July 15, 2013

The Devolution Of Social Media Marketing

Every time I try to explain to someone who is not in the ad business (and some people who are) why social media marketing has been a disappointment, I get the same response:
"But how can you say that? Facebook has over a billion users... Twitter is the medium people have used to overthrow governments... Pinterest is this and Instagram has that...and...my daughter is constantly using social media and... and...and..."
What people don't seem to understand is that social media and social media marketing are two very different things.

Social media has been a huge worldwide success. Social media marketing has not.

Social media is to social media marketing as news is to public relations.

News is generated by news media. The objective of PR is to influence that news. Social media is chit chat generated by individuals. The objective of social media marketing is to influence the chit chat.

Just as PR is rarely successful at manipulating the reporting of the news, social media marketing is rarely successful at manipulating chit chat.

Sure, sometimes Burger King's PR department gets a story placed somewhere and they have a big PR hit. And sometimes Wendy's social media effort pays off with a social media success. But both are rare and massively unreliable.

Do PR and social media pay out in the long run? If done well, I guess so. But no one with a functioning brain believes anymore that they can rely on either to carry their marketing water for them.

Regardless of what PR experts tell you, you cannot control the news. Regardless of what social media experts tell you, you cannot control chit chat. Just as people can smell PR disguised as news, they can also smell social media marketing disguised as chit chat.

As social media marketing has been exposed for not being the magic it was purported to be, its influence -- even in the world of social media -- has waned.

The early zealots of social media marketing claimed that it was going to replace traditional paid advertising. "Talking down to consumers" (the code words zealots use to describe advertising) was going to be replaced by consumers having "conversations about brands." This wonderful little fantasy soon became unmasked for the nonsense it was.

One of the confusing elements of this topic is a distinction that many don't understand. Just as social media and social media marketing are different things, social media marketing and social media channels are often confused.

Our most successful social media channel -- Facebook -- can barely be considered a vehicle for social media marketing anymore. It has mutated into a channel for delivering traditional banner advertising. Facebook's revenue model is basically no different from any other website -- they are selling ad space. They are not in the "conversation" business. They are in the advertising space sales business.

My informal estimate is that over 1/3 of a Facebook page is covered with display ads of some sort, either outside your feed or inside it.

Social media marketing is devolving into not much more than traditional advertising on social media channels. The delusion that consumers crave conversations with marketers and engagement with brands is quickly evaporating.


Cecil B DeMille said...

A lot of this is a comprehension problem. For some odd reason, some people seem to think advertising is outdated. Like steam locomotives. They don't seem to comprehend that advertising isn't about the locomotive. It's about what's on it.

Social media are just that. Media. There's nothing revolutionary about them. Twitter lets people talk to all their followers. So does a text message to your address book. Big deal. Not every medium is ideal for advertisements. Telemarketing comes to mind. Don't fucking call me, ad man, or I will cut you.

I think the only way a medium really works as an ad medium is for the consumer to have LESS control of it. Just a thought.

Russell said...

Always impressed by what you write. Simple. Clear. And correct.
(I'd add more to my comment, but I have to have a conversation with the manufactures, distributors and sellers of my cereal, shaving cream and shoes, before an 8.30am meeting with real people ... and time is tight.)

bob hoffman said...

Thank you, Russell

RogerJH said...

This is a good article, and apropos. But I don't think it is really big news to social media marketers, at least those at a reasonable level of competence. The point being is that social media simply offers a way to engage with consumers in a way that is not possible with traditional advertising. When you saw a big brand advertising on TV in the 1990s and before, you had no chance of connecting with that brand. Social media changed that. Today, consumers can connect with brands with an intimacy and authenticity not possible with traditional advertising. And vice versa. We have seen that in how brands deal with customer complaints for example. The increased intimacy of the consumer-brand relationship has always been the promise of social media, and really the only promise.

DebbyBruck said...

Gee. This is a great editorial on social media marketing. I'm not surprised about the 1/3 ad space figure for FaceBook. However, I'm totally blind to those ad spaces. I get on, read the stream of conversations and news, talk to friends, post update status news, and then I leave. No advertisement awareness.

Jan said...

Hey Bob, thanks for the great article. Insightful and to the point, as always. But aside from the sweet-talking: In another post you recommended the book "how brands grow" from Byron Sharp and I loved it. Even though I am currently writing my master thesis on marketing and advertising, I seldom read a well written and science-based book as this. Do you have any more book recommendations? Aside from your book of course ;)

bob hoffman said...

Dave Trott, Predatory Thinking.

Alain Bransford said...

Great post! This definitely explains the demarcation between social media, social media marketing and traditional ads in social media. More people need to be reading this so they understand the differences too. And yes, smm certainly seems to have devolved much since its advent.

Bruce said...


As if your thinking needs any validation, Electronic Arts just took top spot in the 2013 Social Brands 100.

They did this by getting people who have already purchased their games to 'produce their own video content based on in-game action' and share this online. A whopping 1,200 people entered. Just, wow.

Far as anyone can tell, didn't generate a single new sale.


Greg Satell said...


I think you hit the nail on the head with "Social media marketing is devolving into not much more than traditional advertising on social media channels"

But then, what's wrong with that? Social media outlets like Facebook allow brands to build their own assets in the marketplace (a crucial difference), from which they use fairly basic techniques like coupons and promotions.

That's not so much of an indictment of social media as it is of social media bullshit. You could say much the same about traditional advertising and traditional advertising bullshit.

- Greg

Nathan Roth said...

Bingo. As much as I love this blog, it's always picking on social media marketing's inability to drive sales and overlooking every other way this new media can be leveraged to grow profits. Bob, when will you acknowledge the ability to reduce operations costs via education and peer to peer support, protect brand equity during PR crisises, drive innovation via real-time product feedback, etc.? Let's not throw out the baby with the bath water.

bob hoffman said...


Check the masthead. This blog is about advertising. It's not about operations, education, PR, or innovation.


Dr. John Oda Method said...

I think, Devolution of social media marketing is the notion that humans can change into a more primitive form. It is associated with the idea that evolution is supposed to make humans more advanced, and that the human network has lost their ability to “think” and seem to be going backwards instead of forwards in advancement.

I must say, this is a great editorial on social media marketing. Please have a look on it;

Reference: http://www.drjohnoda.com/