Is Social Media Marketing A Waste Of Time?

Social media is the next big thing! No, it's the big thing! It is here, now, and it is big! Let's face it, if you're not aboard the cluetrain to social media marketing city, you're sitting on that station alone!

A pity, then, that social media traffic is so often worthless.


Let's look at the market signals. Why is it that you pay dollars per click on Google Adwords for financial keywords, yet the same keywords on social networks are priced at five cents?

This suggests to me one of two things. Either the social networks are seriously underestimating the value of their own traffic, or most of the people on social networks aren't interested in commercial messages. If they were, then the bid values would closely match those of Google Adwords.

I think the latter is the most likely scenario. Social media traffic isn't priced higher, because it isn't translating into revenue for the advertisers. This isn't happening because the intent of the users when engaged with social media is not conducive to selling stuff.

Of course, social media traffic isn't all bad. We'll look at some ways you can benefit from it. But firstly, let's compare and contrast some aspects of social media marketing and search marketing, in order to help clarify the value proposition.

1. Traffic Is Not An Asset, Traffic Is A Cost

Traffic only becomes an asset when it translates into something else. When it becomes a bookmark, a sign-up, a link, or helps establish a genuine relationship. It must also result in an increase in revenue. If it doesn't, then traffic remains an expense.

What is the value of 10,000 Diggers hitting your site to look at, say, a picture of a monkey riding a bicycle? Zero. The trouble is that a lot of marketers are watching the web scorecard - that spike in the visitor stats that shows the number of visits - and using that as a marketing metric. "Hey, I'm popular!".

Sure, with 10,000 teenagers amused by a picture of a monkey riding a bicycle. But how is that helping boost revenue?

There isn't a lot of meaning to such a relationship. It is low value.

"This is a truth of the Internet: When traffic comes to your site without focused intent, it bounces. 75% of all unfocused visitors leave within three seconds.Any site, anywhere, anytime. 75% bounce rate within three seconds. By unfocused, I mean people who visit via Digg or Stumbleupon or even a typical Google search....."I'm just looking," is no fun for most retailers. Yet they continue to pay high rent for high-traffic locations, and invest time and money in window displays. Very few retailers lament all the traffic that walks by the front door without ever walking in. A long time ago, they realized that the shoppers with focused intent are far more valuable. Smart retailers work hard to get focused people to walk in the door and to keep the riff raff walking on down the sidewalk.".

2. Uncontrolled Message

It is difficult to control the message. Released into the wild of social networks, the message can just as easily result in negative effects as positive ones.

Check out this sad experience of being dugg, from Kim at Cre8Pc:

"Since I logged off last night around midnight, 12 hours later, over 23,000 people have been to this blog. The reason is that someone dugg about the post I wrote, where I shared a resource I found useful. That post was "dugg" and the incoming traffic this blog is receiving is to that specific blog post I wrote....Diggers complained about everything from the site design of the site I wrote about, to how stupid I was to write about it at all.....Which part of this Digg activity am I supposed to be happy about, now that something I wrote has officially been slaughtered there?"

Kim wasn't trying to get on Digg as part of a marketing strategy, but it shows how unpredictable the "benefits" of social media exposure can be.

Perhaps this might explain why Digg has been left at the altar a few times? It suggests to me that it might be difficult to extract real commercial value from such environments. Part of the problem is structural. Digg is "free" and "open" and "anonymous", which leads to a tragedy of the commons.

At the risk of blowing our own horn, part of the reason our SEO community is valuable is because people have to pay for it. People have provided a signal of interest lacking on most broad social networks. There are no questions from a member named MakeEasyMoneyOnlineTodayRightNow asking how to get his adsense earnings up to $1 a day. The price of admission helps protect the community from the tragedy of the commons.

3. Branding Is Often An Excuse For Failed Marketing Campaigns

"It's a brand spend!". Marketers say that a lot.

What they often mean is "we can find no no measurable return".

Return on brand spend is very difficult to measure, and even more difficult to isolate in a channel such as online social media marketing. Did visitors remember our brand? Did it affect their future buying decisions? Was the brand association positive or negative?

Who knows?

If you're thinking of engaging a social media marketer, and they use brand building as a metric, ask them to explain how they will demonstrate an increased, favorable level of brand awareness. If they mention traffic numbers, ask them how that squares with my first point "Traffic Is Not An Asset, It Is A Cost".

