Business Week Says “Beware The Snake Oil”

I’ve long railed against the widespread growth of so-called “social media experts” – in particular, the people who believe that a Twitter account is enough to qualify you to offer advice to companies on how to adopt social media.

Now, Business Week has stepped-in on the topic, with a piece entitled “Beware Social Media Snake Oil“:

“The problem, according to a growing chorus of critics, is that many would-be guides are leading clients astray. 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.”

Business Week: Promises and PitfallsI read the piece expecting to come away with a bunch of misconceptions which I would end up refuting. On the contrary, however, I think the piece pretty much hits the mark on the areas of concern (with the exception of the strangely vague graphic (right) which offers no substance to its claims). In particular:

  • Article: “Their pronouncements follow a rigid gospel: Be transparent, engage with your customers, break down silos.”
  • My take: One size doesn’t fit all. Rigid approaches won’t work – just as with any communications strategy, each organization needs to tailor its approach to fit its culture, is objectives and its own context.”
  • Article: “”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.””
  • My take: You can’t measure success by views, friends or visits. Each of those may be lovely, but I can’t pay my rent with YouTube views. Do people convert? Do they move further down your funnel? Do less people call your support line? Again, as with other communications, you need to tie back to an organizational goal.
  • Article: “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.”
  • My take: Trust and commitment are important outcomes. However, they’re not unmeasurable. Customer loyalty is, in many companies, highly measurable. The key in taking a baseline of your target metrics at the outset of programs (social media or other communications) so you can benchmark against that baseline.
  • Article: “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.”
  • My take: Measurement is critical. My most satisfying client relationships have all incorporated rigorous measurement, and changes to programs based on that measurement.Ensuring a focus on this is a two-way street: communicators (or other stakeholders in social media implementation) need to commit to measuring on an ongoing basis. Meanwhile, companies need to insist on solid measurement throughout.

All in all, I think the piece is a worthwhile read – not because everyone working with social media tools is bad, but because stories like this can help to weed-out those who are, indeed, selling snake oil.

What do you think?

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.