Social Media Marketing Snake Oil

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This post is a response to BusinessWeek’s recent “Beware Social Media Snake Oil” article.  I would like to elaborate on a few concepts and misconceptions the article had.

Right off the bat, one thing this article fails to separate is social media for small business and social media for large corporations as defined by different goals and objectives. When discussing social media people tend to lump all facets of social media and all social media channels together. However, social media is an all encompassing word for:

  • Content Aggregation
  • Media Sharing
  • Bookmarking
  • Blogging/Micro-Blogging
  • Networking
  • Forum conversation

These facets are what define social media and should be treated differently, for each facet can have its own unique set of analytical measurements and objectives. All are tools to an overall marketing strategy though.


The article dives right into proclaiming utilization of social media “tools”, such as Facebook and Twitter, to be risky in many ways.

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. What’s more, with one misstep, one clumsy entrée, companies can quickly find themselves victims of the forces they were trying to master.

The article also uses a quote from James Cooper, Saatchi’s digital creative director, stating:

Social media [campaigns], by their nature, are unpredictable, which makes them an easy target for critics. “Anyone who says ‘This is going to work’ is either lying or deranged,” he says. He compares the risk model with venture capital, where one bet out of 10 might pay off richly, while the others struggle or even bomb.


First and foremost, companies should learn to dedicate resources towards social media. Not just have one of their SEOs or tech guys handle it as part of their already over-piled list of duties. Employees won’t waste time on social media if there’s a system of checks and balances. Rules can be set in to place to dedicate X amount of time each day conducting a diverse array of social media related tasks.

If there is a well-defined social media policies and guidelines then there should be little worry over an employee “spilling company secrets” or “harming partner relationships”. Let’s not focus on the medium here let’s focus on the message. If an employee leaks company secrets the secrets will find a way to travel to the masses regardless of which channel the secret was released. Loose lips sink ships. Companies just need to define clearly what employees should and should not discuss both online and offline.

What is worse is not monitoring the sentiment about your company and doing nothing. The conversation will happen whether you are there or not to try to control it.

To address James Cooper’s point, no marketer knows how a campaign is going to turn out. Isn’t that the beauty of marketing? That it’s a game of successes and failures? One must look at the overall results of several campaign initiatives to judge the overall outcome and ROI. Judging campaigns on a one-off basis is fine to measure results and refine direction but most campaigns are a single node in an overall strategy.

Success Metrics and ROI

The article states:

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

and references James Cooper again with:

[James Cooper] stresses the difficulty of measuring results. “If something’s got 20 million hits on YouTube, that’s a good thing,” he says. “But what if half the comments are negative? I don’t think anyone’s got a long-term case study yet.”

and goes on to say:

Many argue that a fixation on hard numbers could lead companies to ignore the harder-to-quantify dividends of social media, such as trust and commitment.


There are many metrics tracked and correlated back to ROI with social media. The article downplays “buzz” as a metric of user-sentiment online and media “hits”. Both of these metrics are attributed to branding and mind share. Both are great metrics in a campaign for a large corporation whose goal is public awareness. Both are piss-poor metrics for a small to mid-sized business (SMB) that’s aiming to achieve increased sales, leads, or foot traffic. This goes back to the introductory paragraph of this article and the negligence of lumping social media into one encompassing strategy without breaking it down into what it is.

What we’re doing is comparing qualitative metrics to quantitative metrics.


  • Brand Awareness
  • Interaction/Engagement
  • Trust/Loyalty
  • Influence/Authority


  • Sales
  • Leads
  • Traffic
  • Links (Rankings)
  • Subscribers (RSS/Newsletter)

And for SMB and corporate campaigns, those metrics will be different. For example, a Twitter campaign for a major corporation would be more focused on the number of followers (quantity) while a SMB Twitter campaign should be more focused on demographically and geographically targeted followers (quality). In addition, more quantitative campaigns like content creation (linkbait) will increase search engine rankings by building links. Promotion of the linkbait through social media will also bring social traffic, traffic from links, traffic from increased rankings, increase comments and subscriptions on the site, and in-turn bring more sales and leads organically by these efforts.

Since qualitative results are hard to measure, they can be broken down into micro-quantitative metrics. For example, a campaign to increase “authority” would result in breaking down micro-quantitative metrics to analyze increases in influential Twitter members retweeting you or the number of influential blogs linking to you, etc.

So before criticizing metric analysis take a step back and look at the overall picture of what’s really going on and what should be going on.

Billboards, print, and radio advertisements carry the same concept. They create brand awareness and mind share but have harder to measure ROI unless it’s a direct response campaign aiming to get the phone to ring, website visited, or coupon redeemed. Those are still hard to track at that point. But there’s obviously still value to them which is why they’ve been such a large part of marketing and advertising throughout the ages.

To address James Cooper once again, if you’re getting a lot of traffic to a video about your brand and 1 out of 2 comments are negative, then you’re still creating mind share be it positive or negative. Heard the saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”? This is going to be situational of course but there’s not a lot to go off of his given scenario.


The article concludes with:

“The best way to avoid a similar backlash today is for social media’s practitioners, including thousands of consultants, to shift the focus from promises to results. It may be the only way to convert the skeptics—and flush out the snake oil.”

And I agree. There are a ton of snake oil salesman out there in SEO, social media, and all industries. And these self-proclaimed “social media experts” are giving consultants and social media marketing companies a bad wrap. But the rhetorical attack of the value of social media by BusinessWeek’s article is what I wanted to address in this post. I’ll leave you with a bit of Not Safe For Work (NSFW) humor about faux social media experts.

