Social Media Snake Oil And The Elusive ROI

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Most companies and brands won’t have any level of satisfaction from Social Media Marketing unless we – as the collective practitioners – can communicate and demonstrate a high level of ROI and value.

Most modern marketing agencies have to come to this realization. One of the only ways we’re ever going to move the needle and get dollars to shift from the tried, tested and (apparently) true ways of mass media advertising, is to get better at creating tangible results and selling those stories through case studies, white papers and yes, even in these Social Media channels and platforms. Whether we like it or not, brands want to know what their competitors and contemporaries have done, because few are willing to be the brave souls that take the first steps towards something that is still new and somewhat unconventional.

That was the crux of three unique Blogs posts/articles that were published online in the past little while. If this sort of thing interests you, I’d recommend you read the following (in the order below):

  1. BusinessWeek – Beware Social Media Snake Oil.
  2. Logic + Emotion – Life After Social Media Snake Oil.
  3. Chris Brogan – Measuring Social Media Marketing.

Here’s one of the key points from Stephen Baker‘s piece in BusinessWeek:

"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. The consultants evangelize the transformative power of social media and often cast themselves as triumphant case studies of successful networking and self-branding. 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. This approach could sour companies on social media and the rich opportunities it represents. ‘It’s a bit of a Wild West scenario,’ blogs David Armano, a consultant with the Dachis Group of Austin, Tex. Without naming names, he compares some consultants to ‘snake oil salesmen.’"

It’s hard for brands to back Social Media "experts" and "gurus" who don’t mention clients, campaigns and results. Because in the end – no matter how sound the logic or insights sound – it still comes off as hyperbole.

That feeling is only magnified when the people doing the pontificating do not have the resources to back up their claims and ideologies. Remember, there is something to be said about having a team on an as-needed basis, but understand that this is not how the bigger corporations function. They are looking to Marketers to not only provide the insights, creativity and analytics, but they’re also looking for the people-power to get the job done. Saying on the phone (or in a RFP), that you can mobilize a team to create and execute the platform is a sure way to never get a deal done. Brands don’t want to know that you have access to resources, they want to know that you have the resources, that they’re been working together for some time, and that they have already had real results for other companies of a similar size and stature.

We’re going to have to pull the curtains back and get down to the real, hard work… fast if we all truly believe in this space.

How do we make this happen? We’re going to have to do what we tell our clients to do: we’re going to have be transparent and demonstrate credibility.

Here are 6 ways to bust the Social Media Snake Oil Salesmen: 

  1. Demonstrate that you have done this for others (not just for yourself).
  2. Create real proposals that have timelines, budgets, deliverables, staffing needs (both yours and theirs), and package it around definable metrics and anticipated results.
  3. Have case studies and white papers ready to go. Make sure to mention the brands by name and scope of project (make sure to get their permission in writing prior to publishing).
  4. Win awards. This may sound controversial because some Marketing professionals don’t feel like awards are a real indication of success, but a lot of the major award ceremonies are acknowledging Digital Marketing programs, and gaining that kind of industry recognition does resonate with bigger brands.
  5. Don’t settle. All too often Social Media programs don’t succeed because both brand and agency fall back on everything they used to do in the more traditional channels. That won’t bear fruits.
  6. Deliver. Too many brands are being sold a bill of goods by what Armano and Baker refer to as, "snake oil salesmen." There are some very smart agencies executing on some pretty fascinating Social Media mandates for brands. Talking, consulting, and writing proposals is easy compared to getting the work done. It’s time to get the work done.

Talking about Social Media is easy (somewhat). Doing it is hard (very hard).

In the end, brands are not looking for people to talk about this stuff, they’re looking for a group that can actually do the work, measure the success of it and adapt to those insights. They’re not looking for people who have lots of followers on Twitter or friends on Facebook, they want to know that you can build community and conversation for them, and not just for yourself. It’s easy to tell a Social Media Snake Oil Salesman from the real deal: just track and see how much of their work day is spent self-promoting on Twitter, Facebook, Blogs etc… versus doing the actual work for clients. Those who can’t talk about results, who they work with and who they work for are usually those who have something to hide or simply can’t get the job done (I’m not talking about publicly on Blogs and Twitter, but if you’re a potential prospect and they’re still not willing to discuss who they with/for, that should raise some flags).

Ultimately, if you can’t deliver on everything mentioned above, you’re not legit… and you may have some snake oil to sell.


