000,000,000 in two hours!"

No matter how inane, publicity stunts can work. Once. Early adopters can benefit from being first - they are remarkable simply because they are first. But once the followers arrive, the stunt is no longer remarkable, and the technique is no longer repeatable. The medium was the message, but not for long.

Social media has grown past the stage of being remarkable for its own sake.

Also, what works in one area may not translate to other areas. Wired companies can use leading edge communication channels because that's where their customers are. These communication channels might not work so well if you're selling cheese to housewives. I know this sounds weird, but they probably still listen to the radio.

The rule "go where your customers are" still applies.

Join The "Conversation"

Is it possible to have a conversation in Twitter or on Facebook?

Perhaps, on a superficial level, but mostly it's quick blast of - and I use this phrase loosely - information.

A lot of people who wrote some really interesting, deep, valuable stuff in forums and on blogs migrated to Twitter, used it a bit, then stopped. I think that happened because there was no value in it for the writer. Conversation didn't happen. Relationships weren't being built.

A temporary shot in the dark.

Perhaps that is why people update social media channels so often. Social media only exists in the now, and if you're not posting right now, you don't exist.

But is there anything worse than the compulsive updater? "Going to Reno tonight! Feeling pumped!". Millions of people saying nothing to millions of people who aren't interested.


Pretending To Work

Social media is mostly a waste of time.

And that's exactly why I have a Twitter account :)

We all do. Why? It's fun. It can be fascinating. Useful, even. But for most people, even most business people, it's not really about doing business and making money. It's about being, well, social and pretending to work.

When Social Media Works

Ironcly, social media works wonders when combined with that other well-known scam, SEO.

Brent Csutoras, in a comment on SEOWorld put it well:

When you have content that becomes popular on sites like Digg, Reddit, or Delicious, you get in front of the largest body of linking individuals on the web. Most journalist, media, and bloggers/webmasters watch the front page of these top social news and bookmarking sites to get current and popular content to use for their own site, magazine, newspaper, or show.

By having your content in front of this group of people, you are likly to get a lot of natural links to your content. Sometimes you can get links up to a PR9 level such as TBS, MSNBC, AOL, Wired, Huffington Post, all of which i have personally received off of successful campaigns.

How many social media gurus talk about this angle?

Ever listen to Chris Winfield speak? That guy can create a brand from scratch. And that is the other area social media works well: brand building.

Much social media theory is nothing new. It's regurgitated brand theory. You create value by recognition and having customers engage and spread the word. It helps get the message out. Driving brand awareness, particularly with youth and wired demographics.

Building brand, and the benefits that come from that - engagement, word of mouth, connection - are where social media can excel if executed as part of a coherent strategy. It's cheap. It's cheerful. It's fun.

All good stuff.

The trick is to....

Measure it

Find out how social media translates to your bottom line. If your social media guru can't demonstrate that, s/he is a waste of space. Social media must either increase sales, or cut costs, or both. If it doesn't, it's not business, it's just time wasting. If it can't be measured, then there's a good chance it isn't happening.

Agree? Disagree?

Do you measure your return on social media?

Abuse, constructive or otherwise, in the comments please :)

Published: October 21, 2009 by A Reader in marketing


October 21, 2009 - 8:29pm

Great post. Right on the money - which is to say, social media marketing makes quantifying the ROI from SEO look easy.

Its a novelty, a curiosity, and yes a phenomenon - but until Facebook makes like Google and somehow turns attention into dollars, its little more than a syndication tool.

In some respects, its more pure than SEO because its harder to game - since you're dealing with human beings rather than algorithms.

October 21, 2009 - 10:06pm

It is quite easy to game a lot of the social networks through a bit of social engineering. Guys like Jason Calacanis are great at it. Simply build a bit of an audience, then make a practice of publishing ignorant and polarizing content. Take it one step further by cloning the business model of people you call scumbags. Get tons of hate links over and over again. Too bad you can't vote AGAINST someone like that. I would put up a sitewide link on about 100 sites if they counted that way ;) ... (well not really, but I like to say that I would)

October 21, 2009 - 8:42pm

I agree with you that the majority of social media gurus are worse than SEO snake oil salesman, but that does not make social media as a whole should be discounted.

I work for clients who demand ROI, with return being real dollars, not followers/friends. When I recommend and implement social media campaigns, it is because I know I can drive real dollars into the hands of my clients efficiently. The difference between a true social marketer and the gurus you talk about is tracking: those who know how to track the conversation all the way to the conversion are the ones who can attribute revenue to social media. The majority of all social media gurus have no clue how to do this.

We are on the forefront of social media and it is no wonder that most people can only apply fuzzy metrics to it. It's like buying media on a CPM basis - a view is worth $0 if you cannot track it to the conversion.

October 21, 2009 - 10:03pm

Thanks for the lucid perspective. I get so weary of having this conversation with clients. If no one is interested in talking to you at a chamber of commerce breakfast, why in the world would they follow you or worse, your company, online. This headlong trail of following the bandwagon wastes time. I spend way too much time walking clients through the reasons why they don't need a Facebook account for their (fill in the blank) business. And worse when we get to the end of the litany of reasons, quite often they simply choose to ignore sound advice because they have a friend that has "yadda yadda yadda".
There are great uses for social media out there and you hit the nail on the head it requires a story and some creativity to leverage them into a viable marketing endeavor.

October 22, 2009 - 1:21am

Aaron, I am all in favor of a new link type, the PR Suck link that lets you vote against bad content, scams or business you don't like.

