Why I hate the term “social media”

Sorry … I need to get this off my chest …

I hate the term “social media”.  There, I said it.

Ok, ok … let me be clear, I love the use of permission-based online techniques that are used to engage with people and raise awareness about (and draw people to) a business.  So perhaps it’s not the term I hate as much as the perception and preconceived notions that people – marketing geeks and business folk alike – hold about it.

Here are my troubles with the term “social media”:

  1. Nebulous – People have widely diverse thoughts and definitions about this emerging field – the proverbial alphabet soup.  Facebook?  Blog?  Twitter?  MySpace?
  2. Overly focused on tools – Mention “social media” and people will tell you about a tool they either love or hate, unfortunately without any mention of strategies, objectives, metrics, or people.
  3. Disconnected from business – Even if people think they understand the tools, objectives, people they’re attempting to influence and so on, “social media” still seems so separate, in its own silo, from existing/traditional marketing plans.  How to integrate the new with the old?
  4. Cannot stand alone – Social media is just another channel in a larger mix, not an island.

What’s the better way to view social media?

In the context of “inbound marketing” …

Outbound Marketing vs. Inbound Marketing

From 30,000 feet, marketing can be viewed in two buckets – inbound and outbound:

marketing from 30k feet

  • Outbound marketing – Interruption-based offline techniques like TV, radio, newspaper, yellow pages, direct mail, cold-calling, spam email “blasts”, etc., that are quickly losing their effectiveness to influence (think: megaphone)
  • Inbound marketing – Permission-based online techniques like blogs, e-books, webinars, videos, tweets of information, etc. that are used to draw people to you (think: magnet)

The advancement of technologies like TiVo, satellite radio, RSS, privacy rights, caller ID, and spam filters are a driving factor in the decreasing effectiveness of outbound techniques.  People are so well conditioned to these techniques that they simply don’t have the same impact (and, hence, ROI) that they once did.

It’s time to rethink marketing.

Three Pillars of Inbound Marketing

Here are the components of inbound marketing, as well as how they work in tandem with one another:


(1) Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Refers to the “organic” or natural rankings within search engine results (not the paid/sponsored links).  Aside from the Google, Yahoo and Bing engineers, nobody really knows the true secret sauce that determines ranking.  However, at a high-level, we do know this much …

  • 25% is “on-page” and within our control.  Keywords, keywords, keywords in our page titles, URLs, and copy.  (Note:  Not keyword stuffing)
  • 75% is “off-page” and outside of our control!  Inbound links, links, links to our website from other relevant and authoritative websites.  Search engines view these as recommendations, which operate much like the real world.  For example, consider that you (like me) are really into house music and (a) you meet an 80-year-old man on a plane who recommends George Gershwin vs. (b) your best friend who recommends the new Deep Dish album.  Which opinion has more relevancy and authority?  Another interesting thing to note … yes, it’s great if someone links to your website from their website using a format like www.davemorse.net or Click Here.  But, it’s most ideal for them to format the hyperlink using descriptive keywords like Online Marketing Genius.

I realize this might seem like minutia-level detail … but don’t forget about the George Bush “miserable failure” incident!

Google bomb anyone?

(2) Content Marketing

It seems obvious to state that one of the primary motivations of web browsers is information.  Collecting it, reading it, sharing it and consuming it.  What kind of information?  Well, of course, that all depends.  But I can tell you the type of information people are NOT seeking:  self-serving, self-promoting and self-indulgent corporate gibberish.  The bottom line is that people don’t care as much about your company/products/services as you do!

I spend a little time each/every day trolling Twitter, following mostly online marketing geeks.  The stuff that gets spread like wildfire is information that helps or enhances our worldview in some way.  Being an interactive/online marketing kind-of-guy, information like “Six ways to prepare your website for new new markets“, “Twitter’s hidden marketing superpowers” and “Seven ways to avoid humiliating email blunders” will get my attention and get passed around like a hot potato.  Trust me, I see it every day.

Therefore, when companies/brands engage with consumers, it’s critical that they understand this point:  Marketing = Publishing.  This is a VERY tough hurdle for traditional marketers – it requires a shift in thinking for those who are accustomed to interrupting people with self-centered product/service promotions.  “We have a new product!” or “Our company supports the XYZ Charity”. Blah, who cares!

Wikipedia has a nice definition of “content marketing”:

Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.

What is considered content?

  • Website copy
  • Blogs, Tweets
  • Facebook fan pages
  • Videos
  • News & trends
  • Webinars
  • Podcasts
  • Tools
  • Photos
  • Presentations,
  • eBooks & white papers

Content is really anything of interest to your buyer personas that persuade them to take profitable action.

