Last week’s column on the seven sins of social media generated perhaps the most polarised correspondence from readers I have ever received.

Opinion was split between those who passionately agreed with my column and those who hated every sentence and clearly resented me writing it. To some marketers, the article was the “voice of sanity” but to others it was the hypocritical mumblings of a “curmudgeon”.

Personally, I think it was one of the most important columns I have ever written. It was certainly exaggerated and rhetorical. But it needed to be because the biased and over-positive view of social media expounded across our profession embarrasses me.

Imagine sitting down to watch Match of the Day only to discover that the pre-game build-up is covered in great detail but the coverage ends seconds after kick-off. That is how it has felt to witness the social media revolution gripping British marketing over the past few years. We get a big build up from brands, their PR agencies and the media covering them, but absolutely no critical coverage of what the actual strategy ends up achieving or not achieving.

For the past three years, the marketing world has fallen under the spell of social media. It is presented, almost without exception, as the new frontier of brand communications. Marketers are bombarded on a weekly basis with countless examples of the growing use and popularity of social media. At the same time, traditional media channels are given less coverage than they deserve even though the opportunities and outcomes across radio, outdoor, sponsorship and the rest are proportionately far more important.

Yes, there are some astonishing success stories from consumer goods, B2B and services marketing. When social media works it is an impressive and impactful brand building tool.

But for every amazing social media campaign, nine or ten fail to justify their existence and the time and resources would have been better spent on other forms of communication.

A recent report from Deloitte noted that only 20% of the apps produced by major consumer and healthcare brands were downloaded enough to actually be measured meaningfully in its analytical survey. While Deloitte did record some remarkably effective apps, it observed that such successful case studies were “fleetingly rare” and likely to decrease in the future as the number of apps continues to grow.


This kind of more accurate and representative perspective on social media is hidden behind the biased and superficial coverage it usually enjoys. Time and again we are told about brave new social media initiatives being launched. What we aren’t updated on is how piss-poor most of these campaigns turn out to be in terms of their impact.

Best Buy’s then managing director of online DeVere Forster said back in January 2010 that Facebook and Twitter would be used to launch the new retailer in the UK. Eighteen months later what we aren’t told is that Best Buy UK has managed a paltry 15,000 Facebook likes and 5,000 Twitter followers.

Last year, automotive brand Seat was also bullish about taking its latest ad campaign into social media. National communications manager Rob Taylor even told Marketing Week he believed it was logical to “marry the obvious appeal of our character to the phenomenon of Facebook”. But nobody later records the fact that – despite sales of 30,000 cars a year in the UK – barely 5,000 people like Seat UK on Facebook.

And when Ben & Jerry’s announced it would drop email in favour of social media last summer, senior brand manager Vicky Willis justified the decision by pointing out that “developing friendship and a relationship” with consumers is key for Ben & Jerry’s and “social media is the best place for that”. But despite selling more than 1 million tubs of ice cream every month, only 5,500 consumers now follow Ben & Jerry’s UK on Twitter.

I could go on. But to do so would be both tedious and redundant. Let me instead make a simple point – where can you read about failed social media strategies? Where can we learn which brands did not make Twitter or Facebook work for them? Who else is suggesting that the money spent on social media might have been better invested in TV or radio or other traditional options?

And yet these are the critical questions that good marketers should be asking. Not because it’s cool or PR-worthy to question social media, but because the numbers rarely stack up. And even when they do, the correct approach of any decent brand manager is to review all the communication options dispassionately, critically and even-handedly.

How can a young brand manager possibly remain “media neutral” when the industry itself is inherently biased towards social media and against the more traditional options?

I admit my column last week was both biased and inflammatory. But it needed to be.