“Social Media is Bullshit” by B.J. Mendelson

B.J. Mendelson is a former online marketer who is fed up with the lies and the all-encompassing positivism surrounding the promise of social media. Some of his attempts to be funny are grating, but his honesty is refreshing and is what makes reading this book worthwhile.

This book’s main point is that social media is bullshit for small businesses (“like us on Facebook!”) that don’t have the massive financial backing of giant corporations to launch a Facebook/Twitter/YouTube/Yelp!/Instagram marketing campaign. The lie that these avenues for getting customers is a lie propagated by marketers who stand to gain from running these small businesses’ social media presence. The most effective advice the author has for these companies is a quickly-loading, uncluttered webpage and focusing on personal relationships with their real-life customers.

This book also has a practical lesson for everyone, even though it’s only a peripheral argument. Social media is bullshit for regular people because companies like Facebook gather all the value their users produce without giving anything back. Facebook owns all the content you create, as well as the advertising dollars your eyeballs generate. And that, my friends, IS bullshit!

Further Links
Samuel Brannan—Morman businessman who became a millionaire publicizing the California Gold Rush of the 1840s.
Adbusters Kalle Lasn—Baby Boomer journalist who incited the Occupy Wall Street campaign
New Yorker article: “Lessons from Late Night” by Tina Fey
Telecommunications Act of 1996
Cisco’s “Ted from Accounting”—Cisco’s abysmal failure to replicate Old Spice Man’s advertising success (I could find tons of commentary on this but not the actual video.)
Chewbacca defense—a joke from South Park that has become legal terminology to describe a legal strategy in which the aim of the argument seems to be to deliberately confuse the jury rather than actually refute the case of the other side.

Buy on Amazon

Highlights

I learned that if you do something interesting, the people who normally ignored you would start paying attention to what you’re doing.

People bring their experience with you to the meeting, and they connect it to the idea you’re proposing. You could have the best idea in the world, but if people don’t like you, don’t trust you, or don’t know you, they’re not going to consider it. However, if you cite what someone else is saying, someone they might have heard of, that lends the idea more credibility.

The Web—that great democratizer—is essentially run by major corporations.

But in any case, it’s an inescapable fact: If you’re on the Web, you’re lining the wallets of these big corporations through everything you do.

And what does every marketer know best about corporations? That they’re wasteful. What happens in most of these companies is that a set amount of money is put aside each year for each department. That money must be spent. All of it. That includes marketing, regardless of whether what that division spends its money on actually works.

Remember: the people who get rich during the fold rush are rarely the people digging for gold. It’s the people selling the shovels.

To say that Justin Bieber was “catapulted to stardom” by YouTube because he has ten million views would be to ignore those facts. If anything, he catapulted YouTube to further stardom by fueling the myth that YouTube is a platform you can use to break out on. (This isn’t an exaggeration, either; allegedly 3 percent of Twitter’s infrastructure is dedicated to serving Bieber’s tweets and his followers retweets.)

In the successful defeat of the SOPA and PIPA bills, what is often left out of “the people’s victory” narrative is that none of the previous online efforts of “the people” were successful—or even acknowledged—until Google and Wikipedia intervened. They had already been investing heavily in old-fashioned Washington lobbying, and if the bills were eventually put to rest, it was only through their giant publicity stunts: Wikipedia going dark for a day, and Google, one of the top five most trafficked Web sites in the world, directing users to contact their congressmen. As discussed earlier, Google, with assets in the tens of billions and a virtual monopoly on Internet search, hardly qualifies as an arm of “the people.”

When marketers land on The New York Times bestseller list, they can leverage their title as a “New York Times bestselling author” to mislead others into believing they’re an “expert.” Without the support of an agent, an institute, a university, or a corporation, the Best Seller list is their best shot at legitimacy—and bumping up how much they can charge potential clients and for speaker fees. Books shouldn’t be treated like business cards, but that’s what they’ve become for marketers, Cyber Hipsters, and their friends looking to grow their audiences.

Let’s be honest, Using connections, getting the media behind you, and having a good product are how the world worked before the Internet got here, and that’s how it’s going to work long after it. The fact that members of the media are obsessed now with what’s being said on Twitter, and wrongly treating it as news does not mean people have any more power than they did before “social media” arrived on the scene. Your participation is optional then, not mandatory.

I have seen way too many small businesses, artists, and entrepreneurs who think “social media” will allow them to make a career of doing what they love—the exact thing that the marketers have promised them and then went broke in the process. 

Even today it’s debatable how popular Twitter actually is. If Pew’s research is accurate, only 13 percent of all Americans in 2011 were using Twitter. That’s 3,900,000 Americans. Twitter says half of their users log in once a day, and that 40 percent of those “listen” but don’t actually tweet anything. So, as that number appears smaller and smaller, you have to wonder, how mainstream is it really? Just because people know what Twitter is thanks to the media hype doesn’t actually mean they use it. I know Axe Body Spray makes women want to molest me, but that doesn’t mean I buy it.

Using big companies like Ford is a tactic that everyone backing the myth of social media employs, despite evidence showing that what works for the large corporations doesn’t work for you, there are many instances where this doesn’t even work for them either. Despite this, every year marketers trot out a big corporate “social media success story,” saying how it’s proof that “social media” can work for you, and every year it turns out that what they present to the public isn’t quite the whole story. The problem with comparing a big brand and what they do to what you might do is that they have money, connections, and other resources at their disposal that they can tap into. In fact, a lot of them simply aren’t looking at “social media” as a revenue generator, but a loss leader. Running a “social media” campaign may be a financial hit giant corporations can take, but it’s be a pretty significant financial hit that the rest of us can’t survive.

