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The Truth About Social Media Marketing

2012 August 29

Bob Hoffman is an old media curmudgeon.  He still believes in TV and earns his living making ads.  He rails against newfangled media like Facebook and Twitter, while he taunts social media advocates.

In many ways, Bob is very much one those dinosaurs we hear so much about:  committed to traditional media, suspicious of new technology and unwavering in his faith that great ads build great businesses.  The irony is that he is also a true social media superstar.

He has a lively Facebook fan page, over 7000 followers on Twitter and his Ad Contrarian blog is one of the most popular, informative and entertaining in the industry.  He recently addressed this paradox in a post and, more than any social media guru ever could, he outlined the true value social media along with it’s very real problems.

Social Media Doesn’t Work Well On It’s Own

Take a look at the top brands on Facebook and it’s hard not to be amazed.  Some have tens of millions of fans. Wow!  Who needs expensive TV ads when you can reach a mass audience for free?  Just put up a page and let the profits roll in.  Right?

Not exactly. One salient fact is that most of the top social brands continue to invest heavily in traditional media.  Coke is near the top with almost 50 million followers, McDonalds has about 20 million.  Some, like MTV and Disney are media properties themselves.  The route to social media success, it seems, runs through traditional media.

Even the exceptions, like YouTube and Starbucks, are instructive.  They obviously didn’t grow into megabrands using Facebook and Twitter, but rather use social media to capitalize on brand equity they have already built.

When Google starting getting serious competition, they started running TV ads.  When there’s a product launch, a sale or just about any other occasion where you need to reach a mass audience quickly and effectively, there’s still no substitute for paid media.

It’s a Long Hard Slog

Another thing that Hoffman points out is that there is no instant success in social media. He’s spent five years building up his social media presence, writing several blog posts per week, responding to (often hostile) comments and religiously updating his Twitter and Facebook feeds.

My experience has been pretty much the same.  Although LinkedIn groups were helpful in the beginning, Facebook and Twitter were almost useless for the first year.  It took awhile to build a following and learn how to cultivate it before I saw any benefits that would justify the effort.

Another problem with social media is that marketers tend to be lousy publishers.  For all the lip service about creating compelling content, idle talk and buzzwords do not make it so.  As I’ve explained before, publishing is a skill that must be learned.  That takes effort. There’s more to writing than typing.

Influentials Are a Sham

Although Hoffman didn’t mention it, probably the biggest social media red herring is the influentials myth.  Supposedly, there are a group of mysterious people out there that hold all the cards.  Tap into them and they will carry your message to the masses, or so some would have us believe.

This is a sham.  There is no evidence to support it and plenty that shows it to be false.

That doesn’t mean that influence doesn’t exist.  It surely does.  Oprah Winfrey is very influential as are doctors when it comes to health issues, clergy for spiritual issues and so on.  However, there’s nothing mysterious about them.  Marketers have long employed celebrity endorsements, trade marketing and community outreach where appropriate.

There are also methods of targeting influence, such as social network analysis, but they are highly network specific and too computationally intensive to be useful for mass audiences at the moment.  There is a shortcut called the friendship paradox, which can be effective in a limited context, but it bears no resemblance to what the social media gurus talk about.

What’s really important is finding people who are receptive to your message and will want to spread it.  So “mommy bloggers” are important because they care about certain topics, doctors because they are professionally involved in health issues and celebrities because they are famous for something in particular.

Brands are not built by influential people, but by influential ideas.

The Rich Get Richer

In the final analysis, social media is a lousy way to build a brand.  You are merely inserting yourself into a cacophonous sea of garbled voices and are very unlikely to stand out. Marketers like to complain about the clutter in traditional media, but in social media it’s exponentially worse.

So why use social media at all?  The reason is that it is an extremely powerful vehicle for empowering advocacy and we know from resources like net promoter score that advocacy is extremely important for brand health and profitability.  Social media, if done right, can capitalize on brand equity that has already been built up.

And that’s the real truth about social media marketing.  It’s a vitally important facet of an overall effort, but no replacement for sound marketing principles.  Anybody who tells you different is either a fool, a charlatan or both.

– Greg

13 Responses leave one →
  1. August 29, 2012

    “Brands are not built by influential people, but by influential ideas.”

    I heart this sentence. It is so very true — and speaks to every other sentence above and below it.

    Many call me an influencer. Fine, whatever, I’m not going to argue with them. But just because I retweet something means it is a sound idea. I need to be passionate about the thing I’m RTing and I need to *show* that passion in that retweet. I need to comment if it’s a blog post, or share if it’s a digital media update. If there’s no meat in what I’m sharing and no emotional connection for me, it’s irrelevant that I RTd it.

