Social Media’s Reality Distortion Field


With special thanks to Arment Dietrich. A version of this post appeared on the Spin Sucks blog Feb. 21, 2011.

The discussion thread on last month’s “Why Brogan’s Bigger Ear Marketing Is Wrong” Spin Sucks post got me wondering whether the social media industry operates within a self-generated reality distortion field.

As Gini wrote in that post, Brogan “extols wisdom about using Twitter and Foursquare searches to find people who are in bookstores. When found, he suggests tweeting those people to see if they can find your book in the store. And hence, a conversation is born.”

Brogan framed his experiment as an orthodox social media “listening” exercise, but how was it materially different from unsolicited, cold-call telemarketing – or the virtual version of a department store perfume spritzer? To me it seemed like garden variety marketing without the social. Yet many of the comments were deferential and affirming.

As I thought about it further, I began looking back at some of the foundational manifestos of the social media movement. The dust jacket copy for Joseph Jaffe’s 2007 Join the Conversation declared, “Today, every person sees thousands of advertisements a day – and totally ignores the vast majority of them. Yet, companies still spend billions of dollars each year yelling at customers who don’t want to hear it.”

Replace the word “advertisements” with “social media messages” and you’d have the preface for an updated 2011 edition. Except now Jaffe advises companies to “flip” the traditional sales funnel, effectively converting social media into a megaphone for a small group of influential current customers to yell at potential customers.

Citing startling findings in the new “Social Break-Up” research from ExactTarget and CoTweet, Jay Baer recently observed that “Regardless of platform, receiving too many messages from too many marketers is a very likely cause of subsequent break-ups, throwing dead weight over the side of the social and email ship until it floats again.”

User-generated or big brand-driven, yelling is yelling. Has marketing simply evolved from an impersonal, relentless, ubiquitous loudmouth into a well-intentioned, relentless, ubiquitous loudmouth with better people skills?Consider how fundamental social media doctrines like “conversation,” “community,” “listening” and “engagement” — once so fresh and empowering – are currently practiced:

  • Conversation = Automated feedback requests, and corporate blogs and Facebook pages that read like press releases
  • Community = Affinity groups of deal seekers and sweepstakes enthusiasts
  • Listening = Market research
  • Engagement = Recruiting and rewarding key influencers as brand claques

Reality Check

Thought leaders and practitioners genuinely believe they’re upholding the original underpinnings of social media marketing – human, trust-based, relational. Yet current practice is also forthrightly commercial – operationalized, ROI-driven, transactional. That inherent tension is not the problem, though. Complacency is the real threat: the belief that gimlet-eyed self-interest will not take root with consumers, and they will continue to contribute their insights, recommendations, credibility and loyalty to companies for free.I can imagine a tipping point where customers stop participating in surveys and ratings, and start asking marketers, “If my opinion is truly valuable to you, what’s it worth? And it better be more than a sweepstakes entry.”

That might never happen. But will we be prepared if it does? 

My Picks for Notable Posts of the Week 10/15/10

How would you — or the partners — react if your firm were featured in a blog post entitled “Four Law Firms That Don’t Suck With Social Media”? A post about financial services firms on the Bazzarvoice blog this week — an organization that usually evangelizes about understanding customers and speaking their language in social media — was notable for its tone deafness. After the snarky headline, the post is somewhat complimentary (in a backhanded sort of way), but I couldn’t get past the cringe factor. The author actually exacerbated the situation in the comments section by sharing that the headline choice was made because 1) it mirrors the title of the CEO’s upcoming book and a previous blog post by its outgoing CMO and 2) he was more interested in easy linkbaiting than in crafting a catchy headline that “doesn’t suck.”

If he’s genuinely interested in learning about how professional services organizations react to variance from expected and normative behaviors, he’d do well to read Heather Morse’s post “The Banana Story and Lawyers” on The Legal Watercooler.

For most small and solo lawyers — especially those just starting out — LinkedIn is a much more cost- and time-effective social media marketing strategy than blogging (I’ll go into that in greater detail in an upcoming post). This week Samantha Collier provides an interesting and useful tutorial on LinkedIn’s new “add sections” profile option.

The “One Fruitcake” Theory of Social Media Marketing Blog Posts

Even accomplished chefs are always on the lookout for new and exciting dishes. New techniques and novel applications of classics. Interesting ingredients and unexpected combinations. All in the service of surprising and delighting customers, and advancing the profession.

Sadly, social marketing bloggers seem content to warm up the same basic dish over and over again, just seasoned and garnished a bit differently.

It is said that Johnny Carson first posited that there is actually only one fruitcake in the world; it’s just passed around a lot. You see where I’m going with this…

The basic recipe for a blog post on how to be successful in social marketing:


  1. Generalized invocation of social marketing’s importance
  2. Quote by social media and/or marketing “guru” (preferably Chris Brogan or Seth Godin)
  3. Statistics on blog readership and the number of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn subscribers
  4. Authenticity bullet point
  5. Listening bullet point
  6. “Join the conversation” bullet point
  7. “Content is King” bullet point
  8. Thought leadership bullet point
  9. SEO bullet point
  10. ROI bullet point
  11. Reference to parties who “get it” (i.e. enlightened heroes) and/or “don’t get it” (i.e. willfully ignorant objects of pity and derision who need your help and mentorship)
  12. Warning about the perils of not embracing social marketing
  13. Local seasoning (e.g. reference to the intended audience’s specific challenges/opportunities)

Cooking instructions

  1. Combine all ingredients
  2. Whip into a froth
  3. Serve — over and over again.

Come on “Top Social Media Chef” wannabes, here’s a “quickfire” challenge for you: Reinterpret this bland staple of social marketing blog posts and make a signature dish.