Is the influence of social media overhyped?


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So maybe I'm just getting old, but when just about every article about the Silly Bandz craze credits social media with the spread of the fad, I can't be the only one who thinks we're overvaluing the role of Twitter and Facebook.

Word of mouth marketing has always been the best type, and social networking and the Internet are really just amplified versions of it. But when I compare the progress of the Silly Bandz fad to a similar one of my youth (Millennials, I'm talking about slap bracelets), the colorful silicone bands don't actually seem to be spreading any faster or in a different manner. In fact, substitute the word “Silly Bandz” for “Slap Wraps” in this 1990 NY Times article, and you'd hardly know it's been twenty years since the bracelets made news headlines.

(I'll give my fellow Gen Xers a moment to pick themselves up off the floor.)

If you look at the interviews with kids who are caught up in the fad, they're seeing them at school. Hearing about them from a friend. Were gifted a band by a visiting cousin. Or, in my son's case, found one laying on the sidewalk, stuck it on his scooter, and discovered its popularity when the band quickly vanished.

Searching for signs of life

At first glance, the Silly Bandz Facebook fan page is impressive. I was surprised by the vast numbers of discussions there, right up until I clicked on a thread that went on for pages with largely an array of insights like:

“U r so dum. Silly Bandz r NOT just 4 girls.”

“My friend's cousin's fingers turned black and he had 2 get his arm cut off bc he wore 2 many Silly Bandz.”

My apologies to social media enthusiasts, but I remain unconvinced that kids are gaga over these things because they're seeing them on Facebook. Sure, they're talking about Silly Bandz there, but that's because social networking is an integral part of their lives. They're also chattering away about them on cell phones and during recess, but no one is crediting either of those with the craze.

Some real industry changes

That's not to say that social media doesn't have a measurable impact on some businesses.

When a Southwest Airlines crew decided comedian Kevin Smith was too fat to fly, he tweeted a series of irate messages to the company (and the rest of the Internet). With plenty more disgruntled and stranded customers, the airline industry can no longer ignore the colorful complaints that would have once been rerouted to the nearest trash can. It's still too early to determine if the negative "press" will harm the industry more than the forced improvements in customer care will help.

Meanwhile, the recruiting industry has benefited greatly from professional social networks like LinkedIn, which have made talent poaching a respectable practice. (This begs the question: Is it really poaching if people have checked the “interested in career opportunities” box?) A recruiter at a well-known corporation recently confided that the company now finds sites like Monster.com largely irrelevant—the same sites that were their primary source of leads just a few years ago.

And certainly social media has forced marketing, branding, and PR teams to assess the authenticity of their communications. Customers, both current and prospective, expect to be engaged in dialogue. Organizations that use social media solely to broadcast messages frequently find themselves ignored, or worse, unfriended.

Remaining competitive

So if social media is both significant and insignificant, how does a business keep up with technology while remaining competitive?

For one, realize that social media is no panacea. Twitter isn't going to sell your product if nobody wants it, and having a Facebook page doesn't equal having a following. I've yet to see social media save a nonviable business.

That's because the 21st century business model requires more than a few social network accounts. It means doing business the open source way. When you are committed to transparency, social media is not threatening. When you are excited about collaborating with customers, social media offers unprecedented opportunity. Sharing your knowledge has never been easier or more affordable.

On the other hand, if you want secrecy, social media is terrifying. If you want to dictate the terms of your relationship with your customers, social media is undermining. If you want to hoard your knowledge, well, good luck with that.

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7 Comments

suehle's picture

It's harder to find examples of social media *making* a business, although there are clear examples of it helping when it's done right. I'm going to ping @johnvlane on Twitter to swing by here, because I know he has some good ones.

But because it's far easier to kill trust (particularly with a megaphone) than to create it, there are plenty of examples of people getting fired and businesses coming down a notch because of how they used social media. Just locally speaking--Crumb? And then of course, there's when you're doing it wrong, so somebody else steps in--either to do your job, or just to mock. I hear @BPGlobalPR calling. And if you haven't read the story of Leroy Stick, I highly recommend it.

