Don’t Believe Everything You Read About Social Media

By: Guest | May 30, 2012 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Jim Dougherty.

When I was a young Lieutenant in the Army there was a crusty Sergeant who enjoyed making my life difficult by telling me why I couldn’t do things.

He would always preface his thwarts with the phrase “by regulation.” One day my boss asked me about a project I was working on and I informed him that “by regulation” there were some restrictions to what I could do.

His response was simply, “What regulation?”

When I discovered the cited regulations didn’t exist, I gained a healthy appreciation for skepticism.

These days my skepticism kicks in when I read sensational articles around “social media.” With all of the nuances of different platforms, social media is a huge umbrella that encompasses some very specific tools.

Someone in the public relations field may associate Twitter with the term, where someone in the SEO field may think Google+. Someone selling direct-to-consumer may think Pinterest, while a small business owner might think Facebook. A recruiter may associate the term with LinkedIn.

Considering the range of services informing our perspectives, “social media” becomes quite an opaque concept.

Don’t Accept Everything At Face Value

And here are two reasons why:

  1. IBM recently released excerpts of their study which was widely reported in the media. Forbes ran the headline “IBM Study: If You Don’t Have a Social CEO, You’re Going to be Less Competitive.” Fox Business ran the headline: “How Corporate Culture Will Change in the Face of Openness.”

    Both touted the astounding fact that 53 percent of CEOs expect to be using “social media” to connect with customers in five years (up from 16 percent today). Also discussed was the prevailing sentiment that social media would replace a portion of customer facing in sales.

    Here’s the problem: The research is based upon a survey of 1,700 CEOs where the questions revolve around the role of generic direct-to-consumer “social media” that less than 16 percent of the CEOs surveyed use. It’s also presented for the purpose of selling IBM social tools without revealing the methodology for the research.

    What is the true significance of a survey of CEOs predicting use of tools they don’t use or understand? Probably not much. In 2017 I expect it will be just as inconceivable as it is today that you’ll be able to direct message Jamie Dimon about your Chase checking account.

  2. In another example, Satmatrix released a study recently showing B2B lags behind B2C in social media adoption. The caveat? The respondents were drawn from a community around Net Promoter Score (NPS), a measurement typically used to sense consumer sentiment guaranteeing that B2C would be overrepresented in the survey.

    Here’s the problem: All of the questions asked were about generic “social media” and were organized to sell their NPS social products. Does B2B lag behind B2C in social media adoption? Probably, but if you compare B2B initiatives on LinkedIn rather than within the wider swath of “social media” you would get a better sense of how businesses are interacting with other businesses in the social space.

It’s sensational and provocative to make sweeping generalizations about social media (or anything for that matter). As my experience in the Army taught me it’s important to dig a little deeper if it informs our decisions better.

Tacit acceptance of something that has been printed or repeated makes us vulnerable to spin. And spin sucks.

Jim Dougherty writes about social media and technology on his site Leaders West and for the Bay Observer blog. You can follow him on Twitter @leaderswest.

  • Seems everyone has an agenda when it comes to social media…

    • leaderswest

       @WaltGoshert  Of course everyone has an agenda, but it’s somewhat perplexing how forgiving people are to anything associated with “social media,” even when social media is used in the abstract!  Cheers, Walt!

  • That’s the problem . . . so many impressionable souls out there (heck, including me!) – Hard to know which studies to trust and not, taking the time to research the data and the methodology just isn’t realistic for most. 
    By the way, LOVE the Lieutenant story! It made me laugh. 

    • leaderswest

       @Lisa Gerber Thanks!  Imagine a energetic 22 year old in first job everyday running down the hallway with enthused about an idea returning to my office like a dejected Charlie Brown.  My first job!  Thanks so much Lisa – many people rock (apparently Tom Cruise does now too), but you rock just a little more.  🙂 

    •  @Lisa Gerber Add me to the impressionable soul category! This is a great reminder as to why we can’t immediately trust everything we read online and we MUST do our due diligence and dig deeper before altering methods or programs based off of one article or one person’s analysis. It’s so easy to jump the gun in this crazy social world we live in! Great points here, @leaderswest.

