Business Week Article On Social Media Misses The Point

Recently, Stephen Baker at Business Week wrote an article titled Beware Social Media Snake Oil.  However, the article does not deliver on the headline and instead wanders aimlessly throughout several disparate points without delivering much of a punch.  Let’s dig into it:

As millions of people flock to these online services to chat, flirt, swap photos, and network, companies have the chance to tune in to billions of digital conversations.

Might have been more compelling to actually put some metrics into this instead of the blanket statement.  He could have easily quantified it.

But the same tools carry risks. Employees encouraged to tap social networking sites can fritter away hours, or worse.

Poor quality employees have been frittering away hours long before the web existed, and will continue to after new technologies proliferate.  This isn’t much of a point.  It’s like saying “now that windows-based computers are used in many offices that can run Solitaire and other games, employees can fritter away hours.”  If a company hires lazy employees they will always find a way to waste time – technology or no technology.

They can spill company secrets or harm corporate relationships by denigrating partners.

You could do the same thing before social media existed, not like we didn’t have channels of distribution before.  Company secrets or corporate relationships have been harmed in the past by traditional media, telephone conversations, physical mailing of evidence/secrets or tape recordings.  Nor does this have much to do with “social media snake oil” because anyone in a company can do this.  Social media is not limited to a certain department or individuals, although many businesses and media outlets keep trying to frame it this way.

What’s more, with one misstep, one clumsy entrée, companies can quickly find themselves victims of the forces they were trying to master. Thousands of bloggers attacked Motrin last year because of an advertisement from the Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) brand they found demeaning to mothers.

If a company puts an ad on TV and it offends a certain group, guess what:  it’s going to find its way onto the web anyway and then be mocked.  I like how Matt Dickman describes it:  all media is social.  To think messages happen in a vacuum and mediums are separate ignores the fact that we have a connected society.  We’ve had this since the advent of the web anyway, not with the advent of the buzzword social media.  As an aside, I still think it’s funny people discuss this ability to share commentary in a public forum as “new,” my generation has been doing it their entire lives.

Over the past five years, an entire industry of consultants has arisen to help companies navigate the world of social networks, blogs, and wikis. The self-proclaimed experts range from legions of wannabes, many of them refugees from the real estate bust, to industry superstars such as Chris Brogan and Gary Vaynerchuk. They produce best-selling books and dole out advice or lead workshops at companies for thousands of dollars a day.

If someone produces a best selling book and makes the NY Times Best Seller list, how exactly is that snake oil?  Regardless of if their books are any good or not, it says they’re able to market themselves well.  Marketing yourself is less about social media and more about strategy anyway.  Despite one’s level of success – whether it’s a NYT Best Seller or having a popular blog, it’s not about the platform, it’s about the idea.

The problem, according to a growing chorus of critics, is that many would-be guides are leading clients astray. Consultants often use buzz as their dominant currency, and success is defined more often by numbers of Twitter followers, blog mentions, or YouTube (GOOG) hits than by traditional measures, such as return on investment.

All of those things mentioned are KPIs – if you have a larger objective in mind, they should feed it.  Anyone judging success purely on KPIs isn’t looking at the full picture.  About the numbers thing:  those who understand the real value of a network realize it’s not about volume, it’s about quality.

Further, to consider social media as ROI is inaccurate.  Just like PR, the objective of social media (at least from a communications standpoint) is influence, not ROI.  There has been an issue of measurement within the PR industry for decades, and social media – even with deep measurement tools – can’t quantify it accurately because it is not always direct.

With that said, that does not denigrate the value of influence, authority or trust gained.  Winning those things has allowed me to help clients scale up traffic and build community – along with revenue – by fostering the right kind of influence.

Social media consultants’ own promotions can collide, on occasion, with those of their customers. Take the case of James Andrews, who was working early this year at the PR firm Ketchum (OMC). As a consultant, he helped companies such as Newell Rubbermaid (NWL), Monster Worldwide (MWW), and FedEx (FDX) work out their strategies for blogs and the microblogging service Twitter. On landing in Memphis for FedEx meetings, he says he had an ugly run-in with a racist at the airport and twittered that he would “die if he had to live” in the city. The tweet produced an outpouring of blogged fury from FedEx employees and a fast apology from an embarrassed Ketchum.

Curious:  in what way was James’ Tweet a “promotion?”  He’s merely a fan of liveblogging his life, to call that a promotion shows a lack of understanding of the situation.  Also, offending people through comments is not new to social media.  Those types of controversies spread prior to the web, the web merely makes it quicker.

Yet the buzz around social media has led many companies to buy these systems before they’re ready to put them to work. Jennifer Okimoto, associate partner at IBM Global Business Services, says many corporations took the plunge into social media and now are sitting on loads of uninstalled software.

I’m unsure what this has to do with the article title of “Beware Of Social Media Snakeoil.”  Companies who make purchasing decisions with haste and acquire tools they never use are making their own mistakes.  This has nothing to do with social media, and everything to do with poor decision making.

The debates over buzz are leading to confrontations among consultants. In late October, Marc USA’s Kmiec, a little-known figure in the industry, launched a blog attack against Chris Brogan, one of the towering chieftains of social media.

The writer mentions a discussion between Adam Kmiec and Chris Brogan and neglects to link to it.  I was able to Google it and find that discussion, however you’d think if Business Week is going to create content about social media meta discussions, think they might reference those conversations.  Otherwise we have no context.

Quick Conclusion

I’m not a social media blogger despite the fact that many on the web stick that label on this blog.  I’m a marketing blogger interested in discussing all media.  With that said, I think social media is not new, it’s now a standard part of marketing and communications.  Which is why when business media write articles like this it rubs me the wrong way.

They frame it as if social media (which in reality is just one part of the digital marketing mix) is this new scary thing, and that companies and professionals are gullible enough to be usurped by snake oil types.  At this point, the opposite is true:  any marketer worth their salt understands digital marketing by now.  At least enough not to be sold snake oil.

Executing on the correct digital strategy can accomplish the same business objectives as strong traditional marketing/PR strategy.  The web and the real are no different in my eyes:  this article might as well have been called “Beware The Consultant Snake Oil,” sans-social media.  What does the web have to do with it?