Social media is mostly snake oil – Part I

Socialmedia 06 Jul, 2015

Now that cookie-cutter SEO is dead, businesses everywhere have turned to content (and, by extension, social media) to drive awareness and activity towards their websites.

Don’t get me wrong – this is a good thing. Mostly.

The bad part, the part that makes it snake oil, is that pundits and self-proclaimed ‘experts’ have led everyone to believe that social media is some kind of cure-all.

Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

Likes and retweets don’t mean as much as you think. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that if you still care about Likes, you’re doing social media all wrong.

Let me explain.

Engagement: Everyone’s favourite new buzzword

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No conversation about social media is complete without the word ‘engagement’ thrown in.

Engagement is the new black, and for good reason; it’s one of the few ways we have of measuring what actual impact or reach our social activities are having.

But what is engagement? What does it actually mean? Does it even mean anything at all? Should we be paying attention to all the Likes, Comments, Shares, Views, Pins, Retweets and Favourites we receive?

In a word, no.


Why? Because as a currency, they have lost almost all tangible value – they don’t measure the performance of our content.

This is what engagement really means: how our content is performing.

The anatomy of the Like

How much effort does it really take to Like a post on Facebook? What does a single click really mean?

When you type an offhand comment or share someone’s photo, does this bring you any closer to truly ‘engaging’ with them? Does this mean their content is performing or achieving any actual objective?

It’d be unfair to suggest that these actions have zero value, but it’d also be dishonest to claim they’re major signals of any sort… unless, maybe, you were a social media consultant being paid per Like, Comment, or Share.

Here’s a video from popular YouTube channel Veritasium that takes an investigative look at what Likes really mean.

If you don’t have time to watch the video, here’s a quick summary:

Paying to promote a business on Facebook doesn’t seem to work very well, and a lot of non-engaging Likes (i.e. no further action or human interaction takes place) seem to occur. In short, these appear to be fake Likes that mean nothing. Allegedly.

How should we measure engagement?

In the form of Likes and Comments, engagement is great and feels good, but it’s not very meaningful unless it’s linked to tangible goals or targets.

What you need to be chasing is proactive engagement with your brand in some measurable capacity. Ideally, this could be achieved by recording and analysing your conversion rate or share rate via link tracking to the relevant page on your website.

Put simply, you want to see how engagement is correlating to actual business goals. This will of course vary according to what your goals are – we’ll talk more about goals in the second part of this article in about 2 weeks’ time.

For now, let’s get back to the point: why ‘social’ is mostly snake oil.


Social comes second to content

If you’ve heard people going on about social media for business, you’ve probably also heard them going on about content.

The two are inextricably linked, but there’s also a fundamental difference between them.

Content marketing is the process of creating, finding and promoting great content to your audience; social media is merely one channel by which you do this. Content is the thing you share, social is how you share it.

This is why the whole concept of ‘social’ being a ‘thing’ is a bit confusing – we should be talking about the content itself rather than the delivery of it.

If you’ve got a social media genius working for you, they won’t be able to achieve much if they don’t have any content. Sure, they’ll be able to answer customer queries and monitor how much your brand is being mentioned, but this is where their abilities will end.

Quality content and service

Allow me to introduce you to one of my favourite statistical laws. It’s called Sturgeon’s Law, and it goes like this:

“Ninety percent of everything is crap”

Sturgeon must’ve been a hoot to hang out with!

This law might sound like a joke, but there’s truth to it. Think about all the books, movies and music out there. 90% of it is rubbish – only the top stuff gets successful and makes money.

The same goes for businesses and people. And social media accounts. And the content they share.

To achieve something in the social sphere, you need quality content, quality account management, quality planning and strategy, and quality service.

Simply going through the motions and having a social media account for the sake of it puts you firmly in the 90% category. Here’s the thing though: no one should have a social media account just for the sake of it.

If you have an account, use it. Curate it. Care for it. Make the most of it. You don’t have to spend all day on every possible social network – you just need to choose one that suits your business’ audience and make sure it doesn’t go stagnant.

Social is easy to begin but hard to master

If you’ve been online recently, you might have noticed banners or promoted posts advertising for one-size-fits-all social media strategies and seminars.

Some of these might be perfectly decent, but experience and Sturgeon’s Law tell me that the benefits are going to be marginal at best.

We all have personal social media accounts, and we all think it’s easy, but being a business is different from being a person. Here are some questions that you probably don’t ask yourself when using your personal account:

  • How often should I post, if at all?
  • Should I proactively engage with my audience, or should I only use my social profiles as an inbound enquiry portal?
  • What types of content should I share?
  • How should I respond to unsolicited comments?
  • How profitable is my social account?
  • How do I measure performance?
  • How do I get more ‘engagement’?
  • Should my social media be costing me money?

If you’re serious about social (and have data-driven reasons to be), then a generic strategy isn’t going to cut it.

Ignore the snake oil salesmen and address it as a business decision. Take into account your short and long-term goals, determine what KPIs or measurables you want to put in place, and work out how much you need to invest.

It’s going to cost a little money whether you do it in-house or use an agency, so think before you act.


Should I be paying for the snake oil?

Only if it’s part of a greater content strategy, or if fits into the one you have in place… in which case it wouldn’t be snake oil anymore.

Social performance relies on content performance, which means having a real goal or objective, creating a real plan, and taking a real methodology towards finding out how best to engage with your audience.

Part II – How to social media

Now that you know what not to do, make sure to check out the other half of this article for the positive steps you can take to make something of your social media.

Coming soon!