Is Social Media Marketing a Myth?

Is social media marketing just a beautiful fantasy? (Lovely artwork courtesy of ninabradica)

I love dabbling in social media in its various forms, be it blogging, facebooking, twittering, youtubing (occasionally), plurking and flickring. Digital conversations are addictive, and I can spend an entire day just reading blogs, following tweets, retweeting, commenting on facebook photographs, chatting on MSN, uploading photographs on Flickr and so on. There is also something magical about watching those digital numbers grow on various charts, tables and graphs depicting your ascent to 2.0 Heaven (or descent to 2.0 Hell, depending on how you fare in the popularity stakes).

While I truly believe in the potential of social media, I am also aware of its limitations. It irks me to see baseless claims about how social media alone can be an entrepreneur's best friend or that one can simply blog/facebook/tweet one's way to superb marketing performance.

In a recent article in Businessweek, Gene Marks wrote a rather hard hitting piece on the myths of social media. Quoting from Gene:

"We've been misled as to the benefits of social networking sites. Many of us are finding that these tools do not live up to the hype, especially for small business."

Gene went on to highlight five myths of social media marketing, namely

1. Social media sites are free.

While social media sites are mostly free to use, the time spent in updating it is not free. This includes "responding to visitors' questions, posting brilliant thoughts, adding graphics, and monitoring activity — basically trying to generate buzz."

2. Social media sites are a great place to find new customers.

In Gene's view, major sites like Facebook and MySpace are populated by "pimply adolescents and goth teenagers" and perhaps the occasional "fortysomethings" who wish to "check out boyfriends and girlfriends from youth to see how fat and bald they've become". Most of them won't be appropriate customers. Small businesses should instead seek social networking sites specific to business owners.

3. You need to be on all the big sites.

One shouldn't spend all the time on all the major sites but focus on the few that will generate the greatest response. Spreading oneself too thin is a no-no in this game, claims Gene.

4. Social networking sites are for marketing.

Social networking sites are more for providing service to existing customers as opposed to seeking new ones. In Gene's words, "whenever someone tells you that you should explore social networking "marketing," you should run in the other direction."

5. Social networking is the future.

Here, Gene cited a few sobering statistics, such as how the "percentage of Twitter users in a given month who return the following month has languished below 30% for most of the past year", that "MySpace recently suffered a decline in monthly visitor traffic" or that vintage site Geocities is going to be shut down by Yahoo! While social networking may be a permanent phenomenon, its players are likely to change with the times.

While Gene's prognosis appear unduly harsh, there may be merit for us as marketers and communicators to re-examine the fundamentals of our social media strategy. However, like any other traditional marketing strategies, leveraging on social media requires both diligence and intelligence.

Social media channels are primarily useful for building relationships and establishing one's reputation and thought leadership. They can help to disseminate entertaining multi-media content through multiple networks and communities. However, social media platforms aren't particularly good in generating direct sales or customer acquisition - e-commerce or CRM applications are far better at doing that.

Betting the house on social media marketing to triple one's sales isn't a feasible strategy. However, employing it as a tool to cultivate relationships, establish brand reputation or gain the trust and respect of online communities may be a much more profitable venture.

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