      •  @Nikki Little @Lisa Gerber I must also place myself in the impressionable soul category. Especially because “social media” for me generally revolves around people that I know in real life sharing things, I sometimes forget that they are not the most credible sources, and that the things they share can’t always be taken as gospel. It’s almost becoming harder and harder to find completely accurate, valid sources. Even major news networks and publications are getting things wrong these days because they are focusing on being the first one to share a story before other people tweet it.

        • leaderswest

           @AdamBritten  A good point – but I also think that we should be able to presume that research done is accurate, especially when it has the potential to inform our decisions.  With the necessity to constantly generate thoughtful content, it makes some sense that writers will trust more esteemed sources.  But you see the results, that there are some preposterous examples of misinformation floating around.  Cheers! @Nikki Little  @Lisa Gerber 

  • Jim, I loved this article. You’re completely right about the lack of skepticism. @Lisa Gerber  hit the nail on the head about everyone running around like impressionable pre-teens. And @WaltGoshert , I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a more accurate statement about Social Media than “everyone has an agenda”.
    I feel blessed to have wondered into this article late at night lol. Just so much objective thought going on here :).
    I was thinking about this yesterday. In the last 3 months I’ve almost exclusively been exposed to studies and analysis that bend data to fit their agenda. A lot of it was social media data, and sometimes I think social media marketers are the masters of bending the truth. I’ve even published 2 or 3 stats that supported my case in an article even after I realized that they weren’t great as far as objectivity goes (but kept them up anyway because they were the only stats I had measured lol)
    …But then I realized, 2 of those instances of misrepresented data came directly from the President of the United states. For some time Democratic Facebook users have been sharing memes that have Obama looking like frugal Fred, but in reality wouldn’t be accepted by an objective party because they were misrepresenting data… badly (there are entries on Snopes for most of those Memes that help explain economics on a national level). That doesn’t surprise me. What surprised me is when Obama’s campaign adopted the same strategy itself recently. If the President doesn’t give us enough credit to assume that we can look up a few figures to verify that he has piled on a buttload of debt, you can’t hardly expect a shady employee (probably an intern) with pre-conceived notions and a dog in the fight to be objective about data.
    Is this a permanent culture shift? Or a passing craze to take advantage of the environment we’re in; one where a sound bite can be repeated a million times over and become a fact after being repeated only a couple hundred. An environment where a sound bite can be repeated a million times, and not once reviewed for accuracy. An environment where in the U.S., Radar Online gets more visits than  

    •  @etelligence  @Lisa Gerber In marketing today, you must do three things:
      1. Test- build your own data. Make informed conclusions based upon what YOUR visitors, prospects, and clients do or don’t . 
      2. If an outside vendor/service provider who “has a dog in the hunt”, presents your with a free White Paper, Webinar, Consultation… Question everything and Follow the Money
      3. Regarding Obama and this whole Political Truth Fantasy… Turn off the news. See #2
      What’s ironic about social media is we have the tools to really connect with people in a more efficient way, sometimes more effective way. We can either speak about transparency, or BE transparent in what we DO everyday.
      In my mind, the best way to BE transparent is to over deliver on the value we promise.
      When this is who we ARE and how we operate, there is no need to lie about the numbers. Rather than lie about the numbers we promise to deliver, how ’bout we focus on getting our clients to brag about the numbers they gained.

    • leaderswest

       @etelligence  Thanks Adam, your’s is a tough post to come to terms with since I’m not familiar with any other instances of politicians bending the truth . 🙂  You have to be cautious with that Obama stuff here though – you know A/D is in Chicago right?  🙂
      I don’t think this is a new phenomenon – Dan Ariely just wrote a fantastic piece about why and when we lie in the WSJ this week.  But I do think that we accept a lot of information as true when it is surrounding “social media.” Maybe this is similar to political rhetoric where we assume the machinations to be too big to fully have grasp of.
      Because Social Media Sun and other sites have an audience that may use your information to inform decisions about how to implement social media into their businesses, there is a lot of value to vetting out the less useful data and finding more informed sources.  By your comments you substantiate what I already know is true – that you’re one of the good ones!

