The Depressing State Of Social Media Marketing

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How do you think brands are doing when it comes to social media marketing?

My friend, Chris Brogan (co-author with Julien Smith of Trust Agents and The Impact Equation), laments the state of social media marketing in one of his latest blog posts, The Bare Truth About Social Media Marketing. While Brogan paints the landscape with a wide brush and lacks any quantitative of qualitative data to back it up (beyond his own review of what some brands are doing in spaces like blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube), it’s easy to understand and relate to his frustrations.

Social media is not living up to its promise.

You don’t have to go that far back in time. A little over ten years since the publishing of the momentous business book, The Cluetrain Manifesto, painted a picture of how brands could now conduct themselves. Everything was so bright and hopeful back then. Suddenly, all of this inter-connectivity and untethered consumers would lead us to a path where markets truly would become conversations and the promise of Don Peppers and Martha Rogersone to one marketing world would and could come true. In a way, social media has over-delivered on certain aspects of the equation. No one could have imagined just how transformative these technologies and innovations have become. Nobody could have imagined how willfully consumers would want to connect and publicly share so much personal and contextual information. Nobody could have imagined a world where each and every one of us would become our own media channels, publishing our thoughts in text, images, audio and video to the Web… and to the world in real time. Nobody could have imagined the volume of data sets and information that now paint a very different consumer profile, which transcends the world of demographics and psychographics. Just look at what is happening today on Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Vine and more. The opportunity for businesses to connect in a much deeper, richer and more profound way could not be easier. Brands truly can have real interactions between real human beings.

So, what is so wrong?

For my dollar, people like Brogan (and I count myself in the same camp as him) simply wants brands to become more personal and more personable. In short, brands have passed the social media marketing test because they are using it as an added way to communicate. I would argue that communications is not the point… creating true connections is the point. This is not a debate of semantics, but a much larger corporate conversation that brands are simply not eager to have. If you surveyed the vast majority of these brands, they will not understand the gripes of Brogan, Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuk, Nilofer Merchant, Avinash Kaushik, Joseph Jaffe or me. They will point to the amount of people who are following them on Twitter or how many likes they have on Facebook and push it further by showing the level of engagement they have with consumers in terms of speed-to-response or resolution in regards to a customer service issue as the barometer for success. They will demonstrate how often their messages are shared, liked, promoted and retweeted. They will highlight individual consumer feedback as a metaphor for the direct relationship that they now have with consumers, but they are still missing the point.

So, what could be so right?

Using social media to communicate a message is the obvious stuff. To this day, we have all-too-many brands who don’t even know how to nail down that very elementary component. What brands are missing, when it comes to social media is the true connection. The trust that is built out of real interactions between real human beings. And, quite frankly, they’re missing this point because social media marketing is simply seen as any other form of corporate marketing and communications. It may even be agency-led or outsourced to a company that specializes in community management. Brands aren’t internalizing the power of how to be social, so the act of social media is simply an extension of the communications and not a true connection between brand and consumer.

Getting social media right. 

It’s not easy. It’s not perfect. It’s not fast. It takes time. There is not one set way for all companies to engage and connect. Because of this, brands look at social media marketing much in the same way that they look at their campaigns or their quarterly goals. And, if we’re going to honest about this, that just won’t cut it. Social media is organizational and it’s not a vertical within the marketing or corporate communications department. Social media is the horizontal that runs across the organization, much in the same way that the culture, brand and human resources should. If we benchmark social media by campaigns and quarters, we are relegating it to a world where its efficacy won’t be about how to build a better brand through better connections, but rather a world where its only role is to augment and supplement the communications of a brand. That sounds like more noise to me.

That would be a shameful waste… wouldn’t it?


  1. Thank you for this blog post. I agree 100% with you. I am always working towards building true connections with people thru social media for both myself and my clients. People do business with people that they truly like – and there is someone for everyone.
    I believe that being genuine is the only way to go – and though the process may be slower – and not so sexy in terms of a quick build – in the end, your message is not just noise.