There’s no easy answer, and it’s going to be different for everyone. But saying if Ford is doing something so should you is flat out wrong and manipulative. If Ford is doing it you shouldn’t. Why? Because in order for something to be approved at a big company like Ford, it’s gotta go through many layers of management, not to mention pass approval by their advertising agency, Team Detroit, and a legal team or two. Big companies and big advertising agencies rarely take risks, so if you see a company getting in on the latest thing, you’re probably too mate to see any benefit from doing it yourself.

Where we find an information gap, others find an opportunity.

(Isiah Mustafa Old Spice Man) was an incredibly smart marketing campaign, put on by Wiedon + Kennedy and backed by Proctor & Gamble’s nearly limitless funds.

Memo to corporations: Putting Facebook icons on your ads or telling people to “find you on Facebook” is probably one of the dumbest things you’ll ever do. There’s no proof anyone cares.

The only parties who consistently benefit from a sustained Facebook campaign are the people running it for you (like an advertising agency or PR firm) and Facebook.

Eighty-five percent of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertising and the illusion that people use their Web site and interact with things while they’re there, even though what people are doing one they’re in Facebook is vaguely defined.

What works for a big brand and a celebrity does not work for the rest of us.

That said, Twitter is good for connecting with strangers. And since many journalists and bloggers have a Twitter presence (disproportionately so, which is why you get so many Twitter-obsessed news stories despite the fact that so few people, comparatively speaking, actually use it), it’s easy to contact them.

The Web and all of these platforms have made the phone and snail mail more effective to use, not less. If everyone is using one platform, that means there might be an opportunity to get in using one they don’t.

Trying to advance yourself using the platforms I’ve discussed in this book is a lot like playing at a Vegas casino. The “game” the marketers always talk about is against you from the start. It’s rigged in such a way that if you’re trying to move forward as a small business, artist, or entrepreneur who makes something of value, it’s virtually impossible to win. And the concept of “making something”—as opposed to selling your commentary—is important to distinguish here. Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Brian Solis, Chris Brogan, the people at Mashable, the Altimeter Group—many of the people I told you about in this book don’t make anything. They comment. They talk. They bullshit. They’re not concerned with the day-to-day operations of your business, or getting your band to sell out Madison Square Garden, or helping your start-up change the world. This isn’t to say that what these guys produce isn’t without value, but what they’ve dones is exploit an opportunity to get attention, and a fair amount of wealth, without much of a product. Something that’s infuriatingly easy to do.

Josh Kaufman, author of the excellent The Personal MBA, referred to this as the “Iron Law of the Market”—If people don’y want what you provide or what you create, you’re screwed.

(On a smaller scale), you’re going to have way more freedom to produce what you want at this level than you will at the majors, because the machinery of the majors isn’t set up to support things like creative freedom. As Adam Carolla told me, “There’s no way I’d be able to do what I don with my podcast on Comedy Central. The second it got on there, they’d put it in front of a live audience. Then add a warm-up comic, and then send me notes telling me to shorten things up. It’s far easier and less expensive for them to tape a stand-up and air that or take clips off YouTube and make fun of them. I like the autonomy that comes with doing the podcast, and there’s no place on television where you can do what I’m doing.” That’s why you have hundreds of cable channels with almost all running some variation of another channel’s most popular show. Media companies do this because that other channel’s show is popular, and popular shows mean more advertising dollars. Shows that are creative and well produced but don’t pull in a huge audience get cancelled because they don’t pull in big enough numbers to justify the cost of producing them.

Ninety-nine percent of the things that are often referred to as “viral” are driven by offline forces: real-world connections, traditional media, legitimate celebrities, corporate spending. For the small fraction that remains, it has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time, using the right keywords at the right moment, or having one of the big corporate blogs latch onto something that’s popular with a smaller community Web site, so they can squeeze page views out of it. But in the end, making something “go viral” in the organic way is the product of guess work, and it’s incredibly unlikely that something you do will go “viral.” The odds are better that you’ll be struck by lightning.

The concept that if you put something online “people will see it” is not true. Most YouTube videos go unwatched and most Web sites go unvisited.

Even the large corporations who are often touted as having had “social media success stories” don’t see “social media” as a money-maker. They see it as a loss leader. The rest of us can’t afford to be in that position. The only metric that matters for small businesses, artists, and entrepreneurs is sales. If you’re not making money, you can’t keep doing what you’re doing. It’s as simple as that.

Telling people that they’re losing money by not using “social media” is a lie made up by the marketers of all stripes to sell you bullshit that’s going to benefit them. The only thing you need is a Web site. One that’s clean, simple, easy to navigate, fast to load, and fun.

Everything that happens on the Web is driven by the media. The idea that there are limitless choices and millions of alternatives online is bullshit. We spend most, if not all of, our time with corporate owned Web sites, and although there are millions of blogs and “social media” users out there, all of the information they get is coming from a consolidated group of places that are almost exclusively under corporate ownership. So if something happens on television, it’s big on Twitter. Not the other way around.

The organic things that break out on the Web are few and far between. Instead, we’re seeing a small elite rewarded while the rest of us are putting our money toward implementing advice that isn’t geared toward us in the first place.

We have less power, not more, and nobody is listening to what we have to say unless companies, the media, or someone famous gets involved.

We live in a world where you can make far more money telling people about how to get rich on the Internet than you can by actually trying to get rich.

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