To my mind, any commercial endeavor must ultimately come back to revenue.

4. Level Of Interaction

What are people doing on social networks?

On the likes of Facebook, they are engaged in social activities. They are catching up with their friends. They are playing games. Marketing messages in this context are about as welcome as an Amway salesperson at a bachelor party.

Consider the context of the message. Search marketing works well because the searcher has already signaled their intent, and that intent may well be commercial. It's like walking into a shop, and asking to buy a watch. The relationship and interaction is direct and obvious. The context of social media is more like a cocktail party. People are there to socialize, not enter into commercial interactions. They may do so, but the relationship is fuzzy and indirect.

To overcome this obstacle, look for social networks, or network groups, where the users demonstrate clear, commercial intent. Alternatively, have a clear idea of how you're going to progress "fuzzy indirect" visitors to desired action.

5. Time

Social media marketing is time consuming.

Building your social networks. Responding to "friends". Is there are measurable return for the time spent? What is the opportunity cost of that time?

For example, compare the time you need to get a commercial message on the front page of Digg, with getting a commercial message on the front page of Google. With Adwords, I can do it in seconds.

With Digg, I'd be unlikely to get a marketing message to the top, unless I'd previously developed relationships with all the right people and/or gamed the system, which, in itself, takes a lot of time. Even then, the marketing message, unless heavily disguised, will likely be despised by a community rabidly opposed to any message with an obvious commercial imperative.

Is this time well spent on either channel? Once again, a cost/benefit analysis, where the benefits are clear and measurable, will provide the answer.

6. Rampant Stupidity & Useless Distractions

I guess no-one ever went broke underestimating human stupidity, but one really has to question the marketing value of these types of approaches:

"The Coca-Cola Company will feature its Sprite brand on a new Facebook Page and will invite users to add an application to their account called "Sprite Sips." People will be able to create, configure and interact with an animated Sprite Sips character. For consumers in the United States, the experience can be enhanced by entering a PIN code found under the cap of every 20 oz. bottle of Sprite to unlock special features and accessories. The Sprite Sips character provides a means for interacting with friends on Facebook"

Facebook, which distinguished itself by being the anti-MySpace, is now determined to out-MySpace MySpace. It's a nifty system: First you get your users to entrust their personal data to you, and then you not only sell that data to advertisers but you get the users to be the vector for the ads. And what do the users get in return? An animated Sprite Sips character to interact with.

Are people going to then talk about Sprite in a way that would increase the sales of Sprite? Really?

I can barely imagine this would work for a teen audience. Such an approach has no chance with an adult audience. Keep in mind that most people who are heavily active on generalist social network sites are likely to fit in the 15-25 year old range, although there is evidence to suggest this age range might be changing. Look at it this way - how many stories about hip-replacements ever make it top the top of Reddit?

There are a lot of messages that just aren't going to work on social media. Wrong time, wrong place.

"Media buyers — the agency people who book campaigns — report that the college social network is a truly terrible target. They're mainly students, with low disposable income, of course; but, beyond that, the users appear to be too busy leaving messages for each other to show much interest in advertising. Facebook's members appear indifferent even to movie advertising aimed at their demographic. Clickthrough rates, the percentage of time users click on an ad, average 0.04% — just 400 clicks in every 1m views — according to one report seen by Valleywag."

7. Difficult To Scale

It is easy to scale up a television campaign. Buy more airtime. It is easy to scale up an Adwords campaign. Increase the number of keyword terms and/or bids. How do you scale up a social media campaign? You can't re-create viral. Viral is hit and miss. All word of mouth is hit and miss. How many people can you cost-effectively follow on Twitter?

Social media tends to pay dividends in the long-term. Social media, generally speaking, is hard to influence, but by understanding your field well and creating relationships in your niche, you can learn to create the types of content that influencers will pick up on. Like the mavens in The Tipping Point, they will spread your message for you.

Forging such meaningful relationships won't happen overnight.

Where Social Media Pays Off

Ok, I admit it. This post has been a bit of a rant :)

It's not all bad news.

Whilst not a replacement for a marketing strategy, social media can be a viable component of a wider marketing strategy. It can be used to generate buzz. It can be used to attract links. One well placed article can achieve both these ends. If that buzz, and those links, can then be translated into a valuable relationship, and perhaps better Google rankings for commercial keywords, then the social media approach may well pay dividends.