A few quotes that drive home this point:

The best websites are designed by those who think like publishers … who start with a content strategy, and then focus on delivery” ~ David Meerman Scott

By empowering customers with genuine news and information, a company becomes ½ of a trusted relationship” ~ Joe Pulizzi

You shouldn’t be thinking so much about what to say, but rather what your audience needs to hear” ~ Joe Pulizzi

Content marketing works to create a relationship between an organization and a stakeholder that is profitable for both sides” ~ Joe Pulizzi

Here are some must-read content marketing resources:

(3) Social Media

Dave, I’m 48.  I know nothing about this ‘social media’ stuff.  I don’t tweeter or tweet, or whatever it’s called, and I hate Facebook.  Plus, I don’t even know how I’d incorporate that stuff into my business – who has the time?!

I’ll cut to the chase:  social media is about content and conversation.  Period.

As I mentioned, I have a pet peeve with the term “social media” because (upon mention) people are drawn to thinking/talking about a specific tool, like Twitter or Facebook.  Social media is not about the tools – they may come and go!  Rather, it is about the connections that you make and the value exchanged.

A cocktail party is a great analogy …

Let’s say that you own and operate a neighborhood pet store, and know nothing about marketing or the Internet.  You’re invited to a networking event and meet two people:

First, you meet a guy named Joe, who (for the next 45 minutes immediately after shaking your hand) does nothing but go on and on and on and on about himself, his travels, his car, and his business.  Mundane details.  At a couple points, you attempt to interject some commentary, but no to avail.  Spew, spew, spew.  “Hey, what’d you say you name was again?” at the end of his rant. “Nice to meet you Doug!”  Ugh.  Where’s the hand sanitizer?!

Next, you meet a guy named Mike, who shakes your hand and compliments you on the bird seed in your hair.  :-)  After a chuckle, he inquires about your line of work and listens as you begin to confess that you’re struggling with your marketing and would like to leverage the Internet, but have no idea where to start.  He responds that he, too, owns his own business and has recently made some big improvements by doing some simple things using the Internet.  He offers to email you the name of his friend who is an expert in the field and helped him get started.  He also recommends three fundamental things to do immediately, which are easy and don’t cost much.  Finally, he turns and introduces you to his accountant, who helped to reduce his taxes and restructure his business.

Which of these connections added value?

Social media is no different – meet people, start conversations, ask questions, and add value.

Working Together

The way in which these three play together is compelling and cool.  Here’s an overly simplistic example:

  • You develop a content strategy and begin cranking out compelling information, like (if you’re like Dr. Helaine Smith, DMD) a free e-book on “Healthy Mouth, Healthy Sex: ” (http://helainesmithdmd.blogspot.com/2008/03/healthy-mouth-healthy-sex-free-e-book.html).
  • You begin sharing this content with the personas you wish to influence (not to mention creating valuable connections, with whom you discuss other things aside from business, like kids, cars, etc).
  • These connections consume and begin sharing your content, posting to their blogs, saving to Del.icio.us and Reddit, voting it up on Digg, sharing on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Relevant and authoritative websites begin linking to your website and content.
  • As a result, your Google PageRank begins to increase and your website appears on page 1 for a majority of the phrases you’re hoping to win.



Remember, social media is all about content and conversation.  Tipping Point Labs put it best when they said, “Conversation without content is mere networking; content without conversation is just dead content”.  I couldn’t agree more.

This is a big adjustment for marketers who, for years, have used traditional interruption-based tactics to push their product/service.  Inbound marketing represents a radical (and required) shift in thinking—people don’t care about your products/services like YOU care about your products/services.  Instead, learn about the stuff that makes people (who want and need your products/services) tick.  Document these buyer personas and orient your content strategy around them!  Create and share content that they’ll love and want to share, and engage with them and add value.

The ultimate goal is to become the authority in the minds of those you are attempting to influence.  Make this your long-term, high-level focus, instead of merely focusing on creating awareness, persuading preference and driving sales.  Yes, those elements are a necessary part of your strategy.  I assert that focusing on becoming an authority is the preferred approach because it (a) places emphasis on creating and nurturing long-term relationships, (b) forces you to think about adding value through information (vs. short-lived, ineffective tactics designed to interrupt you with a self-serving message), and as a result (c) drives awareness, preference and sales.

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22 thoughts on “Why I hate the term “social media”

    1. I had not heard of feverbee.com, but it looks great. Online communities are excellent if they make sense for your constituency.

  1. Excellent post, Dave. We often talk about the social Web in terms of content and community.

    You’re absolutely correct that every organization needs to begin viewing itself as a publisher — not of promotional information and sales messages, but of content that is relevant and valuable to clearly defined buyer personas.

    Whether its posting social networking updates, writing an ebook or publishing blog posts, we advise clients to always ask the question, “What value can I bring?”


  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you! In the sea of bad advice regarding social media, here is something that just makes sense to me! I’ll admit I’ve done my fair share of outbound marketing in social media venues, but it just never felt right and it didn’t seem to work either. I’m still learning, but I believe you’ve helped me get on the right track!