I am not sure I would waste any more hate on Jason. Every time you point out what a moron he is, he manages to find the free SEO advice in your posts and make his site better.

October 22, 2009 - 1:22am

I didn't mean to hijack your excellent post about social media ROI.

October 22, 2009 - 4:50am

Social media is encticing people and businesses to be UNREMARKABLE. Everybody is copying everybody. What's trending? What's everybody else like? We need to be more like these people. Look at what they're doing, we need to do it too. It's inane.

Businesses that are weak aren't bettering their service or product (because they have no passion for their service/product), they're watching what everyone else is doing, then copying it. They're on a tired bandwagon, always a beat behind the early adopters (who have a purpose and passion). These bandwagoneers are determined to be unremarkable, and they succeed at this and fail in business.

Here's a thought: what if your service or product helped sell itself?

October 22, 2009 - 8:16am

I've tried to remind entrepreneurs in travel business that social media and Internet marketing require strategic planning but usually people just use them in tactical way. Nobody seems to think about why these media are used, what are their purposes, what is the message that is spread through them, and so on.

I'm not convinced about Facebook but somehow I believe in Twitter. It serves a simple way to notify customers about last-minute offers and remaining tickets to gigs and events, etc. However, I think that Jaiku was even better than Twitter if used in this way.

Anyway, you had a good point: medium is not the message.

October 22, 2009 - 4:54pm

>>How many social media gurus talk about this angle?

I've never called myself a "social media guru" (and never will). But this is all I ever talk about.

When did social media become only Facebook and Twitter? That's social networking, which a subset of social media.

Social media is mainly about democratized media (content) production mixed with smart business models. Social networking and news sites help spread that content, and certainly can result in money. Lots of money.

Why is this so hard for people to understand?

October 22, 2009 - 7:34pm


I feel your pain. Good social media marketers absolutely understand there is more to an effective social media campaign than Twitter, FB and a blog.

However, the majority of social media marketers actively selling services aren't good. Many sell clients the exact services described in this post. Twitter + FB + Blog + Presentations with rows of bubble people + pat on the back. That will be $3000 please.

SEOs suffer the same problem. There are enough bad ones out there to make the good ones look bad.

Welcome to the party.

October 22, 2009 - 5:07pm

On the surface, this seems like a great article...until you realize that it's really just like most tweets--a total waste of time. If you wanted to really provide something valuable, you'd show me how you directly measure your social marketing campaign...

Oh wait, you can't. Why? First, cause you've probably never run one and you're just regurgitating what other people have told you. And second, because ROI really doesn't translate for most Internet campaigns. There's just no way to directly measure it because there are so many random variables. And I challenge anyone to prove that it can be.

October 22, 2009 - 6:57pm

@fearlessadvisor - You can measure it. I'll give you one simple way that you can measure social media ROI.

On one particular site, sell to an email list. Build that email list by using social media to generate traffic to a blog or website. Once they're at the website, funnel them to sign up for a newsletter.

Tracking: Cost of content creation & time spent creating conversation around content + cost of building & maintaining website + cost of building & maintaining email list all divided by number of sales from your email list.

Pretty straightforward to me. You can analyze it all you want, but this works.

October 22, 2009 - 7:00pm

If I was TweetDeck I would add something to log my time active in the console (manual or automatic). This would be my cost. Let's say I'm worth $100 per hour. Then I would have some light analytics tied in that allowed me to track basic click through and conversions.

Better yet, Tweetdeck could team up with or purchase one of the many companies developing analytics packages focused on tracking social activity.

It may not capture the whole picture, but would certainly provide valuable information.

October 22, 2009 - 9:25pm

I know, you mentioned that your rant was doing the same thing as Powazek... but that doesn't excuse you from doing the same thing as Powazek.

He took the bad parts of SEO, and the obvious parts of SEO, and the easy parts of SEO, said it was pointless, and generalized everyone who claims to do it. Then said that making something remarkable is what is important.

You took the bad parts of Social Media Marketing (SMM), and the obvious parts of SMM, and the easy parts of SMM, said it was pointless, and generalized everyone who claims to do it. Then said it doesn't work without the grand puba of internet... SEO.

You are often no more able to track the bottom line in SMM as you are running print ads... but that doesn't print ads don't work (even though they often might not, anymore). It's just that you don't have quantifiable metrics like you do in SEO, which makes your particular niche of marketing particularly lucky... because everything is quantifiable, but marketing hasn't always been like that.

I'm not a unemployed social media guru, nor an SEO marketing guru, although I handle both of those aspects of a brand for numerous clients, I'm just a web designer/developer that likes to point out objectionable opinions expressed on blogs in my fields of interest.

I'm disappointed that after all that ranting about what Powazek did to SEO, you turned it around and regurgitated the same rederick onto a field that you find contentionable.

October 23, 2009 - 9:15am

Fair point Metronome49...most marketing is not as easy to track the ROI as SEO. But at the same time, there are ways to do some sort of measurements. See Peter's follow-up post here

October 23, 2009 - 9:28pm

Thanks Metronme49

By using a similar method to Powazek, I'm opening myself up to that criticism, and fair enough.

People think it's fine to attack the SEO industry for its failings. The SEO response to such attacks is often defensive.

I thought I'd respond on the front foot by judging another marketing method by the same criteria and - what do you know - it too comes up short! Thing is - *any* marketing method, if judged on the behavior of the bad actors will come up short. Bad SEO is a rip off. So is bad social media marketing.

Unlike Powazek, I provided balance. Good social media marketing, like good SEO, is valuable.

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