In order to do this, social media must be back-ended with content geared towards establishing a valuable relationship, rather than one-off visits.

Marketing exists for one purpose: to sell stuff. If it doesn't do that, then it isn't marketing.

The key to evaluating social media marketing, like with with all media spends, lies in tracking and cost/benefit analysis. If traffic provides you with a measurable return on investment, then the marketing spend is justified. The only traffic worth anything is that which ultimately results in revenue producing interaction.

The problem I find with social media traffic is that so little of it ever does.

Your mileage may vary.

Published: November 12, 2008 by A Reader in marketing


November 12, 2008 - 1:51am

[this comment was from bookworm.seo...but we accidentally published this post twice, so I carried his comment over onto this one. he wrote... ]

If it's of any interest, I wrote something at Brand Curve about how to measure branding at Brand Curve, in the context of a mixed search + brand campaign.

On a related note, MSN's blogs recently covered case studies showing lift greater than the sum of its parts when display and search ppc were used together.

November 12, 2008 - 12:55pm

In the end, how well something works, depends on how well you use it. Not engaging in social media marketing today reminds me of TV ad agencies who were reluctant to embrace the internet a few years ago.

November 12, 2008 - 3:33pm

While I do agree with quite a few of your comments, I disagree with the post quite strongly. We just came off of doing a digg campaign that resulted in over 45,000 visitors. All garbage visits of course but they resulted in links which translated to a 30 place jump in Google. That's a very tangible and measurable result.

You can't look at social media like Digg for conversion. It will never work. But if it's used correctly, it can be leveraged for successful monetization in a round about way. It's not "brand spend", it's a way to expose people to a page and have them give you a link. Dollar for dollar, it can be the most cost effective way to build links and should be looked at as just one part of an overall campaign in my opinion. Ignoring it because it's hard or because it doesn't work the first couple of times is not a great way to approach it.

November 12, 2008 - 5:50pm

We mentioned that using it as a link building strategy was an effective technique if your content is linkworthy, but many sites that get exposure don't get many links out of it.

November 12, 2008 - 4:18pm

Look at it this way - how many stories about hip-replacements ever make it top the top of Reddit?

Not even when it's Prince's:

Purple Pain: Prince To Have Hip Replacement


@nicknick - it looks like you didn't even read Aaron's last paragraph. Yes, links and exposure can be generated, but it has to be done right, and if your bottom line relies on sales conversions from that traffic, then that really isn't where you should be spending your efforts.

I am sure there are some niches that do just fine with social media traffic, but they would pretty much have to be targeted to time wasters and that age group for it to really work.

November 12, 2008 - 4:40pm

I love this phrase:

Traffic only becomes an asset when it translates into something else... If it doesn't, then traffic remains an expense.

But, I disagree with "Branding Is Often An Excuse For Failed Marketing Campaigns". When you see a Dior ad in the New York Times website, do you think is a failed marketing campaign? Dior is Branding, probably, Dior doesn't sell something online. If you see an ad of a new phone in Business Week, Does that ad improve the credibility?

Anyway, I think branding is an important thing, is one way to start to not depend of Google.

November 12, 2008 - 5:47pm

For many businesses branding is important, but sometimes there are cheaper avenues for it than large ad purchases.

Lots of the luxury goods brands (handbags, watches, and other such stuff) do spend a lot on advertising their brand image. :) But Zappos sells all that crap to consumers without a large brand spend...they achieve it through word of mouth and remarkable customer service.

November 12, 2008 - 5:19pm

IMHO the best way to build a brand is to build profits. Everything else is a house of cards.

November 12, 2008 - 5:45pm

If people pay you and do not do a reverse charge then that's a strong signal of a positive brand experience, and people often value brands, products, and experiences more if they pay for them.

November 12, 2008 - 5:45pm

Ryanunderdown think in Youtube, Facebook or Google, first they create a brand.

In my opinion for most sites you need profits, for big ones brand must be one of the goals.

November 12, 2008 - 6:00pm

I have traffic coming in every month from some social media links that have found their way out there - and every month, the visits suck. However, since traffic is always part of the algo, on its own merits, pure traffic generation has and will have value. A couple thousand visits is still a couple thousand visits. The key, as Peter states well, is to balance the true value of the time spent to create the best ROI. I don't spend time to create the links in Digg or Technorati - but I have enabled it to happen. So I look at it like some gravy...nothing to focus your appetite on, but nice to have on the table.

