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Is this the social media backlash?

Author's avatar By Dave Chaffey 21 Jan, 2015
Essential Essential topic

We ask is social media marketing "Mostly a waste of time"?

Are some marketers so obsessed by social media that they are not investing enough budget and attention on traditional advertising and marketing? This is what is increasingly being suggested by some commentators. For example, in this recent talk, Mark Ritson, Associate Professor of Marketing and Branding and Columnist on 'Marketing Week' acknowledges that 'social media is an amazing tool' but states that it is 'mostly a waste of time' and suggests that our focus is wrong when he says:

'Marketers are putting too much emphasis on social media due to the hype in the media, and are forgetting how powerful traditional advertising and marketing can be'.

Some marketers and PR professionals like Nicola Swankie from Society felt the need to respond to his video on behalf of Social Media Practitioners. She responded in a long post reminding him that

'Social media has given us the new power that people have is vital to consider for any marketer, because it’s shifted marketing forever — it’s given us the control to personalize and choose the media we see and it’s given us a voice.'

She says that great marketing should engage – it shouldn’t be something people want to ignore. But Social, is the most honest of any media and so it's where lazy, unengaging marketing is most in evidence. That is not a reason to ignore Social, it should be a challenge to us all to think about how to make our marketing more compelling and relevant.' Well said!

Are marketers guilty of an infantile fantasy, as Bob Hoffman says?

Here's another case where a respected marketer lays into social media marketing. Bob Hoffman a traditional ad man, you may know as author of the Ad Contrarian, has this withering quote delivered at Advertising Week Europe which featured in AdRants.

'The theory that people want to engage with brands online and share their enthusiasm with their friends, and that their friends will share their enthusiasm with other friends through social media channels has turned out to be an infantile fantasy'

What do the research and analytics insights tell us ?

At Smart Insights we believe that the union of content and social media marketing has created a fantastic platform for creative businesses to engage audiences leading ultimately to increased reach, preference and ultimately sales.

At the same time we like to go beyond opinion and look at the analytics which many of the commentators don't get into.

When we look at  the analytics you do see a relatively low proportion of visits are driven by social in many sectors, particularly retail where you might expect it would be much higher if you believe the hype. For example benchmarks from SimilarWeb shows traffic sources in different sectors and here it shows that, indeed social is insignificant compared with search, direct and referrals from other sites.

US online marketing statistics

You can argue that 'dark social traffic' such as direct referrers from mobile are not counted in analytics and there is a 'halo' effect like that which we see with display ads which means that social media will drive searches and direct visits - this is probable, but hard to quantify. Despite the big picture pained above, it suggests that search and affiliates are far more important to retailers and warrant the serious attention.

A last click approach to reviewing the impact of social media in sales can be misleading since often social media updates may generate initial awareness, but conversion occurs in a subsequent visit following a search or direct visit.

If we review media attribution analytics there is a similar pattern for retailers. A couple of years ago I wrote this post to highlight this Forrester: Facebook and Twitter do almost nothing for Sales?  For new customers social media is at the bottom of the list. Suggests to me the commentators were right to call out the hyping of social media...?

How do active marketers rate social media in comparison with other media?

In our Managing Digital Marketing 2015 research in association with TFM&A 2015 event, we wanted to explore the perceptions of marketers at the 'front line' of digital engagement.

Our research paints a different picture, showing that although Search and Email are rated highly, many marketers do rate social media as effective at generating leads and volumes. For example, a third of marketers rate organic social media updates at the highest or medium highest for effectiveness.


What do these Expert commentators think?

Gerraint Holliman, Director of Strategy and Head of Content Marketing at DIRECTIONGROUP acknowledges the potential value of social media but questions how social media is being used by companies, he believes that 'most marketers are willfully misusing it'. He puts this down to a misperception of how we use social media explaining:

'most marketers see social media as a communications medium in the same way as they would see advertising or direct marketing: one-way, interruptive, broadcast messaging. Until marketers wake up to the fact that the beauty of social media is that digital channels enable customers to speak back to you then it will continue its downward spiral into redundancy.'

Kieran Flanagan, HubSpot's EMEA Marketing Director doesn't feel there is any backlash against social media and says he sees the return if it's measured and used properly. He feels it's a victim of its own hype and expectations were unrealistic:

' I do think it was initially over hyped by marketers. Most people on social media are not in buying mode so how you market to them has to be different. It's also becoming more competitive. When you have a lot more business in the market spending money for the same audiences attention, some of those businesses are not going to be happy with their results'.

Ian Brodie, a consultant and author who advises businesses on generating sales recommends looking at the value of social media as integrating communications, he is an advocate of marketing channels working together. He says:

'It's how the channels work together that's important in my view, not which one is 'best'. After all, what use is email without search, content and social media to get you subscribers in the first place? What about the ability of email to bootstrap blog views and social sharing, or to segment audiences for retargeting?'

For him last year, the 'emphasis seems to have been on integrating digital and traditional marketing. And while this is a great start, it's all still very channel-centric. The focus is on which channel is the most effective.'

Deborah Lee, an international speaker and consultant focusing on social media says from her experiences on social media that many companies are struggling to use it, but are still seeing engagement on the major social platforms. She says:

 'I’d only advise businesses to walk away from social media when user numbers start to tail off, and there is no sign of that happening any time soon'.

So, there's a clear message from the commentators we asked - Social Media and Content Marketing are here to stay, but we need to get more savvy at how to balance consumer engagement and sales impact.

What do you think?


Author's avatar

By Dave Chaffey

Digital strategist Dr Dave Chaffey is co-founder and Content Director of online marketing training platform and publisher Smart Insights. Dave is editor of the 100+ templates, ebooks and courses in the digital marketing resource library created by our team of 25+ digital marketing experts. Our resources are used by our Premium members in more than 100 countries to Plan, Manage and Optimize their digital marketing. Free members can access our free sample templates here. Dave is a keynote speaker, trainer and consultant who is author of 5 bestselling books on digital marketing including Digital Marketing Excellence and Digital Marketing: Strategy, Implementation and Practice. My personal site,, lists my latest Digital marketing and E-commerce books and support materials including a digital marketing glossary. In 2004 he was recognised by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of 50 marketing ‘gurus’ worldwide who have helped shape the future of marketing. Please connect on LinkedIn to receive updates or ask me a question.

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