Social Media Consultants Selling “Snake Oil”?

“Beware social media snake oil,” warns Stephen Baker in an article in Business Week (12/3/09).

According to the article, the benefits of social media are often nebulous — and the cost, contrary to what social media consultants and gurus claim, are far from zero.

“Employees encouraged to tap social networking sites can fritter away hours or worse, they can spill company secrets or harm corporate relationships by denigrating partners.”

As for social media consultants and gurus, Baker insists that “many are leading clients astray … [as] success is defined more often by number of Twitter followers, blog mentions, or YouTube hits than by traditional measures such as return on investment.”

Ironically, when asked for case studies to prove the effectiveness of social media, some of these consultants point to their own self-promotion rather than client success stories, which are few and far between. (That’s like me showing my own self-promotion sales letter for my copywriting services as my copywriting sample.)

Finally, says Baker, social networking does not make sense for every company.

Example: in the defense industry (where I once worked), where much of the revenue comes from the Department of Defense (DoD). Baker suggests the privacy-obsessed Pentagon “may not be thrilled with a supplier publicizing itself through Twitter.”


354 thoughts on “Social Media Consultants Selling “Snake Oil”?

  • Social media ‘experts’ leave a lot to be desired — as I never tire of pointing out, social media is a great research tool that few people have managed to make much money on.

    However, I do take issue with the idea that it’s wrong to use your own results as a case study. In software, they call it “eating your own dogfood” — using the tools you’re trying to sell to other people. It’s also a good way to show what happens when your client 1) trusts you, and 2) invests a lot in you — because clearly, a case study about your own self-promotion is also a case study of what happens when you have full authority and all the resources you can ask for!

  • Oh its completely snake oil… I know cause I sell it.

    Well not directly, but around my office (real estate) people would rather pay someone to explain it to them than figure it out for themselves.

    But its hard to give a presentation with “this hasn’t actually worked, but because everyone wants to know…”

    Networking is networking, if you want a consultant, you’ll find one. But if you want results, then you just do it- just like humans have done it for thousands of years.

    But lets not throw the baby out. There is a difference between “Social Networking online” and “Self-publishing online.” One is promoting your business on facebook and twitter, the other is actually getting into the business of becoming a thought leader in your industry. I would say Youtube and blogging are more valuable for that reason.

    I would recommend a consultant with experience in the second.

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  • Sean: perhaps the best application of social media is to drive traffic to the online content you have published to establish your reputation as a thought leader. I do this with Twitter and Facebook. Whether it is worth the time, I cannot say.

  • large companies have to tread a fine line between divulging trade secrets, coming across as professional and yet being “social”

    the number 1 benefit of social media for business is relationship building. You are letting clients and potential clients see a more personal side of you and your business. outsourcing social media walks a fine line of breaking that trust.

  • Good article. I agree that it is really tough at this point to gauge just how effective social media is at generating revenue. I believe, at this point, that it is probably better for B2C oriented businesses than B2B.

  • I’ve been treading slowly into this space. I believe it has merit as long as we treat it as a tactic like any other. It has a time and place and the potential to reach certain audiences. But it’s not a cure-all and I need to be careful: it can easily become a time-waster.

  • “Beware social media snake oil,” warns Stephen Baker in an article in Business Week (12/3/09)

    As for social media consultants and gurus, Baker insists that “many are leading clients astray … [as] success is defined more often by number of Twitter followers, blog mentions, or YouTube hits than by traditional measures such as return on investment.”

    I guess he spoke to soon,

    This was released on Dec 3rd

    “Dell Tweets Up $3 Million in Revenue, While Twitter Still Searches for Profit”
    Read the article and decide for yourself:

    Folks that was an extra $3 Million in revenue just from their Twitter account

    How is that for a case study!

  • I think it depends on how well we track the the ROI from social media efforts, as Dell seems to have done. If we don’t track a marketing strategy — any marketing strategy — we can’t assume that it does or doesn’t work. So that feature would definitely be a deal-breaker for me when shopping for a social media app or consultant.

