Cutting Through the Bullshit of Social Media Marketing

Twitter_Badge_1 resizedBJ Mendelson’s Social Media is Bullshit has mercilessly crushed something I considered a huge part of my life and career, but it did so in a succinct, humorous, and refreshing manner. After taking countless courses on social media, digital marketing, and digital entrepreneurship at NYU, this book has given me an entirely different perspective on how to approach online marketing and truly connect with my audience. The central argument of the book is that “social media” is not the crowd driven tool of the common man that marketers and communications consultants make it out to be. Mendelson starts by illustrating why he thinks social media is bullshit, followed by a discussion of how it became so prominent in the marketing field and who was responsible for that. One of his main arguments is that the aggregation of friends and followers on social media sites is meaningless to you and your business without real-world connections. Even the most noticeable social media success stories like Egypt’s “Social Media Revolution,” he argues, are actually driven by very traditional power players. The Cairo protests happened only because the government allowed them to, and Internet-wide backlash against the SOPA legislation succeeded only because Google and other companies with major lobbying power were also opposed. Mendelson claims that deceiving marketers misrepresent social media platforms – the platforms do not work as advertised. He accuses marketers of creating a get-rich-quick stir around social media, when in reality only corporations benefit from this free “user-generated” content, not the users. In the final section of the book, Mendelson educates readers on his preferred and well-tested approach to harnessing the potential of the Internet without spending a fortune in the process.

Let me begin by saying that Mendelson approaches his argument from what Nancy Baym would call a “social shaping” standpoint. According to Mendelson, although a lot stems from technology, it cannot be discussed without considering the societal, economic, and cultural impact on the use of technology. As technology is two-fold in nature, social shaping is probably the healthiest method of addressing the subject at hand. It is also important to point out that Mendelson’s book focuses on social media as a marketing tool, not so much a communication tool as we largely discussed it in class. It was never his intent to look at the cultural impact of social media technologies, so it would be unfair to critique his work on that basis. That said, I think Mendelson would label half the authors we read in class as “cyber-hipsters,” or someone of little discernable talent who hops on the latest technological craze and talks about how it’s going to change everything, without any evidence, in order to further their own financial agenda. Mendelson would surely disagree with arguments made by Mangold and Faulds that the financial impact of consumer-to-consumer communications has been greatly magnified in the marketplace by social media. For Mendelson, the fact that social media-based conversations occur between consumers is completely irrelevant, as nobody is actually listening to what consumers have to say – they have no voice. Contrary to Erik Clemons, Mendelson would probably argue that most social networks have done a great job of figuring out the problem of monetization, with Facebook and Twitter both raking in tremendous revenue the past few years. Although, I think he would agree with Clemons that the strategic or tactical impact of metrics like views, trust, and impressions is arguable at best.

In response to Ellison, Steinfield and Lampe, Mendelson would argue that the relationship between a small business and its fans or followers on social media is that of “bridging social capital,” made up of weak ties that serve as loose connections between the two parties. “Offline matters more than online,” Mendelson says, making the point that strong ties are far more beneficial for small businesses. The likelihood of weak ties becoming strong ties is just too small to make costly investments into social media. Mendelson makes it clear that the end game in social media is not the accumulation of fans but rather the ability to inspire action, or sales. And since these weak ties rarely inspire action or any kind of purchase decision, he labels these online relationships as bullshit. Although he does accuse her of being a cyber-hipster, I think Mendelson would agree with danah boyd’s thesis in Friends, Friendsters, and MySpace Top 8 that online friendships do not always indicate friendships in other contexts, especially in the case of brands and businesses. He would also agree with boyd and Mawrick’s idea that most tweets are actually read by a very small number of people and most Twitter users don’t know which who their actual readers are. Without knowing their audience (customers), users conceptualize an imagined audience that is almost always false. Mendelson argues that networks like Twitter and Facebook are “useless” in terms of raising the profile of aspiring artists and entrepreneurs. The only metric that counts is sales, and social media simply does not provide the results it promises.

My one disagreement with Mendelson is his claim that in some cases we should disregard social media completely and not jump on every new platform/trend early. As a technology entrepreneur actively involved in the NYU start-up scene, I have seen the power of the “first-mover” opportunity on multiple occasions. While it is extremely difficult for a brand to uncover new streams of revenue, effectively adopting a new platform early can give brands a short-term revenue boost. This is true not just for social media platforms but any other new marketing tool (i.e. email marketing, text marketing). Those companies that jump on these new tools and figure out a business case for them will often reap the rewards of new channels of revenue.  Staying current will always provide opportunity, while jumping on the bandwagon after all your competitors have already settled into the trend can only slow you down.

As for small-business owners and student entrepreneurs who promote their products/services on sites owned by others, we now have many more ways to acquire initial customers and users than we did in the pre-social media era. The majority of early users of a company I co-founded this year came from Twitter outreach. More specifically, we used it to find brands and industry experts who were willing to publish their webinars on our website. We used social media to spread the word of our startup’s launch, which lead to some traditional media coverage in local newspapers, and in some cases even potential funding opportunities. Although Facebook and Twitter got richer every time we posted something, we too benefited with some traction and attention. In his opening chapter, Mendelson pairs modern-day day social networks with their 1999 equivalents: Twitter – AIM, YouTube – ShareYourWorld.com, Facebook – Classmates.com. What he does not stress is the tremendous difference in scale and reach of these tools. Surely Facebook and YouTube reach exponentially more people than their 1999 counterparts ever did, and provide consumers with many more technological affordances.

Despite its few faults, Social Media is Bullshit is crisp, informative, and without a doubt worth reading. The book is enjoyable whether or not you agree with Mendelson’s argument. As for me, I will be lending this to my co-workers for years to come.

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