  2. Hi Mitch,
    So agree with you, and as freelance community manager when I share with brands how important the connection is, it is this huh moment, especially when I say it takes time and interaction, not just blasting. That is easy to do. It takes time to build trust, to engage properly and efficiently and unfortunately many today still do not want to take the time. They are only putting in 1/4 of the effort and desiring the same results as those who get it.

  3. Larry Light once wisely commented that brands are trust marks not trade marks. If brands do not instill trust on every level, including social media, they will fail. They will break the brand promise. And if you break the brand promise, you go broke. I agree that social media used properly will build brand trust, but used to simply communicate offers or marketing messages may indeed erode trust.

  4. Wow Mitch.
    Not sure what it is, but that took an extra reading from me. And I think I love the key takeaway, if I got it right: (social) marketing shouldn’t be a department; it should be something you trust yourself and your people to do.
    Because “marketing” is simply the collective word for each and every way an organisation sends messages to the outside world. Marketing is communicating, for organisations.
    And why do we communicate? To get things done? To express ourselves?
    To send a message? “This is me. Like it, come here! Don’t – then go. Maybe [x] will be right for you.”
    But the key takeaway: trust everyone to do the social marketing. Teach them, if need be. Because social marketing is people being people, with people. And there’s no way to write policy for that. And no need to.
    If you’re in the right company.
    Thanks Mitch; you really inspired me.
    And even though I don’t feel social has defaulted on its promises (I am extremely hopeful for the future, and today even) I hope I didn’t get you wrong completely. Things do need to change. To grow. To be more human?
    I hope so. I like humans.

  5. For the most part the companies that are struggling are the incumbents because they are not used to operating in an environment where they are not in control of their communications and they treat social media as a subset of a marketing vertical. On the other hand, digital-native businesses are doing some great social media marketing precisely because they are not constrained by the traditional methods that the incumbents have been practicing for decades. New organizations are inherently social and tend to apply these mediums horizontally across their entire operations. Put another way, the next News Corp will likely originate on Tumblr or something equivalent but this won’t become apparent until the end of this decade.

  6. I think you’re really on to something here, Lukas. More experience often means harder time adapting too.
    And companies aren’t in control of their communications anymore. They’re only in charge of what they do, and who they trust to communicate. Not on behalf of the company as much as just communicate while being part of the company. Which means that only the people who care about the company will do things they might be satisfied with. (And you only find those people at companies that care about their people.)
    And that might very well be a good thing.
    Even if I don’t know it there will ever be a new News Corp, through Tumblr or not.

  7. I agree with the notion that there is a prevalence in companies not fully utilizing social, but it seems that the benchmark shouldn’t be solely about trusting relationships, but also about social being profitable.
    Now we can go on and on about benchmarks for success, but my comment here is focusing on how the under-utilization of social equates into missed opportunities for profit.
    The thing that ties it all together though, is that profit is best generated through authentic lasting relationships. But to your point, you cannot build relationships through one silo of your organization. So yes, you need a horizontal organizational strategy to drive toward success, but you also need a different kind of collaboration between marketing, advertising, and public relation departments – it is in the horizontal shift on organizational structure that will be needed to lead to implementation of social as a horizontal business practice – I think that is why so many organizations are missing the mark, and why that mark is so difficult to achieve.

  8. For direct marketers circa 1995 – 1999, the Internet was in a similar place as social media is now… as a marketing medium.
    Most companies would just try and shove direct mailers online and thought “Cool, here’s ANOTHER place we can broadcast our marketing pieces”… and that didn’t work out so well.
    Social media seems to be in a similar place…
    Businesses are still “broadcasting,” “pushing” their marketing media and content directly onto social networks (different from using Facebook advertising).
    Social implies “relationships” straight off the bat… so “one to many” communication does not really have a place in this medium. If business owners and CEO’s, CMO’s, etc… want to quit being “depressed” with their campaigns, they’ve got to break their typical marketing habits, and adapt to the new medium’s way of connecting.
    There’s this book I’ve read about doing just that… hmmm… lemme think here…
    Oh yeah… CTRL ALT DEL 🙂

  9. The big problem I see is the term “social media marketing”. That’s implying it’s a standalone discipline, and it’s not.
    It’s always been, and always will be, just marketing. That’s the hub – the rest of the components are the spokes. Social, mobile, digital, email, PPC, display, etc – they’re all just facets of marketing used as and when needed.
    To go in expecting results from social media marketing, without actually understand what marketing as it truly stands for is all about, is asking for failure.