So if a Monkey's picture can be used to create traffic and that traffic actually boosts my own SERP position (however fleeting), then a Monkey's picture it is. It won't be my only effort, but I won't ignore or avoid it on "principle" either.

Marius Popa
November 12, 2008 - 8:05pm

Traffic is a numbers game (unfortunately), highly targeted or not, quality or crappy, traffic is something that everyone is looking for.

"Sure, with 10,000 teenagers amused by a picture of a monkey riding a bicycle. But how is that helping boost revenue?"

Well...let's presume you monetize your site where you just posted monkey's picture via Adsense and next to the picture you have an ad saying "Rent a monkey this Christmas"...I'll bet with you that you'll get quite a few extra clicks and extra revenue.

Also let's presume that out of 10,000 teenagers, 1% would find your site funny and/or useful, link to it giving you some easy link love.

I think the hardest part of the story is how to make those 10k teenagers to remember, bookmark and visit your site again...

November 12, 2008 - 8:51pm

It all comes back to revenue.

I got 10,000 visitors!
How much money did you make?

I got ten pr7 links, and 50 pr4 links, and a top ranking!
How much money did you make?

If the end game is to get traffic and/or links, then social media marketing is as valid as any other form.

However, traffic and links are poor metrics on which to judge the value of a marketing campaign. Does a shop care how many people walk past the door and never come in? Not really. They care about the number of people who make a purchase.

David Martin

>>But, I disagree with "Branding Is Often An Excuse For Failed Marketing Campaigns". When you see a Dior ad in the New York Times website, do you think is a failed marketing campaign?

Branding is very important. What I meant to get across was that marketers often use traffic as a metric to prove brand enhancement, usually by implying there is greater awareness.

But what is the nature of that traffic? People who are interested in your product, or people who want to see a picture of a monkey on a bike?

The equivalent offline event would be, say, a merchant bank who hire a bunch of High School Musical actors to parade up and down in front of their building. It would attract the kids, thousands of them, but are the kids their customers?


>>I don't spend time to create the links in Digg or Technorati - but I have enabled it to happen. So I look at it like some gravy...nothing to focus your appetite on, but nice to have on the table.

Right. It's effort vs reward.

There is also the opportunity cost. some people spend a lot of time on social media marketing. What is the opportunity cost of that time? Would another channel bear more fruit?

Measuring the right numbers is key.


"It's not "brand spend", it's a way to expose people to a page and have them give you a link. Dollar for dollar, it can be the most cost effective way to build links and should be looked at as just one part of an overall campaign in my opinion."

Right. That's fine, and I address that in my last paragraph.

"Dollar for Dollar" is the crucial bit. Is the effort returning more than the time and money spent on it? If yes, then continue.

November 12, 2008 - 9:08pm

check out
it's got all the ingredients for entertainment, information, connection, exploration, sharing, etc.

nice article.

Concept Creativ...
November 12, 2008 - 9:24pm

I guess it comes down to a definition of "Social Media Marketing." I think for most people, what you're discussing in this article seems to me to be more like "Social Media Spam." When I talk to a client about social media marketing (Henceforth abbreviated to SMM for the sake of my terrible typing), I specifically say that I'm courting opinion influencers in the social media marketplace. I suppose that makes it more "social media relations," but if you look at things from a permission marketing perspective, you'll get what I'm talking about.

Digg crowds can hammer a server and, as one of your posters points out, get you a search ranking boost because everyone and his brother will link to you on their blogs, but what you're really doing is spamming yourself with ignorant people who don't care about your product and don't stick around to buy.

So sure, I'd say go ahead and post your stuff to digg if it's interesting, but I don't think that a marketer who sells that he can get your link to the front page of digg is really someone who's selling a service that a client needs. Getting your link talked about on the 3 (or 5 or 10) blogs that influence social media opinion is more SMM than diggbombing.

If you carefully cultivate relationships with the people who are already talking to your market, you don't have to worry about the overwhelming majority of the negatives that you go over in your post.

SMM in the sense described in the above post is often seen by organic user bases as evil marketing spam. Diggbaiting blog posts have changed the site that I first visited in early 2005 and have left a kind of angry edge to much of the community; they hate the fact that they are manipulated by people like us, but they lack the wherewithal to do anything about it. As a result, they will follow links not because they are interested in the link, but because they want to spew anger at the person who posted something commercial or designed to make them buy.

