by  Bob Hoffman (@adcontrarian), San Francisco Bay Every time I try to explain to someone who is not in the ad business (and some people who are) why social media marketing has been a disappointment, I get the same response:

“But how can you say that? Facebook has over a billion users… Twitter is the medium people have used to overthrow governments… Pinterest is this and Instagram has that…and…my daughter is constantly using social media and… andand…”

What people don’t seem to understand is that social media and social media marketing are two very different things.

Social media has been a huge worldwide success. Social media marketing has not.

Social media is to social media marketing as news is to public relations.

News is generated by news media. The objective of PR is to influence that news. Social media is chit chat generated by individuals. The objective of social media marketing is to influence the chit chat.

Just as PR is rarely successful at manipulating the reporting of the news, social media marketing is rarely successful at manipulating chit chat.

Sure, sometimes Burger King’s PR department gets a story placed somewhere and they have a big PR hit. And sometimes Wendy’s social media effort pays off with a social media success. But both are rare and massively unreliable.

Do PR and social media pay out in the long run? If done well, I guess so. But no one with a functioning brain believes anymore that they can rely on either to carry their marketing water for them.

Regardless of what PR experts tell you, you cannot control the news. Regardless of what social media experts tell you, you cannot control chit chat. Just as people can smell PR disguised as news, they can also smell social media marketing disguised as chit chat.

As social media marketing has been exposed for not being the magic it was purported to be, its influence — even in the world of social media — has waned.

The early zealots of social media marketing claimed that it was going to replace traditional paid advertising. “Talking down to consumers” (the code words zealots use to describe advertising) was going to be replaced by consumers having “conversations about brands.” This wonderful little fantasy soon became unmasked for the nonsense it was.

One of the confusing elements of this topic is a distinction that many don’t understand. Just as social media and social media marketing are different things, social media marketing and social media channels are often confused.

Our most successful social media channel — Facebook — can barely be considered a vehicle for social media marketing anymore. It has mutated into a channel for delivering traditional banner advertising. Facebook’s revenue model is basically no different from any other website — they are selling ad space. They are not in the “conversation” business. They are in the advertising space sales business.

My informal estimate is that over 1/3 of a Facebook page is covered with display ads of some sort, either outside your feed or inside it.

Social media marketing is devolving into not much more than traditional advertising on social media channels. The delusion that consumers crave conversations with marketers and engagement with brands is quickly evaporating.


– The Ad Contrarian is Bob Hoffman, is the author of The Ad Contrarian and 101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising. Reprinted from his blog The Ad Contrarian.

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