Why social media marketing won’t become mainstream

Social Media Mavens, like many marketers everywhere, make the cardinal error of losing sight of the fact that not all people are ‘like them’.

Social Media can be and is used by everyday people to live their lives as they normally do – and it is just another tool – much like a telephone. However for social media to become a marketing platform, it requires for it to be used in such a way that it actually increases sales of products and or services for commercial purpose. (Just like the telephone.)
I define social media marketing as marketing by the people for the people. (Technology is irrelevant.)

Amazon does not practice social media marketing when it allows people to comment on or rate books. This is simply feature –rich e-commerce.

Much of the marketing activity at the moment it is really still is simply internet marketing by internet marketers to wannabe internet marketers. (Most commercially successful affiliate program are little more than internet marketing pyramid schemes.)

My definition (above) probably sounds simplistic, but looking beyond the simplicity, you will notice there are two critical factors that capture the essence of but social media:

  • It is about people, and

  • It is about giving up control.


Both of these essential elements are very difficult to achieve and Social Media, so let’s consider each of these two elements in turn. SM requires that people participating in social media must exhibit the following traits:

  1. Authenticity

  2. Consistency/Persistence

  3. Integrity/Trustworthiness


Do you honestly believe that this list applies to the population at large?

I can almost say ‘I rest my case’ – but let me call in the cavalry for back-up.

In the book Brand Engagement, Buckingham argues that a lack of clarity about values, behaviours, strengths and expertise within an organisation would result in significant problems in meeting customers’ needs: If your employees don't trust you, your customers won't either. Which raises the question:

Do you really think (most) employees generally trust their employer?

Seth Godin defines the hierarchy of success thus

  1. Attitude

  2.  Approach

  3. Goals

  4. Strategy

  5. Tactics

  6. Execution


Social Media is (relatively) easy at level 6 – 3. The challenge lies in level 1 & 2. Success at that level will only happen if every employee (or a significant majority) is meaningfully engaged. Which raises the question:

Do the majority of employees have a positive attitude towards their employers?

(Or the flipside: How many employees with a bad attitude will it take to derail your social media efforts?)

Social Media Marketing, for it to be successful and consequently to become mainstream, will require the participation and delivery by employees of large companies; not just SMEs tapping into the (ostensibly) cheap alternative offered by social media.

For every Zappos, there are a 100 Microsofts.

The second principle is about ceding control, which of course raise the question as to whether large organisations are able and willing to do that in any significant way?

Organisations are actually largely dysfunctional – and the larger the organisation, the more dysfunctional it becomes.

People who succeed in large organisations are usually driven by the Power motive (as per McClelland’s theory) and since the very essence of social media marketing is about ceding control, the top executives in large companies are by definition incapable of ever meeting the criteria of participating in their own capacity, and since social media marketing cannot simply (only) be delegated to a worker bee.

Authentic engagement means the head honcho has to be there in the community. That may be possible with companies that are internet companies, especially organisations who develop and market social media tools.
But how many mainstream, regular (smokestack) businesses are populated by people who want to, and can participate (as per the criteria above) in social media?

I believe the social media adoption will follow the classic S-curve and the growth rates will start declining as the ‘tail’ starts to eat itself. That is, eventually the social media marketing initiatives will slow as the pool of converts become shallower.

I am not suggesting social media marketing is not important and I am not suggesting that it will go away. But I am suggesting that it will become another marketing channel, to be used as part of an integrated marketing strategy, and more suitable to some businesses than others.
Don’t let ‘free’ seduce you.

If anything, the cost of participation is bigger than any of the ‘old-school’ marketing channels – and the cost of failure is enormous. And you are not in control.