      •  @leaderswest Politicians are definitely known for bending facts, The only surprising thing about it was that a sitting POTUS would pass on misrepresented analysis that was taken from an infographic. You have to put political allegiances aside if you’re going to be objective! 
        We all know that about everything that comes from the President has a team of staffers behind it. If I were on Obama’s staff I would have strongly advised against it, the same as I would tell Donald Trump to drop the birth certificate bull if I were in his inner circle. From where I stand now, all I can do is say “hey, that’s not right”… and that’s about it. (Fun Fact: I actually have served as a paid staff member for about a half dozen State campaigns. All Democrat. My mother was a campaign treasurer for several representatives, an Attorney General and candidate for Lieutenant Gov., Chairman of the Democratic Women’s Commitee in East Ky. 😉 )All I can do is keep myself honest, and take the people I work with to task when they get it wrong. I know for a fact that Gini and Lisa both have the same level of integrity. Being “Ethical, sometimes to a fault” – one reason why I read Spin Sucks when I get the chance. Sometimes it means acknowledging mistakes or people you support, and you own. 
        As for the stat I mentioned leaving in one of my own analysis, I had said “SMS had an increase of 624% in organic search traffic from the month of March to the Month of May”. When I look at the article in context, I was wrong in saying it was a misrepresented stat – because my whole point in the article was that by creating high quality content that has minimal optimization you can expect a constant growth in organic search traffic over time. — That doesn’t address the fact that in March we started out with 5 articles and had closer to 50 at the beginning of May. If I was just saying that I had an SEO strategy that would increase your organic search by 624%, it would be dishonest without mentioning that it relies on a content marketing strategy you have in place, and that the gains as a percentage will decrease over time (but stay consistent as a net gain). When you take the context of the only place the stat is ever mentioned into account, I think I’m off the hook lol.  

        • leaderswest

           @etelligence You need to be writing on Spins Sucks, Adam!  Reading through your comments I think they’re more interesting than what I wrote!!!  Thanks for all of your insight!

        •  @leaderswest Well technically I am writing on Spin Sucks right now 🙂 sometimes the comments are a great addition to the blog posts, especially here! Gini attracts all kinds lol
          I get discouraged commenting sometimes because the value of a comment on the Internet is pretty weak these days (you can trade Facebook shares for a blog comment they’re so undervalued). It’s like saying “I’m the Journalist professional for!”. I could imagine that you got more out of my comment than you did your own post, but I definitely got more out of your post – I wasn’t really clear on the IBM study. As for everyone else, they got EVERYTHING from your post – not because comments are weak (they actually seem to hold a little more water here!! Gini likes to have commentary!), but because they only exist because of what you wrote. They’re all part of your discussion, which we sometimes mistake for an “article” or “what you wrote”.
          On a side note – I have written a couple articles on Spin Sucks. One about SEO and one called “An Open Letter to Millenials”.  If you really want to read my best work though, you need to wander over to You need to know the password though, and I can’t remember if the clam chowder is red or white 😉

        • leaderswest

           @etelligence Ha!  Will check it out!  You’ll have to let me know where they trade Facebook shares for blog comments – I have got hot air to spare!!!!  Cheers, Adam!

  • Paul Gillin

    Anyone with a SurveyMonkey account is a market researcher these days. Get 100 people to fill out a Web form and then issue a press release. It’s easy, and some people will actually believe what you say. 
    Be skeptical of any research that doesn’t come from a respected organization such as Gallup or Harris. At the very least, check the methodology statement. If the researcher doesn’t provide one, abandon ship. 
    A survey should have several hundred responses to be even marginally credible. Even then, the researcher should reveal how the responses were gathered. E-mailing their customer lists and friends and family is not a credible methodology. In fact, online research is inherently biased because it only measures the opinions of people who take surveys online. A good study uses a completely random sample. Ideally, it uses the telephone.
    You should also look at what questions were asked. Often the questions are so poorly constructed or so biased that the results of the study are meaningless. Writing survey questions is a science. 
    Here’s an example I wrote about on the CMO Site. It shows how badly flawed a survey from a major trade publication can be.

    • leaderswest

       @Paul Gillin Great feedback, Paul!  There is so much out there that doesn’t discuss methodology.  I wrote a piece on margin of error today as well – and it’s disappointing that even with a fully revealed methodology some people will write sensational stories that misrepresent the data set.  Fantastic article on the CMO Site by the way – how people can run surveys so recklessly and purport to get any usable result is beyond me!  Cheers!

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