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Social Media Marketing Snake Oil

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

Category Social Media
Jordan Kasteler Digital Marketing Consultant at Jordan Kasteler

Jordan Kasteler is the SEO Director of Hennessey Consulting. His work experience ranges from co-founding BlueGlass Interactive, in-house SEO at ...

Social Media Marketing Snake Oil

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