Yes, Virginia, Social Media is a Marketing Channel!

Social media, which continues to offer at least the opportunity of earned organic payoff but would seem to be maximally effective nowadays mostly as paid media, is still a marketing channel.


Or maybe I should say, Yes, Augie Ray, Social Media in general is a marketing channel, given comments from that leading authority that I will quote below. This has become a big issue now that many corporate marketers have caught on to Facebook’s so-called “bait and switch” business strategy:  In lieu of all those previously free organic “earned” impressions we used to send automatically to your fans, we now suggest paid advertising on Facebook as the way you can best, or more likely, reach your desired audiences. Increasingly, companies are awakening from their Social Media dreams (fantasies?), and their resentment at the agencies who sold them the bill of goods — free impressions, earn more and more fans with contests, kittens, and coupons, and ROI is just over the horizon! — grows and festers.[1] And expert Social Media commentators such as Augie Ray are eagerly (and quite legitimately) egging them on[2]: The atmosphere is now thick with Schadenfreude. But let’s give Augie his voice on the issue:

I am coming to the conclusion that social media is NOT a marketing channel. It probably never was, but at least an argument could be made at a time when brands could count on a certain level of organic earned media. But those days are gone, and brands keep trying to be talkable with dumb viral videos and inane sweepstakes.

There are exceptions, of course, but by and large brands have missed the meaning of the social era. It wasn’t that marketers now have yet another channel to exploit but that the things already important–like customer experience, purpose/mission, loyalty, customer centricity and the like–are now even more important.

I think it’s time for the stream of uninteresting spam and useless marketing content to end. It’s time brands were more responsive in social, built social into their product and service strategies and focused more on loyalty than acquisition via social.[3]

Of course, some amount of Schadenfreude is justified here. Companies should have known better: There is no limitless free lunch, certainly no free Social Media ROI banquets. Companies that failed to do due diligence on agencies that actually appreciated not a jot about “earned media”[4] really should be indignant only with themselves: When you buy into an agenda that, as Augie says, substitutes sweepstakes and kittens  for “customer experience, purpose/mission, loyalty, customer centricity,” you have no one to blame but yourselves.

Am I therefore nitpicking when I allege that while Augie’s analysis of this fiasco is straightforwardly correct, his conclusion —Social Media is not “and probably never was” a marketing channel — is just as straightforwardly wrong?

Marketing 101: Marketing is not and has never been about selling; it is and has always been about laying the way for sales by either creating or increasing existing demand. Traditionally, that has been done by companies through various paid media, whether that be direct mail campaigns or TV advertising. Now comes along Social Media and, pre-eminently, Facebook, and we have this new concept or model of earned media: You can market essentially for free to our millions of users by establishing a Facebook Page, posting content, and having your posts distributed to any and all who “like” your Page. But now that jig is up: Sorry, your posts may henceforward reach only a teeny-tiny portion of your fan base; if you want anything more, you’ll have to open the corporate wallet and advertise on the platform.

If Facebook is not a marketing channel — because “arguably” it’s only legitimate to call Facebook a marketing channel “when brands [can] count on a certain level of organic earned media” — then what is it? Is it really only another paid media opportunity and not a marketing channel (any more) because (realistically, for maximum effectiveness) you’ll now probably have to go for ads? That could be the case only if, as Augie seems to be doing here, you conflate online marketing with organic earned media. But online marketing is hardly the same as earned organic media; in fact it has always been mostly about paid media.[5] So Facebook (and Social Media in general) — which continues to offer at least the opportunity of earned organic payoff but would seem to be maximally effective nowadays mostly as paid media—is still, indeed, a marketing channel.

I don’t think this is nitpicking or a question of semantics, for it’s not only recognizable or wannabe brands that market themselves on Facebook: Everyone is marketing himself/herself on Facebook. That is largely what Facebook is for, creating or increasing existing demand for ME. Facebook has become the singularly most popular place to show (market) yourself as an engaged environmentalist; politico; philanthropist or coupon cutter; animal lover (kittens, puppies, or orcas, chimps, elephants); devoted mom, dad, or grandparent (Isn’t she just the cutest little baby of all?); adroit skier, hunter, surfboarder; religiously faithful or convinced atheist; beer lover (Hey, I even brew my own!), wine connoisseur, teetotaler, gourmand or vegan; music lover, music producer (Buy my CD on YouTube!); just genuinely cool girl or guy… Hardly an exhaustive list — merely a sample from my own neglected (avoided) Facebook faithful — but I think it proves my point. Facebook gives us all an equal opportunity of portraying some more or less idealized version of ourselves, proclaiming on each personal page that I’m living a life that matters, I’m well-worth knowing, listening to, watching, liking or loving. It’s all about creating or increasing demand for me, myself, and I.[6]

