RonAmok!

The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.
Dec 7, 2009

Last week, Stephen Baker of BusinessWeek wrote an article called, Beware Social Media Snake Oil. Since I’m frequently called into companies to undo the hype of snake oil salesmen, the headline caught my eye. What I didn’t expect to find was an article filled with snake oil of his own.

The article is a masterful work of hyperbole, filled with brilliantly crafted words designed to marginalize the value of social media:

hordes, hype, snake oil, tantalizing, flock, flirt, magic, risk, tap, fritter away, spill, harm, denigrating, misstep, clumsy, victims, demeaning, self-proclaimed, legions of wannabes, superstars, problem, growing chorus of critics, leading clients astray, buzz, sour, rigid gospel, hype merchants, mingles, B.S. sensors, innovation hippies, embarrassed, ill-fated, chagrin, confusion, misleading, backlash…

Instead of focusing on the real snake oil sales reps who promise “something for nothing,” the article directs its ire toward two of the hardest working individuals in social media.

The self-proclaimed experts range from legions of wannabes, many of them refugees from the real estate bust, to industry superstars such as Chris Brogan and Gary Vaynerchuk.

Brogan and Vaynerchuk? The dude’s kidding, right? Chris is a prolific writer, who builds his social media activities on the well-known business fact that people buy from people. Gary is a successful businessman who has not only built a huge following through his tireless social media activities, but he’s also grown a brick and mortar wine business. My rising blood pressure might have lead to an aneurysm had I not remembered something about halfway through the article. Didn’t BusinessWeek layoff 130 people a few weeks ago? Could that have something to do with the discordant tone of this article?

Blame the Competition

Social media technologies have exerted pressure on traditional publishers such as BusinessWeek. With the ability to publish text, audio, and video put into the hands of the masses, today’s consumers are no longer limited to the finite choices of newspapers, magazines, radio or television shows. Instead they can read about their friends on Facebook, follow Shaq on Twitter, listen to podcasts, read Chris Brogan’s blog or watch Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV. And although their choices have increased exponentially, the number of hours in their days haven’t, creating a problem for traditional publishers: lower circulation numbers. Reduced circulations mean less advertising revenues which translates into unpleasant actions such as laying off 130 employees.

When businesses come under such intense pressure, it’s common to vilify one’s competition.

Lack of Understanding

The problems with this article run deeper, with fundamental issues such as:

  1. not fully understanding the technology of social media, inaccurately referring to services like Twitter or Facebook as “Web sites,” when much of their appeal comes from desktop and mobile applications that have nothing to do with the Web.
  2. using disparate terms interchangeably, such as external (free) social media applications and internal (expensive) Enterprise 2.0 software.
  3. blaming technology for the stupid things that people do with it–something that has been commonplace since our ancestors invented fire! I mean, Alfred Nobel, the namesake of the famous peace prize, did invent dynamite, right? Ironically, had the perpetrators of these bad social media examples actually accepted the wisdom of Brogan or Vaynerchuk, they never would have done them in the first place.

Who’s the Snake Oil Salesman?

There are no guarantees in business. Executives manage probabilities and mitigate risk every day. But the article wants to play both sides of its risk argument. On one hand, it says that anyone claiming that social media will work “…is either lying or deranged.” On the other hand, Mr. Baker works for a company that won’t guarantee the results of the advertisements it sells. Since BusinessWeek can’t guarantee the results of its products and services, does that mean that he too sells snake oil? Of course not. Choosing to invest one’s communications dollars in advertising, social media, or carrier pigeon is simply one of the many probabilistic business decisions that competent managers make every day.

Social media technologies are simply new tools for companies to communicate with their constituents. Do we know exactly how they work? No. Do we know exactly when they will work? No. However, there is something that we do know. People buy from people and social media is about exploring this business principle online.

Lots more work must be done to get better answers to these questions. And if I had to guess, they’ll likely reveal themselves first through the work of leaders such as Chris Brogan and Gary Vaynerchuk, who stress things such as: listening to customers, treating them with respect, and working hard to satisfy their needs through creating great products and services.

If this advice is considered snake oil, then sign me up for a couple gallons.

Photo Credit: virtualreality

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Filed under: Social Media

Comments

Being good at Sales, and being professional isn't Snake Oil.

Spamming, evangelising and over promising without reality. These things are Snake Oil. Selling an ebook on how to signup to auto follow books for example… That is snake oil.