  1. I’m going to go way out on a limb here,
    and say #1 Baker was a fool to use Brogan and Vaynerchuk in the same breath
    with “snake oil salesman”.
    In my day, guys who proved their chops with
    actual, verified results, especially in a new field,
    or new to a field were, were called entrepreneurs.
    I’m disappointed David Armano furthered the post ‘as is’.
    We all know Vaynerchuk took a mom & pop national,
    to the tune of tens of millions, and other bigger, established
    businesses fully accept his advice.
    Brogan? Snake Oil salesman:

  2. Sometimes, you’re competing against short shorts.
    I was chatting with a new restaurant owner recently about some social media ideas. They get it… but they will compare SM to the results of their existing strategy: get girls in short shorts to hand out pamphlet for their events. They get about 5% conversion, know how much that’s worth long term. Prove you can beat that, and you have some business.

  3. There’s a large gap between social proof and degrees – and I say this as someone who holds neither. But even I can understand how simple this is at the outset: If you have a degree, you proved to a university faculty that you deserve it. If you have a following on the web, you’ve proven to your followers you deserve it.
    Judging entirely by the volume of people who have, themselves, placed the terms “Guru” and “Expert” in their own Twitter profiles, I think it’s safe to say that if others -grant- a title to you, it’s likely true. If you have to claim it for yourself, you’re living your own pitch and that never works.
    Still, eventually even marketers have to market themselves to gain new clients. I’ll be happy when Avinash Kaushic gets his way and we figure out a way for the numbers to be smart enough to be demonstrable at stockholder meetings. The numbers; they’re so dumb n their own, Mitch. They’re just so dumb.

  4. good topic, and as you know mitch, I have some practical experience. and coming from a traditional media background the inherent value is clear to me.
    Case and point: a one day facebook campaign I executed for an online retailer, that had a total budget equivalent to the cost of a full page ad in the Globe and Mail (circulation 250k). reach of paid media exceeded 5 million uniques, earned/viral media delivered another 2 million uniques – more than 40m impressions in 24 hrs. a few hundred thousand people visited the page/site, and more than 10,000 fans joined the brand community. Oh, and it generated robust sales through their eComm platform, coughed up a lot of hard and soft data on the users engaging with the brand.
    Several kinds of ROI – from reach, to viral, to engagement, to conversion, to market insights to the one key measure, sales.
    I’d like to see a newspaper ad do that lol.

  5. In higher ed we call this a false dichotomy–the choice between being labeled legit or a snake oil salesman. All of us have made a decision to go into business at some point. All of us had to learn our chosen trade, and the ins and outs. All of us had to seek our first client. All of us have had successes and failures. It makes perfect sense that more established businesses would choose to emphasize a client base, case studies, and past success while, in any form whatsoever, diminishing those whose record may not measure up compared to our own standard. Yet, the history of business, heck the history of ideas more generally, is filled with up-and-comers who have measured up and contributed in profitable or important ways. Perhaps we can frame this issue in a way which is not a false dichotomy, and in the process host a conversation which is a bit more charitable toward the students, entrepreneurs, or anyone who shares our same interests and pursuits? Heck, it wasn’t all that long ago that we created our first blog post, experimented with Twitter, offered our first social media class, or agreed to work with a first client. I would say the quality of ideas, professionalism, and simple business acumen factor in somewhere between these two poles of legit vs snake oil.

  6. Marketing hasn’t changed it’s about the tools. Not to preach to the choir but Social Media enables and empowers those looking for more efficiency and effectiveness in execution. “Wannabes” exist in every profession as do self proclaimed experts so there’s nothing new here.
    As Mitch points out do your homework before you engage an “expert” or otherwise.

  7. Great post Mitch. I’m glad to see people taking a stand against these self proclaimers in social media.
    While its important to prove that you know what your doing by citing successful client examples, I don’t think that discussing your own companies benefits with social media is out of line. But as @Ian M Rountree said, when that praise comes from elsewhere it means much more.

  8. One issue that I’ve come up against is that clients don’t like you sharing the details of their campaign. Even if it’s a success. It’s like: “We don’t want to share this.”
    I agree that it’s vital companies can show they can deliver but clients will still want to protect their own interests first and foremost. Talking at the level of “a recent client achieved…” is not very transparent.
    It’s a bit of a Catch 22 situation out there right now. A personal recommendation from a client to a prospective client goes a long way to bridge the gap.
    Great post !

  9. I wonder if anyone is ever really a social media guru. As a student of social media, I have been taught that due to the changing nature of tool, no one can be an expert. Experience and results on one project may create disastrous results on the next.
    What does this mean for the self-proclaimed gurus or otherwise? In such a dynamic context, when each project is new and unique, how can anyone be certain their ROI will actualize?
    A very interesting post and definitely some food for thought.

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