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Social Media Doesn't Sell

Posted by: Damian Joseph on May 22, 2009

Social media is not a valid marketing tool. At least, that’s what a new study from Knowledge Networks shows.

The report says 83% of people on the Internet use social media. But only 5% of them ever use sites like Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace to make buying decisions.

Surprised? I’m not…

I consider myself normal (most of the time) and if other users are anything like me, then they have trained themselves to completely ignore advertising on social networking sites. It's gotten to where those boxes of graphics screaming "BUY ME!" don't even register.

The evidence shows I'm not alone: 63% of social media users thought that dealing with ads on the site are a “fair price to pay,” but only about 16% admitted the ads could make them more likely to choose one brand over another.

Study participants were asked if they “regularly” or “sometimes” turn to social media for purchase guidance in nine categories: travel, banking, clothing, restaurants, cellular, personal care, groceries, and drugs. The results were abysmal across the board. See the study here.

For a reason I can't fully figure out, the study also looked at how frequently folks are using Twitter. (It is the backlash de jour, after all.) It found that only 1% of the Internet population uses Twitter more than once a week--the same percentage as social media users.

Companies running social media sites would be wise to heed this study. Lest their sites turn into MySpace--one huge News Corp. billboard that became so annoying, users were almost dared to quit in droves.

Reader Comments


May 23, 2009 12:59 AM

Of course _advertising_ in social media doesn't sell. Duh. It's being involved in, y'know - the _social_ part of it that kinda works - kinda really well - for kinda a lot of businesses that actually get it and aren't just pouring old school interruption advertising money into what they perceive as a new broadcast medium (which it isn't).

Charles Brown

May 23, 2009 10:28 AM

I absolutely agree that slapping old-school ads on social media sites is a recipe for failure. But that does not mean that social media can't sell.

Social media cannot be separated form offering quality, problem-solving content. Content marketing and social media marketing go hand in hand.

Without quality content, social media is "all tweet and no meat."

Content marketing is when the marketer offers lots of helpful, free information that targets the problems readers must find solutions for. This can take the form of tips, ideas, instructional videos, informative articles, etc.

The key though, is content cannot be overtly self serving, but must be genuinely helpful.

THEN social media can direct attention and traffic to the content, and create conversations with the target audience.

Social media, when combined with authentic helpful content, can bypass consumers' growing frustration with in your face, old-school "interruption marketing."

And because it seeks to build relationships by providing helpful information, social media can indeed be a successful selling tool.

Charles Brown


May 26, 2009 12:02 PM

Social Media is about relationships not transactions. Brands should take the chance to build them on these platforms not try to advertise on them...sure that that doesn´t work.

The problem is for most companies that they are not prepared or don´t want this kind of dialog. Because it needs time and 100% commitment to succeed (and as Charles Brown pointed out relevant content). Running a banner ad just to have social media in your products marketing mix seems a lot easier than really participating.

And what makes me really mad about this study that now these old school marketing guys have something to justify their poor social media marketing strategy.



Ian Miller

May 31, 2009 3:52 AM

Well, considering the question that was asked that rather implies the lack of understanding of what social media is, and what it's powerful in achieving. It isn't the right question to ask. Would you ask "How often do you turn to dinner parties for your banking purchase guidance?" No, you'd ask "has something you've overhard at a dinner party every influenced you?" That would at least be more accurate (but not perfect).

Considering Dell alone can attribute over $1 million of sales directly to Twitter (source:, I think you can safely say it is a valid tool.

But that's all it is, a tool - just as TV ads wont reach everyone, nor print nor radio. Any savvy marketter will focus their message for the demographic they are targeting, and they will choose the best medium for that message. If they ignore social media they are ignoring a big, and growing, area.

Social media is not a "cure all" - but if you'd asked the same question one or two years after the introduction of TV, would anyone ever had advertised on TV?

As stated above, social is about the conversation, the building of relationships and trust. Getting your brand out there without pushing it. Zappos does it well, bringing a human face to the business that no other channel can do.

Loida Rosario

June 4, 2009 12:22 AM

Of course, social media is closer to public relations than traditional advertising. Does PR sells? Also, consider:
- do you have a story to tell in social media, if you don't, do not bother
- digital marketing technologies are barely emerging...more to follow
- remember, experimentation and learning are valuable by themselves, especially at a relative low cost
- social media is another medium to potentially connect with your your not a substitute for a well-thought out integrated marketing strategy

Arleen Anderson

June 6, 2009 12:17 AM

Just because a study shows that particular social media efforts did not earn the client the ROI that was desired, does not mean social media can't sell.

The problem is that many working in social media are not familiar with the practices and principals of proper benchmarking in order to measure efforts. The problem is then compounded with efforts that are not efficient nor effective. How can you be effective when you don't or can't measure what you are doing in a manner that is meaningful>

Let's face it, what's meaningful to the client is increased actions leading to higher profits. It's time the self proclaimed professionals of social media get professional and show exactly what they can whip up... or get out of the kitchen.

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