FWIW, though, I don't see Silly Bandz as being dependent on social media either. But it also doesn't appear to be hurting them. It would be interesting to find a way to quantify the speed, spread, and death of a fad before social media. Your kid and mine both got them from the old ways. But they're also both too young to read, much less Tweet. What about the students I see here on campus for freshman orientation with arms full of them? Twenty years ago, they probably would have had to wait for that interaction with a cousin. Now that cousin might be on the other side of the country, but she's showing you the new fad through Twitpic *right now*--not at the family reunion in six months.

All this new technology comes down to an old cliche: You get out what you put in.

(Read some mostly non-business bonus stories of Twitter gone bad)

Colonel Panik's picture

Great article! Topic is very relevant in Open Source.

Not being a user of any of the various "social media"
tools I am not sure how well they work. But the millions
of always connected people who live by social media sure
seem to be getting the job done.

Conversation for 2010? The global water cooler?
Digital coffee shop? It is all of those, but much faster
and you can log it all. We can all partake of the
Cyber Bohemia.

Will social media kill companies or politicians? Maybe.
Will it create new entities? For sure. Do we have
any idea what social media will look like in five years?
No, we do not have a clue.

dragonbite's picture
Open Minded

I think the value of social media is greatly exaggerated.

My kids heard about Silly Bands and they are definitely not on any of the social sites yet and neither are most of their friends. Yet they were telling me about them.

I think people throw around the "social media" term in articles, etc. because they get more hits that way.

Ajsa Ferguson's picture

I use a couple different social networking sites including facebook and twitter and I have never heard of silly bandz. Just goes to show how much social networking affects marketing. If it works, then it works, if it doesn't then it doesn't. It's a great point of attack for businesses to push their product into the world, but there are far more efficient ways of forcing information upon people.

John Lane's picture

Thanks for the post. And thanks to Ruth for pointing it out to me.

I completely agree with you that the Silly Bandz craze may have had less to do with social media than credited. But, on the other hand, I think BlendTec would tell you social media has everything to do with their incredibly increased sales.

There's successes and failures that fall on all sides of social media: it worked alone, it didn't work at all, it augmented my existing marketing well. Personally I — like you, it seems — think the third instance is probably the most feasible/realistic. Just about all successful marketing these days is some form of integrated system of owned media, paid media, and earned media. Online social networks are a very large part of that "earned" category.

This isn't (only) about pimping my presentation. I really think there's case studies here that show that there is power in social media, in all three instances listed above. But I tried to tell the whole story... and I tried to temper that hype — just like you are doing here — with the idea that in most cases, it is only one portion of an integrated whole. If you'd like to check out the presentation and many case studies, it's here: http://ar.gy/ru

Thanks again for the great post.

@johnvlane

Rebecca's picture
Open Source Champion

...because I only heard about it from a friend, in person.

What's the social media story behind it?

(And is it any better than a VitaMix? Everything she described sounded like the 1980s Mother Earth News ads for VitaMix, which I must admit that I still daydream about from time to time.)

John Lane's picture

I'm curious. Did you hear about BlendTec from a friend in statement like: "BlendTec makes the best blender." Or in a statement like: "Have you seen the 'Will it Blend' videos on YouTube?"

For $50 dollars (to buy a lab coat, goggles and a couple other items), they started the "Will it Blend" phenomenon. Their videos regularly get millions of views, hundreds of comments, and countless numbers of Tweets, Facebook posts and blog mentions. It's also gotten them better search results and national media attention. And, just as important, it sparked offline word-of-mouth.

The result was 700% growth over two years.

Even if your friend's statement was more like the first example at the top of this comment, it's probable that the videos sparked their interest to buy!

So, in many ways, there's only a social media story.

That's still not to say social media works for everyone, or will work to the same effect as it did for BlendTec. But it's a great case study for how social media can spark both online and offline word-of-mouth movements.