Maybe we should consider the SMM tactics that we use, and think hard about consigning some of them to the same scrap heap that we've tossed unsolicited e-mails. Adding more noise to the signal doesn't help us, or our audience, any. The result of turning up that dial is that the traffic that we're getting is, indeed, much lower quality than we'd like.

My $.02


November 13, 2008 - 11:06am

Read pattern recognition by William Gibbson for social media marketing done right!

November 13, 2008 - 6:13pm

Thanks for the post, Aaron! I will most definitely leverage it when speaking to prospects and clients.

As an agency, I think that it's important to set expectations and reveal some of the negative aspects of engaging in social media campaigns.

Too often, people in my industry pitch it like if it was some sort of cure-all panacea.

Megan Carruth
November 13, 2008 - 6:57pm

I love this article. Thank you.

I think marketers will only get smarter about SMM and we'll see much less of this obtuse social media campaigning.

Social Media Marketing doesn't have to be about getting links,"branding" traffic, etc. Those are example goals, but should be determined as a part of a broader strategy -- approached like any other marketing activity!

ie.: Objectives > Goal > Strategies > Tactics > Measurement ...

Marketers can decide what kind of traffic they want in SM. By targeting a group, catering /content/participation to that group, and funneling them to a distinct landing page, for example.

Ie "This page is for my YouTube subscribers who I want to try my product" this page is for my LinkedIn network who I want to sign up for my eletter" ... and so forth.

I'm not seeing that kind of thing at the moment.

November 13, 2008 - 7:26pm

Social Media is not a waste of time, it can be used to leverage a Marketing campaign if done right. If the purpose is to build links and attract visitors, it works great!

November 13, 2008 - 9:53pm


>>I think marketers will only get smarter about SMM and we'll see much less of this obtuse social media campaigning.

Yes I agree. Great word that - obtuse :)

I think social media marketing is at the stage search marketing was at, right at the beginning of SEO and PPC.

You could get ranked/displayed against irrelevant keywords, which would result in a lot of traffic, but that traffic wasn't targeted. You then had to jump through a lot of hoops trying to leverage it.

Social media marketing will get better when marketers learn to target it more effectively.

November 14, 2008 - 6:31pm

Most of what we see out there is just stupidity, however, it's the beginning of the age of real individual influence. Ofcourse it will all be a matter of credibility as usual, which means only the persistent bloggers with insightful opinions or facts will have any real influence. Video, I believe will take over the written word very soon though and written blogs will be left mainly to journalists that get paid for their time. As video production and publishing gets easier and bandwith is not a problem the age of vidcasts will erase the blog as we now know it. This is why I integrated video as a main component of my web development and marketing business

November 17, 2008 - 10:11pm

OK - first of all - you start the article saying

"Why is it that you pay dollars per click on Google Adwords for financial keywords, yet the same keywords on social networks are priced at five cents?"

Are FINANCIAL keywords really going to sell to the demographics on the social media sites you're referencing? This isn't exactly a great measuring stick to base the article on.

Furthermore - wouldn't social media sites generally be CPM vs CPC expenditures? I scale my adwords dollars at 80% keyword targeted CPC, and 20% brand-growing CPM. The CPC has a much higher short term ROI - but the mostly SMM targeted CPM gets me a lot better long-term ROI with increased brand recognition, traffic, links, and word of mouth.

Secondly - you've missed the ball on proper SMM assuming that all SMM is directed at DIGG, MySpace, and Facebook. Targeted blogs and forums are a fantastic SMM resource - and are worth both the time and money.

I don't think the Coca Cola company not getting Facebook and throwing some stupid sprite application online is an indictment of SMM. It's an indictment of their marketing departments that don't get it calling the shots. Facebook and MySpace are the two biggest targets for these departments, which is saturating that market with low-cost low-return crap.

It'll all come around - and by all means - ignore SMM - it just makes my message louder.

November 18, 2008 - 12:35am

Some really good points Aaron, and the comments left by others are very useful also. However I'd like to respond to this statement:

...if you're not aboard the cluetrain to social media marketing city, you're sitting on that station alone!

They're not alone, there are stacks of people on that station platform! So many organisations just don't get it, but intelligent discussions--such as this--will surely help.

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