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Social Media - Snake Oil of our Time?

Kim Brebach - Saturday, September 21, 2013

Social media and marketing - why CEOs do not trust either

2 out of 3 Digital Marketers admit they don’t know what they’re doing. 4 out of 5 CEOs Don’t Trust Marketers.

That was the headline in a press release published by the Fournaise Marketing Group in the UK. Fournaise said it had interviewed more than 1,200 large corporation and SMB CEOs and decision-makers in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. This was the majority view:

  • Marketers are too disconnected from the financial realities of businesses
  • B2B Marketers are failing to deliver the level of additional customer demand expected of them
  • Marketers have focused too much on salesforce-related KPIs they have no control over, instead of customer demand-related indicators directly linked to their jobs.


The majority of CEOs surveyed felt that marketers had been ‘sucked into the technological flurry (and jargon) related to system integration, funnels, processes and scores,’ and had lost sight of the fact that technology is just a set of tools. ‘Marketers will have to transform themselves into true business-driven ROI Marketers,’ said Jerome Fontaine, CEO of Fournaise, ‘or forever remain in what 65% of CEOs told us they call Marketing la-la land.’

Digital Marketing by Trial and Error

In a recent study conducted by Adobe, fewer than 50% of the US marketers surveyed had faith in their digital marketing skills. Worse, over 60% conceded that their approach was based on trial and error, only 40% of marketers thought that their marketing was effective, just 18% said they had formal digital training, and a mere 9% strongly agreed with the statement that they “know their digital marketing is working”.

Adobe’s chief marketing officer Ann Lewnes said: ‘Marketers are facing a dilemma – they aren’t sure what’s working, they’re feeling under-equipped to meet the challenges of digital, and they’re having a tough time keeping up with the pace of change in the industry. What’s worse, no one hands you a playbook on how to make it all work.’ Yet 60% of the marketers surveyed said businesses could not succeed unless they embraced digital marketing.

La-La-Land and Snake Oil?

The suggestion that digital marketers have no idea what they’re doing is not a new one. 3 years ago, Stephen Baker wrote an article in Bloomberg Businessweek under the heading Beware Social Media Snake Oil. Baker wrote: ‘an entire industry of consultants has arisen to help companies navigate the world of social networks, blogs, and wikis. These self-proclaimed experts evangelize the transformative power of social media, … produce best-selling books and dole out advice or lead workshops at companies for thousands of dollars a day.’

Baker talks about a chorus of critics who say these experts are leading clients astray, ‘using buzz as their dominant currency’, and measuring success in terms of Twitter followers, blog mentions, or YouTube hits rather than traditional measures like return on investment. He then cites David Armano, a consultant with the Dachis Group of Austin, Texas, who says ‘it’s a bit of a Wild West scenario,’ and compares some consultants to snake oil salesmen.

Dan Zarella, who bills himself as a social media scientist, talks about ‘unicorns and rainbows’, that is: fuzzy stuff not based on proven concepts. ‘ It’s the modern day equivalent of the witchdoctor or snake oil salesman,’Zarella says: ‘A couple of time-honoured adages repeated ad nauseum, coupled with the unquestioning awe of an unaware audience, and pretty soon you’ve got an entire industry made of easy-to-agree with smoke and mirrors.’

Baker also examines the flipside of the social media coin, that ‘with one misstep, one clumsy entrée, companies can quickly find themselves victims of the forces they were trying to master.’ We saw the crucial role played by social media in overturning dictatorships in the middle east; closer to home, we had an example of the power of social media in an organised campaign that saw advertisers abandon radio 2GB after Alan Jones’s derogatory comments about then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

Social media is like a dog; it can be your best friend or a beast that will turn on you if you don’t treat it right. And with social media, treating it right is tricky because the rules aren’t written down. Before social media took off like a bullet train, the primary domain of digital witch doctors was tweaking websites for search engines. They appeared to practice an arcane science, speaking in strange tongues and tinkering with things the rest of us didn’t understand. That all changed in the last few years, as Google made major changes to its search algorithms with Panda, Penguin and AuthorRank, to reward original content of real value and penalise sites serving derivative content and engaging in dodgy link building schemes.

The result was that Google gradually put many of the SEO experts out of a job. Some of them became social media experts, and others remade themselves into digital content marketers.In a recent Slideshare presentation, Doug Kessler from Velocity Partners predicted that a ‘deluge’ of online content is about to wash over us. ‘SEO agencies are becoming content marketing shops,’ Kessler says, ‘social media agencies have discovered content as the new lubricant, and copywriting agencies are becoming content farms.’

Still looking for ROI? In the Econsultancy Marketing Budgets Report for 2013, only 17% of respondents rated their ability to measure ROI from social media as ‘good’. This compared to 57% for paid search, 52% for email marketing and 38% from SEO. Is social media a waste of time for B2B marketers? If you use social media to connect with your customers in a convenient way, or to raise your brand’s profile online, the low ROI may not be an issue.
If you want to see a measurable return on your investment in digital marketing, you need to find a marketer who’s prepared to commit to some clear goals such as these:

  • A % increase in website hits and blog traffic
  • Significant opt-ins added to your email list
  • More qualified leads and/or sales
  • Better conversion rates for leads

Small pilot campaigns are a good idea, to establish what avenues work best in your industry and for your clients, but be prepared for lots of fine-tuning to get it right.


Kim Brebach
Content Chief

I've always loved people and words. As long as I can remember, I've been a story-teller and the team here says I'm pretty good at it. That's probably why I head up the Content Team: I create the arc of the story and others add their magic. 

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It was a difficult project because the science was complex and had to be technically correct, but it also had to be understood by non-scientists. We hold many patents, so it had to be legally correct too. I can’t think of another company that could have done this.
Dr Peter French
CEO, Benitec


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It was a difficult project because the science was complex and had to be technically correct, but it also had to be understood by non-scientists. We hold many patents, so it had to be legally correct too. I can’t think of another company that could have done this.
Dr Peter French
CEO, Benitec


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