  2. August 29, 2012

    Thanks Ari. I feel influenced:-)

    – Greg

  3. September 1, 2012

    Hi Greg,

    Reading you on a regular basis for a few years now, I’m amazed at how current your subjects continue to be – for me at least.

    This week I introduced a new product,, launched directly on the Internet. By passing spot DRTV, which is how I’ve marketed in the past. The increase in media costs, air-time, have made it almost prohibitive for smaller guys to play, but placing a product on the web is cost free. In theory at least. I’ve made all the obvious moves of submission, but now as I optimize the site, SEO experts shout that with out a large social media footprint my site will suffer because Google and the other search engines look at FaceBook and Twitter as essential to trust and viability and all the other non specific reasons. So, being a follower I built a fan page on FB and will do what i can to get people there to like VHound. But tell me, who’s really running the ship here? Is it all just BS or just self promoting a the sector? I get branding, but Coke didn’t brand itself on FB.

    Anyway, your stuff is always worth taking time to go over.

    Enjoy the holiday,


  4. September 2, 2012


    Good question. I think that the people who like you page on FB will be mostly a function of the people who like it in real life. FB just provides a platform for them to express and share it with others.

    Good luck with it!

    – Greg

  5. September 2, 2012

    Good ideas are always give booster to their business because good ideas give better results. Face book and twitter are to great wings in today’s social media with them no step forwarding can be done in SM. Thanks for posting a nice one……..

  6. September 2, 2012

    Experiences differ. I always find it slightly odd that people claim to know the “truth” of various things. Marketing and business is replete with people spouting the same bon mots about marketing principles and “successful businesses do this and that” etc.

    Businesses vary considerably, and business needs are as individual as a tailored suit. My experience in marketing, online marketing and business dev would lead me to agree with you on some of those points, and I agree that yes, social media marketing is not a panacea to a businesses marketing woes, or saviour of a marketing campaign. But my business model flies completely in the face of accepted business practices and is thriving. I’ve also achieved this with no traditional marketing campaign – its all been achieved via social media, and in a very short space of time.

    I can’t climb Mount Everest, but it doesn’t mean that nobody can. People do because they have time and the skills to do it. I don’t. Similiarly, I have marketed via social media very successfully in a very short period of time, which runs counter to the views expressed in this article and generally in business. Who’s right and who’s wrong? No one? Neither? One of us? 🙂

    I work only on experience, and I try not to make assumptions. You can achieve anything via any medium if you have the time and you have the skills available to you; that might mean you personally, or the staff working for you.

    So I wouldnt be so quick to write off something just because you personally haven’t achieved it yourself, or a researcher hasn’t evidenced it. Every problem has a solution. The problem is, I think, that too many people treat social media as a blunderbuss when actually its better suited to being a rifle.

  7. September 2, 2012

    Glad you liked it.


    – Greg

  8. September 2, 2012

    Thanks for sharing.

    – Greg

  9. November 3, 2012

    Many marketers are lousy publishers but they are also not skilled in direct response concepts, Greg. It sounds trite but it’s important to notice:

    Most social media strategies are not designed to produce leads; rather, indicators of passive attention (Likes) and false indicators of prolonged attention (followers, fans and even shares).

    Most social media campaigns are designed to do what broadcast (“traditional”) media does best: Create attention!

    But if we are to sell (and we are to sell) attention must be leveraged into behavior (trials, downloads)… and that behavior can be focused on helping customers become confident in themselves as buyers (and trusting of the marketer who created their confidence).

    This is what we are told “storytelling” can achieve… although that’s a myth to. Most “content marketing” stories are not designed to create behavioral outcomes either; rather, they’re designed to create “feelings.”

    Yet storytelling is essential to creating the engagement needed to create behavior. It’s a matter of giving customers a reason (in the story) and a CLEAR WAY to take action on their feeling.

  10. November 3, 2012

    Very good points Jeff and I think the trend in marketing circles to path to purchase frameworks is healthy in this regard.

    One important development is the rise of retargeting, through data management platforms and other methods. These days, promoting awareness and walking away can have disastrous consequences. Here’s how:

    When an advertiser promotes their brand, through TV, social media or whatever, they also promote the category. Consumers then start looking for information and leave a digital trail. Competitors then can retarget those consumers based on the behavior that the advertiser paid to promote!

    – Greg

  11. November 3, 2012

    Yup. The DRTV industry suffers from this problem terribly… knock-offs leveraging the paid attention of your product! Spot-on.

  12. September 15, 2016

    An interesting read. It’s so easy to get caught up with social media but we must always remember that traditional marketing is not dead. Social media is just an extension not the whole equation.

  13. September 16, 2016

    Very true. Thanks Shamaila!

    – Greg

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