The Dangerous Lure of the Social Web

Remember to Leverage Its Real Marketing Opportunity: Helping to Sell Better Product

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Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin
The wizened CMO leans forward in his chair. "So you're saying that I need to become a publisher?"

"Most definitely," answers the agency's social-media guru. "You need to engage your customers in an ongoing conversation. You can't just sell to them anymore; you've got to listen to them, respond online and proactively focus on creating and then publishing the content they want. Use the web to innovate and as an early warning system to manage and protect your brand. After all, it's theirs, not yours."

The CMO frowns. "But we make hubcap fasteners and our customers are happy to buy them. If it's their brand, will they still pay us for it?"

The pitch goes south from there and the guru leaves the building empty-handed. "Dinosaur," he tweets.

OK, that scene was made up, but the guru's quote was a mishmash of real things people said to me last week as I found myself in a number of conversations about the marketing purposes of social engagement. I already get its demonstrably real utility as a distribution channel for promotions and discounts. In fact, I've often imagined that the idea that consumers opt in to get sold to must prompt much envy from the ghosts of direct marketers past. I wanted to know what it did that was new.

Only on this point I heard nothing. The labels were different and the theories creatively spun, but the argument seemed oddly familiar: Invent stuff (usually funny) and propagate it into the cosmos so that someone will someday, somehow, for some reason and for some price buy what you didn't try to sell to them. Every time I tried to follow the logic it made me more convinced that we're misreading history and present circumstance.

People have always had conversations about brands. Before the internet, there were communities of geography, profession, education, religion and a host of social groups that were perhaps less broad and bright than those available online, but instead more deep and sustaining. Their activities were certainly more literally hands-on and their outcomes more lifestyle-defining. Social behavior isn't unique to technology; it's just that we have partial visibility into some aspects of how people converse now, so we want to prompt or participate in those activities. Marketers in the 1950s made the same pitches for TV and print brand advertising that their progeny do for digital today, only without the presumptions of direct influence.

The problem is that today's consumers are more disbelieving, expect more insight and truth, and are willing and able to find out whatever you least want them to know, and yet we're not regularly feeding conversations with the information, however creatively portrayed, to address those requirements. Sure, we talk about "transparency," but a social campaign that does nothing but entertain is as artificially opaque as the worst output of the bad old days of mass media. This may be why the key differentiator between brands in many product categories has defaulted to price. Nothing else is tangibly believable, and that's in spite of all the marvelous online branding engagement that prompts consumer clicks and chuckles, but doesn't earn their trust.

The conventional wisdom of social marketing is an effort to breathe new life into the all but dead presumptions of branding, only with one small catch: It can't make it work, and the only way anybody can claim otherwise is to fudge the stats, time frames and expectations for tangible results. This allows us to entertain when we should inform; distract when we should clarify; waste moments that should have meaning and utility; and engage in crafting virtual dreams instead of redoubling our efforts to make meaningful differences in the real world.

It's almost like we hope that we can keep consumers busy enough through online engagement so they won't notice that many of us are offering them generic products and services.

That old CMO doesn't need to publish content or tweet his innermost and briefest thoughts. He doesn't need to innovate, crowdsource or chase any other imaginative term marketers use to hype the pretense that branding's magic will cover up the realities of business, or that the hopes for it are any newer than really old and outdated expectations.

He needs to sell better hubcap fasteners, and there are a wide variety of operational ways he can do so. Sharing that reality with his customers is the marketing opportunity offered by the social web, not a substitute for it. Isn't doing anything less, or different, just a distraction?

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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