  10. Using Personas, define the words “Social” and “Media”. Put them together and ask the same question. The answer might very well be sociologically defined by a context. Facebook. One of the challenges we have is that too many in marketing are trying to sell a method of business transformation by stuffing flyers down a channel. To get Social Media right, one has got to understand business, operations and culture. With the exception of a handful of thought leaders, we are beleaguered by ourselves.

  11. Maybe big brands aren’t doing it, however, there are many smaller to medium sized brands doing social media very effectively. Big brands are like large ships in the seas while smaller brands are quick to adjust their course. Time will come or the smaller brands will start dominating more market share as the world gets more weird and the bell curve flattens as Seth Godin would say.

  12. Marketing IS the conduit out of the company to share what happens across the company.
    You say that social media is relegated to a tacked-on piece to a campaign. Well, in some ways that is true. And it is met with success. So let’s throw the words out, social media, shall we? We shall just label that as a natural extension to campaign management. AND the best level of success to understand the ROI it brings. When you have uppers barking and breathing down your neck about the relevancy of “social media” you do what you can to produce. Especially when trying to gain success with other methods that do impact all levels of the company.
    But let’s be honest…it’s another method to connect to SELL. This article is down a dangerous path of light and fluffy and touchy feely when there is a real underlying cause for business social media specifically. If it works, who are you to claim “you’re not doing it right?” Why Mitch Joel of course!
    And I mean that in no disrespect at all, I relate to your articles mostly and credit you with a lot of marketing insight. But in the trenches outside of a consulting gig, you see things a bit differently.
    After meeting with disaster after disaster trying to entrust employees to get involved in the social media efforts of the company, marketing taking back control and integrating it as part of campaigns has been the only worthwhile effort. We discourage people from pinning social media to its own department; quite simply, it’s the wrong way to go about it. Proven time and time again I can safely proclaim.
    This is a nice article but it didn’t tell me anything. If you want to get on a soap box, by all means, do so. But please have something tangible I can use that demonstrates the points with instruction. Just as internal communications should be something that is addressed separately but brings a whole of the company to light, it is often relegated to the HR or Marketing Department (ridiculous – it’s a COMPANY communication effort), and that concept is older than business itself. Until executive levels can be convinced otherwise, let’s dig in and make efforts to really guide everyone to the promised land of network and connection. Until that time, let me show you how “social media” works quite well into my next great marketing campaign.

  13. Mitch,
    The issue is real, but imho the diagnosis is wrong. The social crowd (Brogan et al) write and talk about brand and social as if “brand” and “company” and “people” are interchangeable words, and they are not.
    As marketers, we can try to imbue a brand with personality, emotion, purpose, but in the end, a brand is still a representation of a thing. It is not human. It is not something that can be social. The brand managers and staff that work with it are people and can be social, and they can represent for the brand, but in the end, they are a proxy for it. I think most brand organizations that have truly tried, have done a decent job of using social to gain feedback and listen. If they took action on what they heard, they have benefited from a channel of communication that never really existed before (at least in such volume).
    To expect that a inanimate object ( a brand and the thing it represents) would be able to interact in social channels is an unrealistic expectation. Large corporations that produce products are there to produce profits for their stakeholders. They are driven more from a profit (sell more) motive (and continued employment for the team) – so social is just a promotional channel for them.
    Non-profits and social causes can make better use of the medium to align their tribes and evangelists – because it is a two-way shared belief system. Small businesses and start up entrepreneurs (if they could find the time) can use it effectively if they are communicating from passion and purpose – again because it is connecting from shared belief, goal or purpose.
    Those of us that understand what connecting in social can really do for a business or career are frustrated by what we see as missed opportunity in bigger companies – but we are applying the logic and experience of us and our smaller organizations to the illogic and entrenched processes that exist in the corporate world.