Usable, actionable steps, and daily content is not snake oil. It's just stomach churning talented, and generates jealousy.

sytaylor
December 7, 2009

You tell 'em, Ron! Right on the mark – once again.

–Tom

Tom Jordan
December 7, 2009

There are Snake Oil salesman out there, but the 2 mentioned in the article are FAR from who Mr Baker should be talking about.

Mike P

mikepascucci
December 7, 2009

Thanks for the breakdown. I read the article this evening and consider Brogan and Garyvee both friends. The article I found infuriating.
I think most people forget to be “objective” in many situations especially when it comes to what they read. Gary and Brogan always put their best foot forward and do I dare to say Mr. Baker may just want a little attention??? Unfortunately, if this is quality of work BuisnessWeek publishes I see now problem watching them die on the magazine rack.

Best wishes,
EH
http://www.jivefromthehive.com

elizabethhannan
December 7, 2009

Just reading through the responses I see the primary problem. I want to vomit in my mouth every time I see someone post crap like “I'm friends w/ so and so.” The social media space becomes more and more murky every day simply because so many bogus social media guru's come out of the wood works trying to make a name for themselves by circle jerking each other off. They create social media groups and pat each other on the back and tell each other how awesome they all are. Then the groups attach themselves to a social media celebrity like a leech and suck every possible ounce of credibility they can from that relationship.

Take Gary V for example. Dude has tremendous energy and made some great (dare I say brilliant?) moves to grow his business and his personal brand. But now he's cashing in on that celebrity by letting all these no name snake oil salesmen co-brand themselves in their local communities with him.

Anyone that's worth their weight in marketing knows what happens when a brand over leverages itself by co-branding with anyone/anything. The brand gets tarnished. Can you really blame people for wondering if Gary sells snake oil when he allows so many snake oil salesmen to claim him as a colleague and chum?

In my community alone I see 10-15+ people name dropping Gary's brand as a close personal colleague because they're pimping his book and he's doing such a damn good job of making people think he really does give a sheit about them. They post pictures of themselves with him, they carry along their personally signed books, they tell stories about hanging out with Gary and then they spew social media garbage to clients and small conferences all over the community. Based on the way they talk I have to assume that Gary has given his personal seal of approval to these people and yet they have little to no idea what they're talking about. They are full of BS and they're using up every little bit of Gary's real world street cred. He's overexposed and about to the jump the shark if he's not careful.

Steve Ashhurst
December 8, 2009

I read both your article & the accompanying Business Week article. While I agree with you on the merits of social media, and am not as aware of the “nuts & bolts” inherent in the various techniques, I took from the Business Week article simply the idea that we're still in a basic “discovery phase” and that the possibility exists for companies and people to either underuse or misuse the technology.

I didn't perceive the article as negatively as you did, but rather as more “cautionary.” I think the magazine was essentially saying “don't drink too much Kool Aid” & think that social media can change the world. Business Week may be wrong, as you have convinced me, but the process of change will undoubtedly be messy with many casualties along the way.

I hope to order your book later this week & look forward to reading it. Thanks for all your help.

Mike Natelson
December 8, 2009

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the detailed comment!

I understand what you are talking about with regards to the legion of fans, but is that Gary's fault? Somehow, he has managed to make some sort of connection with those who follow his work–such that they feel like they know him personally. To me, this phenomenon is something to study, to learn from his success.
As for “jumping the shark,” only time will tell. But either way, we'll all have the opportunity to learn from it.

ronploof
December 9, 2009

Thanks, Mike.

The point of my post was to call out an obvious problem with the article–a biased opinion, which violates the rule that journalists present as a way to differentiate themselves from bloggers. Had this piece been labeled as OpEd, I likely wouldn't have been motivated to write it.

ronploof
December 9, 2009

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the detailed comment!

I understand what you are talking about with regards to the legion of fans, but is that Gary's fault? Somehow, he has managed to make some sort of connection with those who follow his work–such that they feel like they know him personally. To me, this phenomenon is something to study, to learn from his success.
As for “jumping the shark,” only time will tell. But either way, we'll all have the opportunity to learn from it.

ronploof
December 9, 2009

Thanks, Mike.

The point of my post was to call out an obvious problem with the article–a biased opinion, which violates the rule that journalists present as a way to differentiate themselves from bloggers. Had this piece been labeled as OpEd, I likely wouldn't have been motivated to write it.

ronploof
December 9, 2009

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