Jordan Kasteler heads the Social Media Marketing Division and is a co-founder of Search & Social, a full service Search Marketing & Social Media Marketing Agency. Search & Social is also the parent company of Search Engine Journal. Jordan can be followed on Twitter @jordankasteler

Jordan Kasteler

Jordan Kasteler

Digital Marketing Consultant at Jordan Kasteler
Jordan Kasteler is a freelance consultant, entrepreneur. Passionately innovating status quo.He has a history of entrepreneurship co-founding such companies as BlueGlass Interactive. His work experience ranges from in-house SEO at, marketing strategy at PETA, and to agency-level digital marketing.Jordan is also an international conference speaker, writer, and book author of A to Z: Social Media Marketing.
Jordan Kasteler
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  • Patricia Skinner

    Jordan: thanks for an outstanding article! I love this sentence:

    “The conversation will happen whether you are there or not to try to control it.”

    This concept alone is priceless, if only businesses recognized that fact.

  • John Paul

    You need to watch out for “snake oil” peddlers in all business and in life.

    Use the same common sense you use with a telemarketer or a grimy used car salesman, and stik to the old saying

    “if to good to be true, then it probably is or at least you need to do more research”

  • Matt M.

    Thanks for taking the time to refute a lot of the claims the BusinessWeek article makes. While they have a good point in stating that there are a lot of false claims for guaranteed success, they seem to discredit the article by fear mongering how dangerous and costly a poorly run campaign can be. Any company that engages in social media, as you said, should have social media guidelines in place for its employees as well as have a good idea on how to engage in the social sphere.

    Social media isn’t rocket science and you can use it as a tool for a variety of goals. Even small companies can use social media in its most basic business sense for customer service and engagement with a low risk.

  • Arik

    Great post. You were spot on with your analysis.

  • Maggie

    Thanks for your great article! Business Week is acting as if marketing is a new and potentially treacherous concept. In actuality, social media’s online platform is all that separates it from other traditional means of promotion. As with all new mediums businesses need to tread cautiously—setting strict guidelines and supervising social media efforts of employees–until gaining mastery. However, ignoring, avoiding, or fearing social media will be detrimental to the business in the long run. Social media is part of our new world. PR 2.0 is here to stay. While the playing field and measures of success may be different from what companies are used to, companies need to get social media savvy to stay relevant.

  • SEO Aware

    Jordan, a brilliant rebuttal with fantastic points for small businesses, large businesses and those new to this industry. Great job as always.

  • @steveplunkett

    “The conversation will happen whether you are there or not to try to control it.”

    for SEOs or Social Media pratitioners (could be Digital PR reps)

    Talked to someone “doing social media” the other day as a contractor.. they were being taught that link wheels and blog commenting is the way to do social media… just like SEO, we have a long way to go to inform the public and business professionals what is snake oil and what is not in the SEO/SEM and Social Media space. (also known as Internet Marketing) Keep up the good work, Search Engine Journal and Jordan!

  • Briana Bragg

    First of all let me say, that video is quite hilarious! A little direct but funny, for those of us who understand it.
    Secondly, thank you for this rebuttal. Social media is a “tool” that can and should be used to promote a business. There are different uses for different companies and the return on investment is huge! I have gained not only traffic but business also from the use of Facebook and LinkedIn. Look at companies who use direct mail that costs thousands of dollars for how many telephone responses? 3-5% on a good campaign.
    Social media has many different measurements. Not to mention everything can be tracked. You can see who is viewing what through internet resources, unlike with a TV campaign. Who is to say that just because a TV is on, the person you are marketing to is in the room?
    Social media is a great place to interact with prospects and current and past clients. It’s a place where people don’t feel intimidated to speak out and respond. Why wouldn’t you want to use it? Agreed, it does need to be monitored, but even a little negativity isn’t bad, that can open the door to really communicate with your audience.
    I think this was a great post and rebuttal. Just because there isn’t a case study for 20 years on the effects of social media, doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful!
    There are scummy salesmen to watch out for in any business and all these so called social media experts who can’t even define a standard of measurement should have their right taken away to claim they are an expert, but that is for another topic.
    Thanks for the opportunity to comment, keep up the good posts!

  • Todd Wallace

    It’s funny that companies think that letting their employees use social media regarding their company is a bad thing. If you can’t trust your employee to behave in public, do you keep them in a closet?

  • Sikat ang Pinoy

    I was very pleased to find this site.I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I
    definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.

  • Deb J. Jones

    Thanks for taking the time to articulate what so many of us were thinking. This article is a lot like the FoxNews report about Twitter’s uselessness; filled with conjecture and unencumbered by reality. It’s easy to kvetch about it to fellow professionals and much harder to take the time to break it down and analyze the fallacies one-by-one. It’s hard enough to make the benefits of social media in an overall marketing plan tangible without having to combat half-truths in articles that pander to the mistrust of the masses and bandy about sensational terms like “snake oil.”

  • alex

    Social media is indeed a tool! Check out this interesting marketing campaign where social media actually backfires
    social media needs to be thoroughly thought through in order to work properly for the marketer.

  • Hamlet Batista

    Fantastic piece!

  • Jim oil jobs

    Jordan: Thank you for the excellent product! I love this sentence: Jordan, a brilliant rebuttal with fantastic points for small businesses, large enterprises and the new in this industry

  • bill

    Most of the argument from the original article could be applied to any sort of marketing. Your rebuttal was thoughtful and effective.

    I like the quantitative/qualitative lists you provided. Helpful with the client education process.

    It will be interesting to see how the language and definitions change in the coming months. “social media” is such a broad term as to be almost meaningless. The phrase facilitates the “lumping together” of too many different channels.

  • Johann

    Really enjoyed that video =) i do agree that many leading social networking websites should be use to promote a business but the right approach should be customize for each target market, not every facebook or twitter user will be after the same topic, find your niche target and then approach them through social media channels. We’ve done this for clients and it just gave great results!! Thanks for the article