  14. Great post. I very much agree with this. Social media marketing cannot stand alone. It’s very much like any other type of marketing. PR on many occasions complements advertising, SEO works well with paid advertising. Social media is new and we are still trying to figure out where it exactly fits in.

  15. As a Social Web evangelist and practitioner, I recognize that there are limitations to what can currently be achieved and no level of zealotry will overcome these shortcomings. The social landscape is dramatically different based on the scale of the interaction. Large national brands are not people and trying to develop a relationship on a one to one basis with phony automation tends to detract from the UX. The Brand Marketing team has one job, and that is to create a “desire” for consumers to buy their brand. The brilliant Youngme Moon in her book “Different – Escaping the Competitive Herd” states, “…a marketer’s goal is to make us “picky” about what we consume.” Marketers will cling to the effort of crafting an image for their brand that makes us feel picky and want to buy it. Social interaction can and will be part of that mix, but savvy marketers will not (and shouldn’t) abandon classic marketing methods.
    The ability to interact with consumers in a way that makes sense has still yet to be defined in the marketplace. What is needed is a method for brands of all sizes to create recurring events of not one to one, but one to a group where the group is large enough for the effort but small enough to interact with. If targeted well these interactive group events can provide the stellar social interactions that can propel a brand forward, and using sharing techniques, these smaller groups can impact a large foot print of others in their prospective networks. This can provide the control brand managers crave and a way to humanize a brand in a smaller setting. When this happens social sparks will begin to fly…

  16. As usual, our brains turn in similar ways but usually you think of things first, which results in a great blog post like this on and me usually thinking, “Rats — he beat me to it again!”
    However this time, I actually wrote a post before you and not only make some of the same points but offer the idea that “content marketing” might offer an opportunity for redemption from all the social media silliness. —

  17. Really enjoyed reading this post and appreciate you expanding the dialogue after Chris’ post. I agree with some of the comments posted about ‘social media’ not being silo’d off to a separate dept and not integrated across a company. Can’t help thinking that the brands that are really good at customer service tend to be the brand’s that are strong at being social (not merely ‘doing social’) and that goes far beyond FB and Twitter accounts. i tend to think of Nordstrom and their inverted pyramid approach to business. Would like to see more brands focused on strategy and principles of how they want to communicate and service their customers first and what do their customers want to hear from them. How does that become baked into their tactics. Being more personable may not be attainable for some brands, but being accessible, responsive, inspiring as well as facilitors of great content & experience — are just a few ways to begin to socialize the conversation.

  18. I think it’s just because brands (and people behind them) suffer from a certain amount of fear and laziness. And some associate “social media” with some entirely new paradigm and technology when in fact all this stuff is going back to our roots (and quite honestly, there has been no new compelling technology in decades — Twitter and Instagram are not “technology” per se).
    When brands dare to be different, stop playing “follow the leader” and start connecting to people no only in social but in real life, then we will see progress. Otherwise, we’ll just see one after another cat video. Oh hum…

  19. Thanks for finally talking about >The Depressing State
    Of Social Media Marketing | Six Pixels of Separation – Marketing and Communications Insights – By Mitch Joel at Twist Image
    <Liked it!

  20. I always thought that social media shows on the outside what the company is in the inside, cause social media is strategic and transversal. It’s a direct way of engaging your audience, with transparency and honesty. You can run (ad campaigns) but you can’t hide (from your customers).
    You can see right away who’s thinking long term and works transversal. Pure players do, old ones still don’t.
    And you can see that in the way they handle social media.
    Paradox is that, as consumers we are changing, but as workers we’re not cause ours companies don’t (for some of us)…

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