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:
- 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.
- using disparate terms interchangeably, such as external (free) social media applications and internal (expensive) Enterprise 2.0 software.
- 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