Is Social Media Marketing A Crock?

I recently had the pleasure of attending a dinner for startup VPs of Marketing. I had a great time chatting with peers and laughing about the unrealistic demands we all face. “Get me in the Journal and fill the pipeline–but don’t spend any money.”

The most interesting and worrisome aspect of the evening was the amount of time we spent talking about social media marketing. Almost every VP I talked with wanted advice on how to do social media marketing. (By the way, if you get a chance to invest in HubSpot, do it. It was the one tool everyone agreed you should buy. Dharmesh is going to make a mint.)

Why did they want to do social media marketing? True, curiosity was definitely a factor, but the consensus was simple: “Because of my board.”

In boardrooms throughout the Valley (and presumably the world) board members are reading magazines and thinking, “Social media is the hot new thing. And best of all, it’s free. Forget the as buys, we’re going to Twitter our way to profitability!”

The problem with this picture of course, is that social media isn’t free. It consumes the most valuable resource of any startup–the time of its staff. And by asking marketing leaders to focus on social media, boards and investors are undermining the very people they are trying to “help”.

This is not to say that traditional marketing is a paragon of efficiency. As a startup tightwad, nothing drives me crazier than free-spending VPs of Marketing. But few real businesses can be built on social media alone.

Social media is a great tool that, in the hands of a talented practitioner, can multiply the effect of your marketing. (There’s a reason I like companies like Conversely and VoteJet) But social media is an amplifier. It isn’t the story. Marketers still need to tell great stories. And the current craze for social media marketing threatens to confuse the story with the means of telling it. With all due respect to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the message.

10 thoughts on “Is Social Media Marketing A Crock?

  1. Chris – good post mate. I must say that we are grappling with social media in our space of rapid business improvement… we still find that Analog Word of Mouth is our most powerful media..and it starts with greatly exceeding our customers expectations and then stimulating them to think of us when others seek their counsel. Its slow..but it works. Cheers Bill Lang

  2. Social Media … and everyone's unbelievable appetite for it is what led me to use (yes, there's that domain again) to create a website for myself in addition to my 'regular' PR flack website. I did it as an experiment to see how long, and if, I could brand myself as a Social Media 'Expert', like so many other 'branded' experts … it didn't take long because I just used the Leapfrog principle… amazing, but it works flawlessly with Social Media. Just crazy.

    Anyhow, I say all of that to say this – the PROBLEM with the Board wanting SM is they are completely and unbelievably blind to the actual cost of a SM campaign. Those working in PR/SM have done a horrible job branding what we do as having any worth – as evidenced by one of the post I have on my site – the gist of which is the whopping $8 an hour one major company was willing to pay for a SM person.

    SM takes every bit MORE time than traditional PR … why in the WORLD would anyone accept less pay for more work and more time on the clock? I'm sure as heck not going to …

    So while it was a fun experiment, it's one I quickly dropped. Sure, I could be a SM/Marketing 'guru' … but not for free. PR pays well at times.

    Is SM a crock? No.
    Are the Boards who want it but are unwilling to even pay a living wage to get it a crock? Yes.
    Is that the fault of the SM professionals devaluing their work because every-single-one of them calls themselves an 'expert' or 'guru' or whatever … so it must mean a monkey can do it? yes.

    apologies for the long comment.

  3. Social Media is just like many other things: When it first becomes popular, everyone wants to do it. They don't have a clue how or why, but they see others and they have to be on the band wagon.

    Then, in time, the industry settles down and starts to use it for what it can be effectively used for. But right now is a time of hype and experimentation. After solid examples are created, we will all settle on best uses and realize that we should not have dumped all the other media.

    Also, some will use it more, some less. Some don't need to at all. Like Paul, is it a crock? No. It just needs to be used wisely and with a full PURPOSE. At first, experimentation is a good purpose, but that can only last so long.

  4. What I love about this is the ultimate thesis–social media is a TOOL, not the be-all end-all!

  5. Great comments guys.


    Nothing beats word of mouth. Social media + happy users = word of mouth. Ironically, a great product is the best social media marketing tool–too many try to substitute marketing for a good user experience.


    There's an old P.T. Barnum saying….

    In the end, if social media marketing doesn't impact the bottom line, it shouldn't be employed. I am a firm believer that any action has a real impact (even if it is difficult to measure).


    You've hit the nail on the head. Gartner has even made a bundle off of labeling the experimentation/hype/disillusionment cycle (the Gartner Hype Cycle).

    Irrational exuberance even has its place for driving rapid adoption–just be ready for the backlash.

    The exact right time to double down on social media is when people start writing "Social Media is Dead" posts.


    The funny thing is, I think I've written the "it's just a tool" post for dozens of different technologies since I started blogging. It never gets old.

  6. Social Media Marketing is NOT limited to MarCom via online advertising and promotion. There is a lot of Word of Mouth going on in SM that extends the reach and longevity of traditional advertising mediums. If you focus on SMM campaigning, are are missing the point. SMM allows you to learn how your customers experience your product or service very economically and if you don’t know how your customers experience your products:
    1.You cannot improve their experiences
    2.You cannot help them to recommend your products, and as a result
    3.You will not sell as many as you could

  7. Paul Valcheff

    Sitting at the same table as Chris at the dinner for startup VPs of Marketing, I can enthusiastically echo his take on the evening. Moreover, it was unanimously agreed that a hinderance to making SMM work was the reluctance of many CEO's to get fully engaged in contributing his/her share to the SMM effort. Is Social media a craze? Yes. Is it a tool in its current form? Yes. Does it have long-term legs and repercussions? Absolutley! IMHO, we will find that SM will affect all portions of our respective businesses, just not in the form and manner that we are currently seeing it being utilized. When the entire exec team realizes the full potential of being able to directly engage your prospects, customers, supply chain, and employees, THEN we will see SM move beyond a mere tool for marketing.

  8. Yes social media isnt free it does consumes time of the staff, but then with proper use, planning and effective marketing in social media no time of the staff would be gone to waste.

  9. Great post, great quote. "But social media is an amplifier. It isn't the story. Marketers still need to tell great stories."

    Well said!

    Mike Lizun

  10. I once dealt with the CEO of a biotech firm who's goal was "sell more antibodies" (physical vials of antibodies) and he felt that the only investment necessary was social media "because that's where everything's going." Never mind that his own customers were telling him they had trouble finding the "buy" button. It's partly a question of using the right tool for the job, but partly order of operations: this company needed a website that was usable before driving traffic in. I tried to get simple, saying "If your customers can't find your product why would you pay me to push more customers into the store?" Again, because social media is the hot thing right now. It's amazing to me that people for whom the bottom line is everything are still confused by the hype.

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