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The Social Shibboleth
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

It's Time To Talk Openly and Plainly About The Social Opportunity

The jury is still out on social media as a marketing tool. There, I said it, heretical as it might be. To say otherwise is to be blindly optimistic or, worse, stupid.


We've all either presented or endured the same script on social media: a few slides declaring that one-way communication is over and that consumers want more; graphs that show people using social media technologies; mention of "disruptive technologies" and shifts in media consumption; a few examples of how famous brands have been treated in the social space; and that damn slide with all the social tech logos on it, which is usually the backdrop for the new business pitch.

The problem is that the logic is facetious.

Word is leaking out that there’s no causal connection between social phenomena and real-world results. Remember that "United Breaks Guitars" YouTube hit in 2009. United reported its best business results later that quarter. The outcry from the Motrin Moms over some stupid viral spots in 2008 didn't make a dent in product sales. Nestle, Domino's, even Pampers have encountered similar online firestorms that didn't impact business performance. On the political front, a leading Iranian journalist has said that tweets didn't influence the election aftermath, debunking the branding of "The Twitter Revolution."

You wouldn't know this from the social advocates, though. Online behavior -- tweets, Facebook friends, posts, bespoke campaigns, even complicated graphs of word frequency and sharing maps -- is either held up as having absolute worth, or compared to things like stock value or some vague measures of brand, reputation, or sentiment. I agree that there must be connections but I've yet to see any made that were 1) causal, beyond the distribution of discounts, and/or 2) lasting, any more than any blip in the news cycle might have prompted a generation ago. Again, the importance of conversation is indisputable, but throwing out the objective realities of causality and established business practices (and metrics) doesn't get us closer to cracking the code.

Social apologists might as well correlate online activity with sunspots or phases of the moon. There's got to be a better way.


There are three broad arguments for brands to "do social media," and none of them make much sense:

  • The Lemming Theory -- This is perhaps the most common argument, and it's beautiful because it's self-referencing: Company X did so-and-so which generated all of these posts or clicks that have inherent value and meaning, so you need to do it, too. The analysis of actual business impact, or any tracking on longer-term influence, can't be covered in the brief news stories that promote these activities (or are conveniently absent in the new business pitch slides), so there's no way to counter the argument. Plus, most CEOs have read the same stories and assumed they're true and actionable. Various studies on social media expenditures come out to regularly remind them that they're not doing enough. It's a neat closed loop.
  • The Up Is Down Theory -- Social media and digital marketing generally come with an extensive body of numbers, ratios, and tools with with to track and measure them. Oddly enough, the metrics used to track traditional marketing spends were more direct and honest...even if the processes they measured were somewhat less efficient. GRPs on TV spots connected to sales in a way that no amount of YouTube chatter can deliver; worse, the substance of most social media campaigns can't involve communicating actual selling points (by definition) so many metrics thereof are vaguely useful while appearing digitally immediate. Click-to-buy is incontrovertibly valuable. The rest of it is still up for debate.
  • The Change Everything Theory -- The latest and perhaps most extreme version of social media theory is that businesses need to change entirely -- open up, turn inside out, flatten, whatever -- to realize the true benefits of social technology. We heard something very similar near the turn of the last Century when supply chain software and online markets were going to rewrite the very precepts of business conduct. They didn't. Technology can make things better, faster, and hopefully cheaper, but all those promises of a New World 10 years ago resulted in a different version of the Old World. Why should we believe that things are different now?

Perhaps there are two easy questions to ask of social media theories: first, why are there so many of them and, second, why are so many people able to come up with "how to do" or "top ten" lists? It's as if anyone with a PC and WebEx account is an expert. Contrast that with the latest thinking on, say, effective use of billboards, or the refined science of television advertising. Is there be so much less prognostication on those tools because it's harder to get away with propagating nonsense?

Social media aren't science or selling strategies as much as philosophy or theology. That makes it hard to truly analyze it, since you have to be a member of the church to qualify to ask questions.


It's indisputable that people spend time using social tools (yours truly included) and that we're spending less time with particular media channels and more time with a variety of them, both produced and UGC. But it's a gigantic, unsupportable leap to conclude that 1) anybody using these media want to hear from brands in any way whatsoever, or that 2) finding fun ways to occupy or waste their time would have any benefit for brands anyway. I fear we sometimes purposely mischaracterize three fundamental facts of social media experience:

  • It's fun as long as it's free -- The biggest draw for Facebook, YouTube, or any other social platforms is that they're free, so even the slightest benefit has value. Once that equation gets a number on the cost side -- enduring ads, requiring information, disseminating propaganda -- the math no longer adds up. That's why so many clicks and friend phenomena yield no tangible real-world effects; it's just not part of the deal. "Free" is a synonym for "valueless."
  • It's derivative -- For all the talk about the disruptive novelty of social technologies, conversation is nothing new; discussing the news of the day is old behavior, so it's no surprise that the vast majority of blog content is secondary commentary on primary news sources. In other words, social doesn't replace traditional media other than become an intermediary between it and its profits. VCs fund that replacement, so there's a financial model here that may not be sustainable.
  • It's as biased as any other media -- We now know that The Crowd is no more honest or unbiased than the authorities we've abandoned for it. Worse, it’s often worse. Bloggers are often journalists without any standards, and the power of online pressure groups (or angry individuals) to gain attention is less a testament to their authority and more the result of a low threshold for activism. No surprise that recent research suggests that trust in these media has sharply declined.

I get the fact that digerati like to talk to one another about how much they're talking to one another, but for the rest of us the ultimate purpose(s) for social technologies aren't so clear. Advocacy and boosterism doesn't take the place of thoughtful analysis.


I keep thinking that we're going to wake up and start asking intelligent questions instead of finding ways to declare our smarts. Social technology is not a marketing tool, it’s a technology in search of purpose. Consumers have applied it to their needs to share information and entertain one another. Companies have yet to figure out what to do with it.

Douglas Rushkoff gave a great speech on the unrealized opportunity for businesses a few months ago, and I strongly encourage you to check it out. My distillation, in a sentence:

Social technology means your company is participating in a real-time narrative of its behavior and those of your communities that results in your brand.

It's a powerful idea that you’re not going to get from most of the vendors who are promoting social marketing campaigns. But I firmly believe that social media aren’t something you do but rather a contextual fact that just is. Your brand was always social; we just have the tools now to understand and track it. This reality opens up amazing opportunities for branding that involve every aspect of the business, not just the creative energies of the marketing department and its agencies. Brands as narrative of reality vs. storytelling a fantasy means understanding the inputs and outcomes of conversations has far more importance than the minutiae of the chatter.

I know, I know. I don't have enough Twitter followers to have an opinion. My Facebook page isn't exciting enough, or I just don't "get" the fact that social technologies have an immense payoff someday, somehow. It's far more convenient to ignore the facts and lecture businesses on what they should do in spite of their legitimate issues…even though the ideas of narrative, real-time, reality, and truth are so amazingly full of potential.

How long can the social shibboleth endure?

Added: 14th June 2010


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