    1. Tonya, thanks for the kind remarks! I’m glad you agree. This is an idealistic view of things – I wish the world could just snap into alignment with this thinking :) But the reality is that it takes time. And I intentionally painted a somewhat negative view of “outbound” tactics in order to make a clear contrast with “inbound” tactics … but, again, the reality is that many of these tactics are still a fine way of raising awareness and getting people to act. They’re not going away anytime soon. So, the best approach is to weave/integrate the two together. Thanks again for reading and taking the time to respond!

  3. I totally agree that the term is nebulous, but I’m not sure that social media requires a conversation. Sometimes it’s the publicity of the conversation. Seth Godin doesn’t participate in conversation – he doesn’t even allow comments on his blog… but he spurs much debate. I think he uses social media even though he’s not literally in it.

    If I observe a blog but never enter the conversation, am I not using social media? If I click on a shared link but never comment, am I not using social media? Isn’t the act of simply sharing the information an endorsement or means of conversation?

    I saw a venn diagram once that I like – it defines social media as technology where sharing, publishing, and networking are incorporated. I don’t know that a literal conversation is necessary, although the act of sharing and networking is a type of conversation in an of itself.

    Great post, Dave… much to think about!

    1. Thanks Doug! Valid point – I would agree that an actual conversation isn’t necessary … perhaps a better way to frame it is to say social media is about content + engagement (via sharing, consuming, conversing/networking, etc). How’d you get to be so smart? :)

  4. I’m sending a link to this post to anyone asking me to build a content management system so that he or she can do social media and networking. This is one of the most concise explanations of that I’ve read. It certainly reinforces that it’s not the tool, but the message that counts.

    1. Wow! Thanks Jim! Appreciate the kudos. And yes, please spread the word :-) People think it’s all about “social media” (specifically about a tool, like Twitter), but in reality what businesses want/need are to (1) get discovered online (via inbound marketing tactics), (2) convert the traffic, and (3) measure what they’ve done to prove ROI. You should absolutely subscribe to Hubspot’s blog – fantastic thought leadership there.

  5. Dave,
    This post is great.
    I have met lots of people who I only speak about social media as tools – not as part of a concept. There is a certain amount of fear and distrust around these two words. But as soon as you change them to inbound marketing and explain “social” as a part of this, peoples attitudes changed and people became much more willing to interact around the subject.
    I will definitely be recommending this post to explain this concept to others in clear and concise manner – that I cannot always convey!
    Thank you.

    1. Helena,

      Thanks for the compliments! (And thanks for reading my incredibly loooong post :) Trust me, I’m no expert – my company and I are still learning and growing a lot in this area. But I did create a PowerPoint preso based on this post and it has really resonated with people! “Oh, this stuff finally makes sense” and “you should present this to the rest of the company” were the general responses. Honestly, I give HubSpot credit for my “religious conversion” to this way of thinking – be sure to check ‘em out! Thanks again, Helena.

  6. Great insights Dave. Enjoyed talking with you a while back at lunch and the intelligent questions you asked that I didnt have answers for ;) I do have one small gripe. You can control inbound linking. While you cant control how many, who and how people link to your page (notice my thinly veiled attempt at keyword linking in my name heading) you can hire a firm like Slingshot SEO to build inbound links for you. You can do the inbound linking yourself (as I did here) but that takes alot of time that most people dont have. Otherwise a completely spot on post. I got to pick my title so I chose Director of Digital Communications instead of Social Media yadda yadda due to the exact things mentioned in this post. Anything I do is digital technically (even video) and its all communications. Keep fighting the good fight and I’ll see you at Blog Indiana.

    Chris Theisen
    Director of Digital Communications
    Hare Chevrolet

    1. Chris, you just think you’re fancy because you got Hare Chevrolet’s blog to page 1 for “Chevy Traverse” :) My intent wasn’t to say you can’t control inbound linking, but simply the power with which inbound links can wield. I cited the George Bush “miserable failure” example (not because Google Bombing is still a big threat, but rather) because it’s important for people to get the point about optimized keywords in anchor text. I’m still amazing at the number of people (especially small web design shops) who still think it’s all about the on-page stuff … like “be sure to pack your meta description with tons of keywords”. Are you kidding me?!

  7. Ahh now we are on the same page. I had to comment because I figured you would be all over that strategy. Yeah those people are a riot and stay small because of it :) And to your first comment I didnt do that, we signed up with a good corporate blogging platform that did all of the dirty work :) Good to see you again.

  8. Great article – as you mention hubspot, thought you might be interested in a related video by Dharmesh Shah one of the hubspot founders from the Business of Software 2009 conference – really more focused on the IT industry but good advice on inbound marketing both a company and yourself. http://tinyurl.com/25cyr9e

    1. I love Dharmesh and Hubspot, too. I love the CHI concept. Thanks for reading my long post, and for sharing this video.

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