Does Social Media Marketing Really Work?

Does Social Media Marketing Really Work?

I’ve had it with the “does social media marketing really work?” question and defending or convincing anyone about the merits or impact of social media and social media marketing (or, really, all things digital marketing).

This is the last time. Expect me to return a URL to this post any time anyone tries to debate this topic.

Part rant, part venting, and 100% the truth. It’s ok if you don’t like it. I’m not trying for you to like me, I just need to get this out of my system and hopefully not need to talk about it anymore.

First, Context

I do not offer social media marketing services. I do help my clients identify the strategies an tactics that stand to benefit their business, and set their systems up for success. But I don’t manage their social media. I want to state this so you don’t think I’m trying to convince you.

The Setup

I was curating good content like I normally do, and ran into a great article on time saving tips for social media marketers. Anyone that has done this bit for a while knows how crazy time consuming it can be. And so, anything that even remotely hints of effectiveness and productivity is invaluable.

That, and curating these kind of excellent articles is what I’m known for (really, follow, like, circle, you won’t regret it).

So I posted it on Facebook, hoping to add value to my audience, and my dear friend –let’s call him Derek–, Derek, who always has something to say about the topic, posted one of his usual disdainful remarks.

Golden Rule, What Your Momma Taught You, And Other Good Stuff

First off, who among one’s friend’s –if I was, say, a dentist– and shared an article about oral health, would post a dismissive argument about it because he or she “never gets cavities”? Not only does it defy logic, but it’s rude. We’re all taught not to do that, right? Am I alone here?

Now, I’m not naïve. I’ll be the first one to point out the overabundance of clowns in this industry certainly contributes to lowered respect towards it. But seriously, friends, respect the freakin’ work.

The Best Thing About Social Media Is Everyone Fully Exercises Their Right To Have An Opinion

The worst thing about social media is everyone fully exercises their right to have an opinion.

Being a recurring offender, my reply to Derek was tart at best. I guess sensing my reaction, Derek private-messaged me (the irony that this is all going on on Facebook does not escape me, but probably escapes super-user Derek) something like this:

my wife (changed to protect her identity) is in charge of social media for her real estate company. It takes quite a bit of her time. No one at their company has tried to figure out if their various efforts have lead to any real business (cash!). Likewise, no one has tried to figure out if staying off social media would lead to any real business losses.
Since this is not my field of expertise, I may not be situated to obtain summaries of scientific studies. I have not (yet) seen any cost benefit reports on the use of social media for marketing. Alternately, I have stumbled across a few non-scientific studies on the use of groupon and how there was zero benefit for several small businesses.”

Oh, man, so many sitting ducks… let’s see:

my wife is in charge of social media for her real estate company.

Is she a marketer? Because if she isn’t, that would have to be factored into any results. Just like, if I worked at her real estate company, it wouldn’t make sense to judge the real estate market based on my performance as an agent.

In my experience, the number one reason small businesses do not get, or know if they are having any, results with social media marketing is because they are neither marketers nor students of marketing, so they’re constantly improvising their way through it.

No goals, no assessment of audience, no consideration of messaging, unprofessional content, no use of tools (what my link was about), poor systems (lousy website, no email marketing, inconsistent branding, etc.) etc.

Just a random series of self-promotional posts. That’s just not how it works. Is it any wonder, then, they don’t get results?

It takes quite a bit of her time”

So, she would stand to benefit from the linked article, yet the choice is to argue about social media cost effectiveness? If I haven’t seen this a thousand times…

No one at their company has tried to figure out if their various efforts have lead to any real business (cash!).

Same happens with billboards, TV, yellow pages, local community papers, high school team uniform sponsorships, swag, trade shows, etc.. Why is Social Media measured differently? Why raise the bar the highest for what can be the most cost effective alternative?

Likewise, no one has tried to figure out if staying off social media would lead to any real business losses.

Oh, well, maybe they can wing it, drop digital marketing altogether, and find out what the cost is of not doing a thing.

Wait, this is where it gets really good:

Since this is not my field of expertise (my emphasis), I may not be situated to obtain summaries of scientific studies. I have not (yet) seen any cost benefit reports on the use of social media for marketing. Alternately, I have stumbled across a few non-scientific studies on the use of groupon and how there was zero benefit for several small businesses.

So, let me get this straight, you expect scientific rigor in justifying social media marketing, but are fine with anecdotal evidence that it doesn’t work? And then, the argument is based on Groupon?

Let’s do an aside here regarding Groupon

I don’t recommend anyone using it. The short of it is, in terms of marketing, it doesn’t build a loyal customer base, instead rewarding the bottom feeders.

The Groupon model is also tricky for small business owners to figure out financially –seriously, how many now what their exact margins are?– and logistically –imagine if your brick-and-mortar had ten times the traffic tomorrow, awesome, yes, painful too (wait for the Yelp reviews).

For the most part, if small businesses are hurt using Groupon, it’s because they didn’t stop to think it through. It says nothing about Groupon or social media.

The fact that Groupon works, however, in spite of all the bad press, is a strong argument in favor of social media.