  • Social media is so new that it’s hard to say whether it’s “worth it” one way or another. For some businesses, especially freelancers and solo-preneurs, it’s a great way to network and find clients. For online publishers, it’s a great way to distribute content. For traditional corporate businesses? Well, I can see where they wouldn’t want their employees wasting time or misrepresenting the brand.

    It’s all in the measuring, just like it always has been. And in another 10 years, it will be easier to say whether social media works or not. After all, back in the ’90s people thought the Internet wouldn’t take off.

  • I consult on social media issues, but I am also a a more traditional (if that is even possible digital marketer as well.

    Here are the issues as I see them:

    1.) One thing is never the answer to everything…social media won’t cure cancer.

    2.) NOT exploring social media means the social media will surely FAIL. But…one of your competitors will explore it and even if it returns just 1%…that is 1% that you didn’t get.

    3.) Companies talk about it, wonder about it, but often fail to really try it. I had a client recently who dropped a few thousand dollars on a research report. The report was designed to create the foundation of that client’s strategic plan…we’ve been on hold for the strategic plan part of the deal for weeks. At this point, social media was a waste of several thousand dollars…if you are going to explore the potential–treat it like any other investment and give it your attention. If you rethink things after spending the money…you are sure to have a negative ROI.

  • ROI on social media is tough to measure if you don’t know what your measuring. Before you EVER start a social media campaign you should define what you want to accomplish.

    It could be a phone call, a web lead, or a hit to your website but whatever it is it should be defined FIRST before you create a social media strategy.

  • Social media dovetails with thought leadership and blogging, as Sean mentioned.

    You’re entirely in charge of how you express your social side, but the upside is building a bigger network that can easily be directed to your blog/real substance.

    As Seth Godin says, you’re building a permission asset in which people receive messages that are expected, personal and relevant.

    Relevance is relative, but always the customer’s decision in any venue. Social media reinforce the first two thirds of the asset: you, your brand, your products and services. Lots to leverage.

  • The fact that social media marketing doesn’t work for every company is very true, and it’s up to the company’s marketing agency to be honest about the best platforms to pursue. Some may benefit from Twitter, while others Facebook. A digital marketing agency needs to keep the client’s best interests in mind and not just be spend happy. Of course, convincing companies to jumpstart a social campaign is difficult because they want to see the case studies you mentioned. But providing concrete data and proving ROI in this situation is difficult, so case studies most likely point to brand awareness, more brand followers/fans, etc. Is that enough?

  • Social media participation has very real costs – it requires an awful lot of labor to do it well… and you either have to do it yourself or pay somebody to do that stuff for you.

    Social media is far from useless as a general branding engine I guess… and for some businesses and people it works pretty well – I’ve seen Etsy sellers use Twitter to drive traffic to their latest listings for one-of-a-kind art pieces, and drive sales too.

    For a lot of consultants and authors and people in the “expert” business of selling knowledge your time is better invested in developing profitable advertising, marketing systems, writing non-disposable content like articles, your blog, newsletters, and books. Tweeting (for example) is present-tense thing which is easily forgotten.

    And as far as making “friends” on Facebook in order to sell to them… well, it requires an awful lot of time to cultivate those relationships – to me the question is whether I want to live a faux-social life by “networking” inline… when I look at the tedium, the randomness of it, the difficulty in measuring results, the answer for me is mostly “it’s a time suck” – and that’s what I tell most of my clients who wonder about Facebook and Twitter and all that stuff.

    It’s not a total waste to participate, but if you focus exclusively on social media I believe you’re investing in a way of marketing that only works with great investment of time which is more profitably spent elsewhere in general.

  • Bob and David Johnson,

    You both stated solid ideas about social media for me. Bob’s comment about Twitter and Facebook serving as pointers to one’s website for content, special reports, etc is a great way for people to get to know you and your site.

    David, your comment about defining what your strategy is has to be carefully crafted before you can expect any ROI. Small steps toward improving or generating business is always a plus.

    Social Media for me is another avenue to let the world know about one’s business! It’s a door opener.

    Thanks for the good suggestions.

    Lesley Peters
    Qualified Communication Services

  • So basically, social media can really be that effective in helping a particular company to grow. But this company take into consideration the other aspects that might affect their goal or reason why they’re doing social media.

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