The Case Against Social Media Marketing


Recently a growing number of voices have been questioning the logic and value of social media marketing. But in the main these views are overwhelmed by the ubiquitous support for all things social.

This post summarises a range of these dissenting arguments to help invite greater debate about why and how brands should use social media.

[Note: As a strategy agency we have no preconceived preferences for how businesses should execute their brand stories.  Our role is to help brands find the right solutions for their particular challenges. This post is offered in this context].

The “Social media is for people, not brands” perspective


In Australia and the UK, marketing professor and Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson has become one of the loudest voices amongst social media sceptics, with such colourful assertions as “marketers are being fed bullshit about social media”.

Armed with various factoids and analyses, Ritson’s position can be summed up along the lines that social media is overwhelmingly about people communicating with people, not about brands communicating with people or people communicating about brands.

Following on from this assertion, Ritson has argued that social media has been over-hyped and oversold in what can be seen as a rampant case of herd behaviour within the microcosm of the marketing and advertising community.  The culprits for this being:

  • Industry media that are too willing to talk up shiny new things without looking under the hood first
  • Ambitious (and strategically inexperienced) ‘digital marketers’ who are more concerned with being seen as up to speed with the latest in tech than they are with thinking through the most appropriate options for their brands
  • Self-serving digital agencies and media agencies who make more money from digital channels than ‘traditional’ media, and
  • CEOs who aren’t questioning what’s being recommended to them out of fear of being seen as out of touch

All of which means – as Ritson sees it – that heads of marketing are sandwiched into investing in social media regardless of whether they think it’s a good idea or not.

Some of the support points for his views are:

  • While social media accounts for around 10% of actual national marketing spend, it receives a grossly disproportionate 50% of industry media coverage.
  • 64% of Australians don’t follow any brands via social media, and of those that do the vast majority follow less than seven.
  • ‘Traditional’ media in many cases still outperforms ‘new’ media with, for instance, 85% of video content continuing to be watched on television.

That these points are being made by an academic is not surprising.  Academics have been querying the effectiveness of social media – albeit with less fervour – for several years.  For example…

Ehrenberg-Bass’ “Where’s the engagement?”


In 2012, Ad Age reported the results of a study by the Ehrenburg-Bass Institute into the 200 biggest brands on Facebook.

This research found that less than 0.5% of fans actually engaged with a brand (that is undertook meaningful activity, including comment and share, rather than just ‘Like’).  It also found that Facebook fans were skewed towards heavy buyers, and that purchase frequency didn’t increase after someone became a fan.

The conclusions cautioned against “putting a disproportionate amount of effort into engagement and strategies to get people to talk about a brand, when you should be spending more time getting more light buyers.”

(It’s worth noting that Ehrenberg-Bass provided the marketing science behind the highly influential How Brands Grow).

Northwestern University’s “Can social media be killing brands?”


As detailed in a 2013 post, the findings of a highly robust 10-year study into the use of social media by US FMCG brands implied that rather than build brand equity, social media may in fact damage it.

This view was based on a strong correlation between heavy social media usage and low brand preference, leading to the hypotheses that rather than “helping to build brand loyalty and preference” social media is “simply commoditising [brands] through broad-scale information access and distribution”.

In other words, the similarity of much of the content being disseminated by brands within a particular category may be leading to their loss of differentiation.

“What about the creativity?” – the advertising veterans’ view


Along with academics, it has been elder statesmen within the ad industry that have been the most vocal sceptics of social media and of marketing’s “digital obsession” in general. The issue of content commoditisation dovetails with their central lament about the loss of creativity in ‘advertising’.

For instance, the author of the popular Ad Contrarian blog, Bob Hoffman, sees that the move to digital and reliance on data has meant marketers have forgotten how to “embrace advertising that truly connects, engages and entertains consumers”.

Industry luminary Sir John Hegarty has likewise stated that the quest for content is causing marketers to forget that – in a time-starved world – short, impactful and memorable communications are needed to convey (at times complex) ideas.

While this may be cast as just nostalgic lionisation of the 30-second TV commercial by the Mad Men generation, the underlying argument invites consideration.  Is the demand of social media machines for breadth and length of content diluting the efforts of brands to connect with largely disinterested consumers?  Is the art of ‘concentrated creativity’ to address people’s limited attention spans being lost in the making of 5-minute branded content videos?