But let’s get back to the good stuff: Science.

We don’t have a lot of social media marketing “ROI” research on small business for the same reason we don’t have it for TV, direct mail, etc.: Small business owners are busy running their business.

At best, most of them have a sense of an uptick in business when things go right, and desperation when they don’t. But there is a lot of research on the markets. And for research, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone better that Forrester Research and Edison Research.

Funny story, as I write this, the home page at Forrester Research reads: “Power has shifted to your customer.”, check it out:

Forrester Research home page, Aug. 2014

©2014, Forrester Research, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Power has shifted to your customer.” – Forrester Research

How, exactly, do you think that happened?

No clue? Here’s a hint (this is the last time this research was made available for free. Enjoy):


But wait, I haven’t even touched on “Social Media ROI”…

Social Media ROI

First, let’s get something clear: in business theory, Marketing is an expense, cost of doing business, not cost of goods. In that sense, to accurately measure a “Return on Investment” is unrealistic, for social as well as all other marketing (think ROI of a tradeshow, a billboard, a community impact ad, a native advertising interview on the morning tv show, etc.).

Only in the last two decades has the terms ROI been associated with marketing. (The irony that the appropriation of accounting terminology for marketing was popularized by a marketer is a bit much.)

This is not to say it shouldn’t be measured, and expenses accounted for (can you say Superbowl ad?). But to expect a 1:1 relationship between efforts/expense to sales is as realistic as the local used car dealer expecting a car sold every time the owner makes a fool of himself on his TV commercials.

Marketing is an expense. What matters is making it as cost-effective as possible.

Social Media Marketing Goals and Expectations:

Expectations of what good results are need to be tuned with reality. And the reality is, for small businesses, social is great for branding, not so much for selling. That is, the kind of cool stuff we like and share and maybe remember the name of the brand and that’s about it.

It’s a slow-burn process. You don’t just post a house listing and sell it. That’s not how it works.

In the words of Gary Vaynerchuck:

The world changes, platforms change, and we learn to adapt. But the secret sauce remains the same: The incredible brand awareness and bottom-line profits achievable through social media marketing require hustle, heart, sincerity, constant engagement, long-term commitment, and most of all, artful and strategic storytelling.”
Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World

At the agency I just sold, there’s a photographer client who continuously posts inspiring quotes and posts that have nothing to do with photography, but appeal to her followers and clientele.

She has a great, loyal following. When we had a customer loyalty promo go out a few weeks late (her doing), and didn’t seem to pick up steam, it was social marketing that brought it to life, achieving 85% of what she had done last year, with only 50% of the bookings (a strategic goal, to make it more manageable).

You can’t convince her this social media marketing thing doesn’t work.

But expectations can’t be set correctly if we think in terms of “real business” only equals “cash”, like my friend Derek states.

Digital marketing offers a lot of help in the long trip that is marketing today. And conversion (read: “success”) is measured in many different ways. For example, look at the top two desired conversions in these different verticals*:


  • Make an appointment online (65%)
  • Complete inquiry form (61%)

  • Complete an online transaction (47%)
  • Make an appointment online (46%)

  • Register for an account (50%)
  • Complete an online transaction (49%)
Financial Services

  • Complete an online transaction (65%)
  • Register for an account (55%)
Health and Wellness

  • Complete inquiry form (75%)
  • Register for an account (66%)

  • Complete an online transaction (66%)
  • Complete inquiry form (45%)

So, Does Social Media Marketing Really Work?

The problem with this question is the question.

I imagine the debate about whether TV would have any impact in what we do, business included, must have lasted way into the 60’s. No one would be stupid enough to question now that it did (even as it starts to change again).

If success in digital marketing is measured different in different industries and markets, in order to know whether social media marketing does work or does not, one has to first understand the metrics of success. And that, my friends, is where most small businesses fail because they ignore these things.

The question is not if Social Media Marketing Really Works.

The correct question is:

Are you doing Social Media Marketing in a way that works for you?


The Reality Out There

For most small business, all of this is overwhelming, and yes, can get expensive. Also, with everyone and their mom having an opinion about it, most of them do very poorly at it, and in reality may not know where to seek good information.

I think it’s the business owners responsibility to inform themselves. Just like the do with the rest of their business.

Finally, think about it, if it was all a big scam, ponzi scheme, or useless fad, it would have already faded away. I’ll be the first one to tell you the industry is full of those, but so are TV, radio, and print, and that doesn’t reduce their value. Are you willing to risk not using it?

Are you doing Social Media Marketing in a way that works for you?”


* Source: Search Engine Land
Photo Credit: luc legay via Compfight cc

Nando Journeyman

Hi, I’m Nando Cabán-Méndez, the “Commerce Whisperer”, an entrepreneur with more than 25 years of experience in business and design, and more than 10 years in digital marketing and eCommerce. At Tipit, I use my skills and experience to help online business owners grow their business with best-of-breed eCommerce, app, and website solutions. In this blog, I share experiences from my life and career, and one or two opinions. Subscribe to stay in touch.