Why Social Marketing isn’t Working (and how to use it better)

David Amerland
David Amerland owner/founder, DavidAmerland.com

Posted on May 17th 2011

Sixty-two percent of online retailers say their return on investment is either unaffected by social media or that the benefits remain unclear, according to Forrester Research's The State of Retailing Online 2011: Marketing, Social & Mobile, which was released earlier this month to members of Shop.org, the online retail division of the National Retail Federation.

For those of us working in SEO and social marketing the research results were hardly a surprise. After all we have seen the likes of this before with SEO which underwent a period of ‘giving uncertain returns’ when compared to traditional marketing and advertising only for the proverbial penny to finally drop and SEO to become the core of online marketing.

The last report to come out of Agency GroupM and Comscore stated that 58% of consumers start the purchase process with search, outpacing company websites (24%) and social media (18%). This puts search at the heart of any company marketing worth its salt and begs the obvious question: ‘why is social marketing not working?’.

The glib answer is, it is working but you just can’t see it. You’re reading this however because you want something a little more than glib so let’s go and explore the real reasons behind figures designed to sink the heart of any company social marketing manager.

Social Marketing and what it does

Back at marketing school the first lesson learnt was that word-of-mouth publicity was worth its weight in platinum. This personal approach to marketing was always super-difficult to achieve and provided the best conversions in terms of time and effort spent. After all, who amongst us has not considered making a purchase on the recommendation of a friend?

It is a small leap of logic to go from that personal approach to the digital equivalent which is social marketing. The logic is irrefutable enough to convince us that not just that it’ll work but that it has to work and that’s exactly where the problem lies.

Social marketing, for all its seemingly similar approach to personal word-of-mouth publicity is not the same thing. Setting up Facebook profiles and recruiting thousands of ‘friends’ does not automatically mean that the moment you recommend something those who see it will rush out to buy it. Having a Twitter account which is read by tens of thousands of followers does not automatically give you the ability to sway their purchasing decisions.

The reason this is not happening is because the marketing we put in place on social networks is perfectly logical but the mechanism (for lack of a better word) we employ when we make a purchasing decision is anything but. Consumers buy through emotion. We relate to brands based on how they make us feel and we buy things ourselves because of the way they affect the way we see ourselves.

This emotional approach to buying goes so deep as to extend to, even, basic purchases such as food and coffee. The reason we go to a Wall Mart or Costco, the reason we buy from Seers or Waitrose, the choices which make us patrons of a particular chain of department stores or an eclectic upmarket establishment are purely emotional, restrained only by a basic principle: what is in our wallet.

When we understand this we also understand that Social Marketing, in its present form, is less about making people buy or even make them think about buying and more about fostering the kind of relationship which may lead to them thinking about buying.

In short, although Social Network Marketing may appear, at first glance to be the digital equivalent of that all-powerful word-of-mouth publicity, in reality it is really nothing more than a digital handshake, an introduction of sorts. Just like in the real world an introduction has to go through the stages of someone shaking your hand, finding out something about you, getting to know you a little bit better and then, finally, taking your recommendation to buy something, so does social marketing on the web need to go through the same process.

Social Marketing is an Introduction

This makes every effort you put in place on social marketing networks nothing more than a handshake with the potential to lead to something more. The reason most social marketing today is perceived not to work is because those who apply it do so thinking they are selling. They are not. They are becoming better known and if the process of getting to know them better is one which introduces products and services which have real foundations and solid logic behind them, then, they shall lead to sales, brand awareness and eventually a bigger share of the market. Not before. 

David Amerland

David Amerland

owner/founder, DavidAmerland.com

David Amerland is the author of seven best-selling books including "Google Semantic Search: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Techniques That Gets Your Company More Traffic, Increases Brand Impact and Amplifies Your Online Presence" and "Google+ Hangouts for Business: How to use Google+ Hangouts to Improve Brand Impact, Build Business and Communicate in Real-Time."

He helps multi-national clients and start-ups to organize their SEO and Social Media strategies. He is a business journalist, author and international speaker. He blogs about social media and search engine optimization, writes for a number of prominent websites including Forbes, and advises a handful of corporations on their social media crisis management techniques.

His books on SEO and Social Media demystify the complexity of the subjects they cover for readers around the world providing an accessible blueprint to better understand and take advantage of the opportunities offered by the connected economy. Follow him on @DavidAmerland. or find him on G+

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Perfect article.  I feel as though the battle to educate the public and then in turn those who market to them is a overwhelming battle.  It is very difficult to know that you  do have the answers to make a campaign easier, or more effective, and all a client wants is more "Likes".  Thanks for these insights.

Jacob, you are right. All too often as social media marketers we are caught between what a client will ask for and what we knoe he really needs. Unfortunately there really is no easy answer to this. With companies I advise I take the view that they pay so they have the right to call the shots. I have to give them all the facts, explain things in detail, lay out benefits and drawbacks of everything they want to do and then simply let them make a choice. As long as we can deliver what has been agreed then we do what is expected of us. 