The “people aren’t changing as much as we think” observations


Given Hegarty’s views, it’s not surprising that his agency, BBH London, accepted the challenge of arguing the case against the digital revolution in a deliberately provocative article for Viewpoint.  While written in 2011, its main points are still relevant.

First: Despite the possibilities of technical advances, the reality of “how people actually live and use technologies has changed very little.   This gap between the myth and reality is ever-widening”.  The average Briton in 2011 was living a very similar life to those twenty years earlier in terms of hours of television watched per day, most popular news source (The Sun), number one brand (Coke) and best-selling car (Ford Fiesta).  The economy and the National Health System remained the issues of most concern, and myriad behaviours relating to family life and leisure were unchanged.

Second: Purchase of new technologies is too often confused with adoption.  For example, “only 20% of the average smartphone’s capacity is ever used”.

Third: “Even where a new medium is being used, it is primarily facilitating old behaviours.  Despite the breadth of user-generated content, 98% of the UK’s viewing is of professionally produced film content…However, the illusion of revolution is so convincing that it affects how people perceive their own behaviour. On average PVR owners believe they watch over 70% of their TV on demand.  The real figure is 14%.  86% of their viewing is traditional real-time broadcast.  This ratio is not changing”.

The “social media strategies are crafted on baseless assumptions” view


While some may dismiss academics as being removed from the real world and cast traditional ad men as dinosaurs, it is more difficult to ignore the views starting to be expressed by technology experts intimate with the mechanics of social media.

In a scathing post published last year, Gartner analyst Augie Ray stated:

“The past seven years have been so full of mistaken beliefs, poor assumptions and outright misinformation that the time has come to reassess completely what social media is, how it works, how consumers use it and what it means for brands…

Not only is reach falling but social has never succeeded in delivering reliable marketing scale, no matter how many case studies suggest otherwise. Social does not deliver purchasers (accounting for 1% of e-commerce sales, compared to 16% for email and 17% for CPC [cost per click]). Social delivers poor conversions (with a conversion rate of 1.17% compared to 2.04% for search and 2.18% for email). Social fails to deliver trust (with B2B buyers rating social media posts among the least important for establishing credibility and just 15% of consumers trusting social posts by companies or brands.) Nor is Social media a major factor in search engine rankings (placing dead last among the nine major factors affecting SEO according to MoZ’s 2015 Search Engine Ranking Factors report).”

If that wasn’t enough, Ray concludes:

“Social media marketing has become a house of cards, teetering with lies stacked high since the dawn of the social media era. Entire corporate social media strategies are crafted on baseless assumptions that presume brands can reach prospects and customers in social networks, consumers want and trust brand content, all engagement matters, likes are marketing KPIs and fans and followers are advocates”.

Josh Bernoff – formerly of Forrester Research, co-author of bestseller Groundswell and a colleague of Ray – is more qualified in his criticisms, with the assertion that “social media marketing is just mostly dead”.  His view is that organic social media is not a major marketing discipline apart from the following exceptions:

  • Small businesses with individual customer relationships
  • Media, entertainment and fashion brands (because people love to share their product based content)
  • B2B companies that use content and communities to sell products
  • Customer support

Bernoff also cites advertising on social sites as an exception. But as this is actually just another form of paid media, it shouldn’t be considered part of ‘social media’ per se.  (And as Forrester research has concluded, if marketers are using social platforms mainly as advertising channels – which is increasingly the case – the evidence is that media agencies are far more efficient at buying social ads than are social teams or agencies).

The broad reach counter-trend

Advertising on social media has also taken a hit of late.  In August, Procter & Gamble, the world’s biggest advertiser, moved away from ads on Facebook that tightly targeted specific consumers.  Its reason being that this practice was limiting its ability to reach the broad audiences needed for its mass market brands.  The company has also reportedly increased its spending on television.

Observers see this move back to broader reach as something that many consumer goods brands and big brands are starting to embrace. (And a development which aligns with the Ehrenberg-Bass viewpoint mentioned previously).

Following the P&G announcement, Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of global agency network WPP and “the world’s most powerful ad man”, said that he expected growth in digital ad spend to slow in the next few years and for more brands to admit they “have over-invested in some areas of digital”.

The word of mouth myth


Finally, there are the word of mouth (WOM) benefits of social media to consider.

WOM has long been held to be more influential on purchase decisions than any directly received forms of marketing communications.  The trick for marketers has been to get people to actually talk about their products.

Social media has been put forward as the perfect solution to this; to the degree it’s been claimed social is word of mouth, except in digital form.

