The Overselling of Social Marketing

Last Updated Nov 29, 2010 12:29 PM EST

Searching the five leading search engines -- AOL Search, Ask, Bing, Google and Yahoo! -- for the phrase "overselling social marketing" produces zero results. Apparently, not one person on the Internet has employed the phrase. Nor, it seems, has "overselling social media marketing" rolled off the tongue or keyboard of a single living soul with Internet access and a yen to blog. What more do you need to know?*

This is the sort of rough-and-ready research that makes The Debunker's heart pound. If nobody is proposing a viewpoint that differs from the conventional wisdom, surely it means that the conventional wisdom is wrong, right? Not always, but in this case there is some evidence that social marketing may not be the nirvana is has been made out to be by countless marketing gurus and not a few journalists.

Here's an example of what could fairly be described as overselling: "The interactive nature of social media makes it the single most powerful marketing medium out there." That came from Grow Smart Business, a small business blog produced by Network Solutions. It's big talk, even from a company like Network Solutions that is all about the web.

Ironically, a report from Network Solutions provides some of the best recent support for the idea that marketing with social media isn't the universal boon to entrepreneurs that it is proclaimed as. The study, done with the help of the University of Maryland's Center for Service Excellence, primarily focuses on the way recessionary pressures are keeping small businesses from matching the success of the minority of business owners who are doing well with social marketing.

The part I'm interested in discusses small business's disappointment with social media. That part says, "While six months ago small businesses were focused on the ambitious goal of attracting leads with social media (71% vs. 73% in Dec 2009), they now look to social media simply to build awareness of their organizations (77% vs. 56% Dec 2009). They are also more likely to use social media to stay in touch with their current customers (62%) than six months ago (46%)."

These findings are summarized visually here, along with the observations that Facebook was the most-used marketing tool and that maintaining a company page and posting status updates or links were the most common forms of social media marketing. This sort of marketing, of course, closely resembles maintaining a company web page, which remains by far the most popular way for small businesses to achieve an Internet presence. "Some business said that they did not get the expected results from social media," this blogger wrote. "However, they see social media as more of a loyalty channel than a acquisition one."

None of this means marketing with social media is worthless or a boondoggle. It does suggest that social media has limitations as a marketing tool. The reality may not live up to the myth that it is the single most powerful marketing medium out there. Nor, perhaps, is mobile marketing, despite the fact that it, too, is being trumpeted as "arguably the most powerful marketing medium". But that's a topic for a future post.

In the meantime, any owners out there who have been underwhelmed by the results of social media marketing?

*(Actually, you also need to know whether "underselling social marketing" appears. It didn't. At least until now.)

Mark Henricks has reported on business, technology and other topics for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and other leading publications. Follow him on Twitter @bizmyths.
Carnival barker image courtesy of Flickr user jchatoff, CC2.0

  • Mark Henricks

    Mark Henricks' reporting on business and other topics has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Inc., Entrepreneur, and many other leading publications. He lives in Austin, Texas, where myth looms as large as it does anywhere.