It’s, uh, marketing. Is it all that different, in intention if not in successful performance, for recognized or wannabe brands? Granted, if the best you can do to market your company is offer is “inane sweepstakes” that bring in a million inevitably evanescent fans, or “dumb viral videos,” then you’re not likely to earn much of worth on earned Social Media sites. But you can take a different approach and demonstrate that “customer experience, purpose/mission, loyalty, customer centricity and the like” are what you’re really about. Yes, that’s likely to be a somewhat more or less idealized version of your company — for how many companies today are practically oriented to and organized around such concerns? — but you’re much more likely to earn real fans, loyal fans, people who don’t just “like” you but trust you. And today,[7] with more and more people not simply waiting around for the insurance salesman to knock at their front door, but actively googling insurers, visiting and perusing corporate Web sites, and visiting and perusing and participating on Social Media sites, intelligently marketing your company on those sites may be one of the best opportunities you have to build trust and create or increase demand for your products and services.



[1] And now all of a sudden they have to get budgeting for Social! “While marketers have become more comfortable with social media, the biggest problem seems to be that many still think social doesn’t require a financial investment.” Laurie Sullivan, “Marketers Lack Social Budgets, But Investments Growing in 2014,” MediaPost, May 1.

[2] Augie Ray, “What if Everything You Know about Social Media Marketing is Wrong?,” Experience: The Blog, April 3, 2014. I suppose I’m somewhat guilty here as well: See my attempted smackdown of AXA’s Facebook delusions, “AXA, Facebook, and the “Shot Heard Round the Industry,” Insurance Innovation Reporter, April 21, 2014.

[3] Augie Ray, “The Problem with Social Media Case Studies,” Experience: The Blog, April 1, 2014

[4] I recently read a tweet about an agency Social Media exec asking, in a sales pitch, how many characters Twitter allows in a tweet…

[5] See, most obviously, PPC (Pay-per-Click) Search Engine Marketing.

[6] It’s much the same on Twitter, no? Granted you’re still faced with that haiku-like 140 character limit, but you can add pictures now…

[7] “These days, more and more consumers take the process of decision-making and purchase consideration into their own hands.  In some cases I’ve heard numbers that 80% of the purchase process is decided before someone even speaks to a salesperson.”  Corey Treffiletti, “Why Marketing is More (MUCH more) Important than Ever Before,” MediaPost, April 30, 2014.

Kenneth Hittel // Ken Hittel is currently Digital Strategy Advisor on the board of advisors to FairWinds Partners, a Domain Name Strategy and Services provider. Prior to joining the FairWinds board, Ken worked in a variety of positions at New York Life Insurance Company for more than 20 years, the last 12 of which involved running the Corporate Internet Dept., responsible for the Company’s Digital Strategy, its Web sites, online lead generation programs, and its portfolio of mobile and Social Media presences. Ken has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Political Science and a M.A. in philosophy and Economics from the Graduate Faculty of the New School University. Follow him on Twitter: @khittel or email him at

Comments (3)

  1. Ken

    Simply put, this is perfect. Social media is NOW a marketing channel. Before, it was a odd set of rules that needed to be gamed to earn some unclear benefit of being liked. Marketing people were quickly replaced by 20-somethings, becuase they “got it”. Turns out they did nt get it after all. Marketing is getting your message in front of likely buyers and social media is a communication channel and a very good one.

    Marketers need to reach people that WANT to receive a message and then, assuming they agree, will pass it on via social media or by good old word of mouth. Social media allows companies to reach people in ways never thought of before but it is not easy – but then again why should it be.

    • As Edmund Kean was reported to have said on his death bed, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Well, social media is damned hard, too. It’s a question of being authentic on platforms that are still quite distinct and different — so that what plays well as a tweet probably doesn’t work nearly as well as a post or promoted story on Facebook , and vice versa — while simultaneously attempting to stay true to your branding and your real value-add.
      Beyond this, which is tough enough, is the question of how you integrate your Social efforts into everything else you’re doing digitally. How does Social work with your Web site(s), your mobile presence, your PPC and other lead generation efforts, and your online direct sales? Crack that nut and then you can talk meaningfully about ROI (although not, not ever, I think, Social Media ROI).
      All this is why experienced marketers are the inevitable inheritors of the Social project and why Social must inevitably be put in its proper place in the ongoing attempt to leverage digital to drive real business results.
      That most marketers are exactly great at this new “hard” stuff, however, must be admitted as well. As we know, there’s an awful lot of bad marketing out there…

    • Terry, just minutes after posting the reply above, I came across this from Mediapost:
      At present, 52% of the U.S. adult online population report using more than one social network, according to comScore. Among those 107 million U.S. adults, more than half say they use four or more social networks.
      In fact, 40% of multiplatform users report using five or more networks; 30% report using six or more; and 23% say they use more than seven social networks.
      “People are very conscious of what each platform is good for, for them,” Rosenberg said. “Not everyone uses Twitter the same way, but people are very aware of what they use Twitter for and how that’s different from what they use Facebook and the others for.”

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