August 20, 2012

My Social Media Paradox

Last Friday, I was invited to speak at a social media conference. The hen was in the fox house. My presentation was billed as a "fireside chat" between the organizer of the event (a guy I like and respect, Jason Falls) and myself.

The first question Jason asked me went something like this...
"You have been critical of the social media marketing world from the get-go, yet you use it… quite well I might say. What's your point of contention and how can you reconcile that with your prolific use of the medium?"
I thought it was a great question.

And I thought the answer would be worthy of a blog post. I don’t remember my exact words. And since then I have had further thoughts. So here’s a combination of how I think I answered the question and what my subsequent thoughts have been. 

Let's start with why you invited me here to address this conference. There are thousands of advertising and marketing people who are skeptical of social media marketing. I am not alone. But for some reason you chose me. Why? Let’s answer this question in marketing terms.

I would suggest that the reason you chose me is that I have created a pretty successful brand called The Ad Contrarian. The Ad Contrarian brand is clearly differentiated. When you needed a “product" in my category (someone to add controversy) you knew what brand to "buy."

In the small and silly world of advertising and marketing commentary, The Ad Contrarian is probably among the top brands. It was recently named one of the awesomest ad blogs in the universe or something by the Business Insider. When I went to bed last night my two books, The Ad Contrarian and 101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising were both in Amazon's top five eBooks about advertising. I'm not saying this to brag, but to make a point.

The interesting thing, as you mentioned, is that whatever success I have had in building this brand has been done solely through the use of social media. Why then am I so vocal in my criticism of the social media industry?

The first part of the answer is that having accomplished the most difficult of marketing tasks – creating a successful brand – using social media as my medium, I know how difficult it is. I know how hard I have worked at it. And knowing this, I am outraged when I have to listen to or read the idiotic nonsense of fakers. Until they have created a successful brand using social media, they have no credibility with me.

Social media is very hard work. Very few social media programs break through. Virtually every company in the country now has some kind of social media program in place. A miniscule proportion of them are having significant impact. So when I hear social media "experts" promising the moon, I get infuriated.

For example, all the nonsense I read about “content” makes me sick. I know how difficult it is to create "content" that anyone gives a shit about. I have spent every day of my life for the past 5 years creating content. I know first hand how difficult it is to break through the billions (literally) of web pages and get anyone to pay attention to your content. When I hear idiots pop-off with their facile clichés about creating “compelling content” I know they have no idea what they’re talking about

I also know how many moribund blogs, and Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds, and YouTube videos there are out there in the digi-dumpster. I know how many millions of pages of “content” are lying around like a lox.

The idea that consumers want to interact with advertising is the grand delusion of the banner advertising crowd. The idea that consumers want to interact with content is the grand delusion of the social media set.

I do not come at this (as my critics contend) as some doddering old fool who does not understand social media and consequently does not believe in it. I come at it as someone who has had far more success at it than most of my "expert" critics. I have used it successfully and have accomplished more with it than most of them will ever accomplish. I have used social media to create a brand. The only thing most of these “experts” have created is a powerpoint presentation.

The second part to my answer is this. In addition to being a reasonably successful social media “entrepreneur,” I also have this little $100 million ad agency which I run.

I don’t think there are too many social media entrepreneurs who also run an ad agency. I don’t think there are too many agency CEOs who are also social media entrepreneurs. Consequently, I think it is fair to say that I have a reasonably unique perspective.

So when I hear digital hustlers and social media phonies shooting their mouths off about how advertising is dead, and television is dead, and marketing is dead, and everything else that isn’t online or social is dead, I want to expose them. That is, after I strangle them.

They are clowns and charlatans. They are undermining the credibility of the social media industry and they are causing damage to you and to their clients.

My experience has proven to me that social media can be a valuable marketing tool. But it is not magic, it is not a miracle, and it cannot and will not replace everything that came before it.

The people who are out there making outrageous and preposterous claims, who are deploying unreliable and misleading research, who use anecdotes to masquerade as facts, whose insularity renders them devoid of perspective, and who are disrespectful toward and ignorant of the power of traditional advertising, are undermining your credibility and are giving credence to those who refer to you as the snake oil salesmen of the marketing world.

So, yes, you are right. Despite the fact that I have used social media very successfully, and although I know there are lot of talented and hard-working people in social media, I have a healthy amount of disrespect for a certain element of the social media industry.

For your own good, you and the other responsible people in your industry need, once and for all, to shut these fools and con men up.


Anonymous said...

Two words...THANK YOU

The Comedian said...

fucking awesome

Alex Lacey said...

Great piece Bob- agree with all of it... although the PR pedant in me does notice the "reasonably unique" reference in here... Sorry!


Thanks, Alex.

I know. That "reasonably unique" thing bothered me, too. However, I have noticed that "degrees of uniqueness" have become common usage. I decided to try and sneak it through. Apparently I failed.

Unknown said...

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Anonymous said...

Social media marketing is very popular in these days, people use many types of services in this marketing and it is also one part of internet marketing. Social media websites are very useful to do this marketing.

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Anonymous said...

Agree that there is a problem with people who get too "embedded" in social media. It is a channel - one that I think is very good for reputation management and customer service (and not just for brands - every facebook member is undertaking reputation management, whether they like it or not) but it is not an advertising medium. So, it is complimentary, rather than cannibalistic, and yes, the snake oil salespeople need holding to account.

However, where I disagree slightly is the dismissal of content. If brands are going to be on social media, they do need content, and they also need to be creating and managing this content. Whether this content is 'compelling' or 'engaging' or whatever is irrelevant - that is sales talk from the social agencies. But there still is a need for content that aids the reputation management and CRM. Otherwise it is a sea of nothing (which, by the way, is where I see facebook rapidly going)

Anonymous said...

I was surprised to return to your blog and see you're still wailing away angrily at the same enemy. This digital buzzword conman who infested the ad industry for most of my career, are they still around? I loathed them like you do, but I haven't met one for some time. The ones I knew are now working in different industries (PR, media, tourism!).

I feel like you (and me, and other cynical ad people) won. The war is over. You visit CP+B, W+K, D5, BBH, BBDO, and talk to their digital people and you will not want to strangle ANY OF THEM. Instead, you will have fascinating discussions with smart people trying their best to do something incredibly difficult. And they probably won't have "digital" in their title either. And they will probably thank you for being a voice of reason years ago.

As an ECD in one of the above shops, I can also say the clients have come a long way too. It's scary to me how savvy they are. Sometimes it's helpful to be a bit buzzwordy and a bit conman-ish to sell something in, or make my job easier, but these clients won't have a bar of that. They're crushing realists. Because they all got burned so badly over the last decade.

The only place I still hear the bullshit is in media. But, who cares? The war's over. You won.

carmen2u said...

At last, clarity about social media's promise. Yes, it can be a helpful tool, but to thin it replaces all other channels is ludicrous. It would be like telling Picasso oil paint is out, so start integrating web graphics.

Unknown said...

Until they have created a successful brand using social media, they have no credibility with me.
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