However, there are counterpoints to this assertion as follow.

According to WOM experts Keller Fay, “only 10% of conversations about products, services and brands take place online while 90% still occurs offline – at home, work, or when gathering in social settings of various sorts”.  A finding, in the words of eConsultancy, that “largely dispels some of the contemporary myths about word of mouth. The biggest: that the internet is the platform for word of mouth marketing”.

Of the product conversations that do occur online, research has found that they’re driven by a different set of motivations than offline conversations.  Whereas the primary drivers of offline WOM (in order of influence) are emotional, functional and social, the drivers for online WOM are the exact opposite.  This means “the brand categories talked about online vary widely from those talked about offline”; with media and entertainment, cars and technology being online favourites and categories like household products and health services getting comparatively scant mention.

The fact that social currency is the primary motivation for online brand conversations is also not without complications.  A separate study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology entitled “Why recommend a brand face-to-face but not on Facebook” found “people are far less likely to recommend brands to each other in social media because of the perceived ‘social risk’ social media recommendations entail (‘social risk’ = risk to your public image and reputation if your recommendation sucks)”.

The implications of all this for marketers looking to generate WOM are: “Online social media will be most effective if you have a new product or a new message for which social currency will be gained by sharing. But if you are seeking to tap … emotions … then look for ways to help consumers share … stories offline where they will have their best chance for success”.

Or simply, “stop worrying so much about controlling when, where and how consumers’ brand conversations take place and to start focusing on the reality: consumers will talk about your brand when you give them something worthwhile to talk about”.

The way forward: Challenge more, Think more


As stated at the outset, rather than to provide conclusions or recommendations, the intention of this post is to help promote a more even debate about the place of social media in the marketing mix.

After all, as put forward by Joseph Joubert, “The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress”.

In looking at the range of issues collated, there appears to be a case for challenging currently accepted assumptions and practices.  And for marketers, social teams and agencies to think more tightly about the role of social media for the specifics of each brand, category and set of consumers they’re involved with.

This seems particularly pertinent for mass market consumer goods brands, and/or big brands, with products that don’t have inherent content sharing appeal and that need broad reach to survive and succeed.

As argued in the post The Death of Marketing Strategy, the complexity of marketing in a digital world has meant the management of activity is now often mistaken for strategy.  Similarly, marketers may need to consider if in the distinct contexts of their brands they are mistaking social media for marketing media.

Image Credits: Dekkan Herald, Ted Murphy,, Lisa Cyr, Steve Bremer, University of Exeter, Survivor Koah Rong – Screen Grab & CBS

:Thinkshots | Thinkshot posts are observations and ideas relating to current issues and trends impacting the future of brands, marketing and marketing communications.

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One thought on “The Case Against Social Media Marketing

  1. Literally at the same time this post was being finalised, Peter Field, “a preeminent voice on effectiveness in advertising”, spoke at several industry events in Sydney. As reported by AdNews, Field believes that short-termism of digital marketing is a disease poisoning the advertising industry. As he sees it:

    “What the world of marketing and advertising needs now more than anything else is the kind of advertising that consumers will not want to block or avoid. There is a disease spreading through the world of advertising and it’s running out of control. It’s called short-termism. It is that entirely deceptive and fallacious belief that living by the quarter, or the minute or the day is somehow clever. It’s rubbish, its absolute nonsense, I know from all the data that the kind of marketing and campaigns that emerge from that short-termist world view are not the kinds of campaigns that can successfully drive the year on year growth that businesses desperately need.

    …When did pay per click ever build a brand. If we want to build brands we have to engage consumers and make them want our brands. Profitable businesses are built on brands. I’m not arguing for the abandonment of short term tactics, but I’m arguing for balance between what we do for the long term – the magic of ideas and creative brand building, and what we do in the short term.

    It’s gone too far. The pendulum has swung too far. All the data I look at suggests we are spending far too much on short term sales activation. We are in a runaway short-termist situation and we’ve got to pull that back. When I hear endless comments from blue chip marketing organisations bemoaning the lack of growth they can drive, well, if you’re going to put all your budget into short term sales activation, of course your business strategy will come undone. You’ve got to get back to the business of investing in brands.

    I’m urging for a fightback against the endless diversion of marketing money into short term sales tactics. Marketing is not about timely and relevant offers – what a horrible expression we hear so much from the digital world. Marketing is about making consumers want to buy our brands to such an extent that we don’t have to discount them.”

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