Thoughts about NYTimes Opinion Article, ‘Can Social Media Sell Soap?’

Stephen Baker, author, blogger, journalist
Stephen Baker, author, blogger, journalist

The New York Times took on the conventional wisdom about Facebook and other social networks being a goldmine for marketers because they enable pinpoint mapping of consumer behavior using “big data.”

I’ve been arguing for some time now that marketers are using social media wrong. It’s not a megaphone for you to shout your commercials at people engaged in social conversations, and yet that is how most marketers insist on using it.

Unless marketers start creating great audio, video, photo, and multimedia content that informs and entertains — not commercials — they are going to irritate, annoy, and chase people away from their brands.

Ask yourselves if you would like someone jumping in and out of a conversation at a cocktail party asking you if you’d like to buy their product. That’s about how it feels.

The premise of the piece, “Can Social Media Sell Soap?” by Stephen Baker, former BusinessWeek senior writer and author of Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything, about the IBM supercomputer playing against human champions on the popular TV quiz show, is that marketers see gold in the data they can extract from social media sites to target their marketing messages to consumers who are predisposed to them. He writes:

Growing legions of marketing consultants are pushing social media as the can’t-miss future. They argue that pitches are more likely to hit home if they come from friends on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or Google+. That’s the new word of mouth, long the gold standard in marketing. And the rivers of data that pour into these networks fuel the vision of precision targeting, in which ads are so timely and relevant that you welcome them. The hopes for such a revolution have fueled a market frenzy around social networks — and have also primed them for a fall.

My comments on the article were published on the comments tab, but I thought I’d bring the discussion here so that we can share some conversation about this topic.

I agree with Baker’s premise that these numbers-oriented marketers are headed for a wakeup call. Baker amplifies his Times article in a blog post on He says:

The more data that arrives, tracing our movements and activities, the more analysis it generates and questions it raises. Arguments are inevitable. The losers will hunt down more data of their own launch their own studies, challenging the status quo. As a result, we’re be scrutinized in remorseless detail. The market would have it no other way. The process is barely begun. And no matter how much they know, advertisers, on Facebook and elsewhere, will always come up with reasons to dig deeper and a little more. In the process, they learn more about us–and perhaps that process, or insights derived from it, will lead them into entirely new businesses.

The relentless quest for more data to reduce marketing risk will continue. But it’s a flawed quest.

Here’s what I wrote:

Quantitative marketers are making the same mistake extrapolating behavior from data that arguably comprises the whole universe as they once made on stratified random samples where a 5% confidence interval was considered a good margin of error. Just because the data tells you something about the behavior at that point in time, it doesn’t tell you everything about those people.

Randomness in human behavior can’t be captured in numbers.

If you think Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the other networks are megaphones to shout commercials at audiences you are using them wrong. People go to those sites for the human SOCIAL contact, not for words from the sponsor.

Marketers who get it do not use social media like digital billboards. They engage in human interaction with people who express interest in learning more about the product. They create branded content in the forms of useful print, video, photographic, and other multimedia that helps people have a positive experience with that product or service. They post that content on their own company websites where they can control it and update it, and not have Facebook mucking around with how it gets shared — and then they use social networks to engage interested people and invite them to visit where the “good stuff” is.

Companies should create media publishing and broadcasting sites that generate real content on a regular basis. Customers will trust that more than a pay-per-click ad on Facebook that no one ever clicks on.

What do you think? Are marketers and advertisers on the wrong track, or is it me?

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