The headline definitely caught my attention. A portion of my job has to do directly with social media, so I was curious to find out exactly how beneficial a platform it really is, and I'm inclined to agree with Amerland on the matter. Very few things are cut and dry in the world of online marketing, and the notion that social networking (at a professional level) is essentially the digital version of a hand shake makes perfect sense.

It's always good to remember how important a handshake can be though.

Joseph, succinctly put and spot on! A handshake, done right, can open many doors. 

"The reason most social marketing today is perceived not to work is because those who apply it do so thinking they are selling." "When we understand this we also understand that Social Marketing, in its present form, is less about making people buy or even make them think about buying and more about fostering the kind of relationship which may lead to them thinking about buying." I disagree with these assumptions. The reason that social marketing today is perceived not to work is because the people spending the marketing budgets do so with the intention of influencing others to take a specific action and need to be able to measure the actions to justify the cost. That may be a purchase intention. It may be service/subscription signup. It could be influencing a political decision or social position. It might be brand penetration. If I use other forms of marketing like SEM, Display, Direct Mail, TV ads, SEO, Conventions etc I can more easily produce a measurable result. I know that I'm getting a greater, *measurable* return (whatever the metric I want to use) that I feel warrants the money that I'm spending on social media. Until this exists with social media there will always be skepticism from results-driven marketers. This is one reason that so many large brands do what they can to send people from their fan pages to their own domains where they can more tightly measure the interactions and the results. And the purveyors of social media technology know this ROI situation to be a problem that they need to address. You might have seen recently that Buddy Media, one of the large social media platforms, acquired Spinback. They even mention in their press release that this purchase was to allow them to show their clients, through analytics and conversion data, their ROI for the money that they're spending on social media. I have not seen one example of a company that is spending money on social media and has seen a benefit to their bottom line either through increased revenues or saved expenses. Maybe I'm not reading the right press. If you know of one please share. Companies are investing in social marketing right now because that is where their customers are today. They want to figure out how to make social work for them and they're experimenting to figure out how to generate a discernable business impact. Maybe calling it Social Marketing is a mislabeling of this fledgling industry. Perhaps we should call it Social Media Relations.

Christopher, thank you for your comment here. You are right in that companies are trying to set measurable results in social media related activities because they need to understand where their money goes and what it does. I pretty much agree with all your comment, I am a little bit puzzled where you disagree with me, we pretty much say the same thing. 

This shouldn't come as a surprise, but in our world of bigger, badder, faster marketers built an expectation that social media applications would allow them to jump tall buildings at a single bound and realize sales results quicker and more profitably.  Your point about a "handshake" is spot on.  Firms endorsing and practicing this electronic handshake as a natural starting point of their sales cycle will realize sales success with one difference from the traditional model - the size of their market has now expanded expotentially. Time, persistence and something I wrote about a few years ago, the continued need for face-to-face meetings (F2F), will over time lead to the sales, brand awarenes and improved marketshare firms are looking for.

Great article and thanks for level setting expectations!!




Bruce, thank you for taking the time to comment here. Human nature seems to be locked into finding shortcuts which do not exist. Back in the 90s I was present at corporate meetinsg on internet marketing which began with 'We now have access to millions of customers...' all that was perceived to be needed to make them all buy a product was a website (!). We seem to never learn much, just move on to the next 'big thing'. 

Thank you for this article! As much as some may not want to hear it, its absolutely true: the emotional connection to buying is what social media can really assist with. (I also think its an excellent tool for customer service.) It all depends on your goals though. We have had great success using social media platforms to drive website traffic, increase ranking in SERPS (SEO anyone?) and deliver brand awareness (buzzword). 

I think you have to be able to show a client more results then "but we've laid the seed!" and that is where all of these other justifications and measurements come in...

Corrie perfectly well said. In a world where a provider understands the connection between potential customer and the emotional impulse to make a purchase there is plenty of room for utilising Social Media to drive website sales (the very successful 'Old Spice' ads breathed a new life to a very tired product). You are also spot on in that the best results are achieved through a close integration of SEO and social media marketing. 

We are still in the early stages of it. I expect we shall see it mature into something a little more tanginble in the near future. 

Nice insights there David. I provide businesses with a content creation service for their social media presence, and it can be quite challenging explaining to them the benefits they'll get from it. Generally their ability to understand reflects their attitude toward the customer; the one's who do understand value and respect their customers and realise the importance of developing relationships with them. Those who don't are the hard and fast sellers who's only motivation is to make a quick buck. I'm quickly learning the latter party are better avoided..

Dan, the scourge of our times, clients who think 'digital' and 'online' means easy and instant. Stick to your guns and provide quality each time and it will pay off as business continues to come in. It can sometimes be disheartening dealing with those who want 'instant' but this is where, every provider, should take the opportunity to engage in some customer education. Many times this will pay off. In the few it doesn't, it usually becomes apparent so early on that it saves trouble and wasted time down the road.