Social Media’s Reality Distortion Field

By: Guest | February 21, 2011 | 

Jay PinkertJay Pinkert is a principal with Shatterbox, a marketing and communications consultancy that helps professional firms distinguish their brand and win clients through content-driven programs and niche development.

The discussion thread on last month’s “Why Brogan’s Bigger Ear Marketing Is Wrong” Spin Sucks post got me wondering whether the social media industry operates within a self-generated reality distortion field.

As Gini wrote in that post, Brogan “extols wisdom about using Twitter and Foursquare searches to find people who are in bookstores. When found, he suggests tweeting those people to see if they can find your book in the store. And hence, a conversation is born.”

Brogan framed his experiment as an orthodox social media “listening” exercise, but how was it materially different from unsolicited, cold-call telemarketing – or the virtual version of a department store perfume spritzer? To me it seemed like garden variety marketing without the social. Yet many of the comments were deferential and affirming.

As I thought about it further, I began looking back at some of the foundational manifestos of the social media movement. The dust jacket copy for Joseph Jaffe’s 2007 Join the Conversation declared, “Today, every person sees thousands of advertisements a day – and totally ignores the vast majority of them. Yet, companies still spend billions of dollars each year yelling at customers who don’t want to hear it.”

Replace the word “advertisements” with “social media messages” and you’d have the preface for an updated 2011 edition. Except now Jaffe advises companies to “flip” the traditional sales funnel, effectively converting social media into a megaphone for a small group of influential current customers to yell at potential customers.

User-generated or not, yelling is yelling. Has marketing simply evolved from an impersonal, relentless, ubiquitous loudmouth into a well-intentioned, relentless, ubiquitous loudmouth with better people skills?

Consider how fundamental social media doctrines like “conversation,” “community,” “listening” and “engagement” — once so fresh and empowering – are currently practiced:

  • Conversation = Automated feedback requests, and corporate blogs and Facebook pages that read like press releases
  • Community = Affinity groups of deal seekers and sweepstakes enthusiasts
  • Listening = Market research
  • Engagement = Recruiting and rewarding key influencers as brand claques

Reality Check

Thought leaders and practitioners genuinely believe they’re upholding the original underpinnings of social media marketing – human, trust-based, relational. Yet current practice is also forthrightly commercial – operationalized, ROI-driven, transactional. That inherent tension is not the problem, though. Complacency is the real threat: the belief that gimlet-eyed self-interest will not take root with consumers, and they will continue to contribute their insights, recommendations, credibility and loyalty to companies for free.

Deal seeking/sharing has been a low-key form of social media discourse for a while, but the scale, popularity and pervasiveness of Groupon and its many imitators could knock the legs out from under brand loyalty. The ample supply and frequency of steep discounts could condition the general public to expect and hold out for deep discounts even on upscale goods and services.

The bigger domino could be ratings and reviews. It seems that you can’t visit a website or make a purchase – online or in stores — without being asked for your feedback.  If that onslaught continues, I can imagine a tipping point where consumers start replying, “What’s it worth to you? And it better be more than a sweepstakes entry.”

That might never happen. But will we be prepared if it does?

Jay Pinkert is a principal with Shatterbox, a marketing and communications consultancy that helps professional firms distinguish their brand and win clients through content-driven programs and niche development.

  • lisagerber

    There are so many points in this post that hit home with me that I don’t know where to start, and I don’t want to ramble here.

    first – the self-generated reality distortion field – what a great way to put it. we’re all surrounded by each other – like-minded, tech-savvy people whipping ourselves into frenzies over something of which people on the sidewalk have no clue (or care)!

    And the yelling. I hated yelling in my house growing up. we all hate being yelled at. So many of these shouting social media messages are falling on deaf ears. ROI is being measured by followers and numbers but when you dig deeper and take sentiment and impression into effect, you’ll find that number nose-diving.
    Whenever I see a marketing message with an exclamation mark, I like to say: “stop yelling at me!” or “stop telling me what to do”.

    thanks for the smart post, and for making me google gimlet-eyed.

  • FollowtheLawyer

    @lisagerber Lisa, thanks for your kind comments.

    Your point about digging down into the numbers is fundamental. In a sense we’re seeing the equivalent of top line growth eroding the bottom line.

  • rustyspeidel

    These tools have two risks: They can glorify the mundane and self-serving, and enable the untrained, uncouth, and undisciplined.

  • FollowtheLawyer

    @rustyspeidel Some of that is “in the eye of the beholder” territory, but I absolutely agree with the thrust of what you’re saying. Wouldn’t it be great to have some sort of spam filter on heuristic steroids that would automatically separate the wheat from the chaff?

  • AngieSwartz

    Jay, What a terrific post! How much longer do you think it will be until we’ve completely recreated the traditional media system? To your points, we’re almost there, using social media to do exactly what we were trying to get away from. I hear small business owners talking everywhere i turn my head, “Just link all your social media accounts together and blast out the same message. It’s easy.” I’ve stopped trying to educate anyone about better ways to do things unless they specifically ask. If I’m speaking to a group, I always focus on strategy, relationships, listening and being your authentic self. The truth is, the few people who truly take the time to do the work, reach out and spend the time to connect with others on a human level will be the winners. And by winners, I don’t just mean those who will make money. I mean they will win because they’ll meet people and they’ll develop know, like and trust relationships and really expand their business circle. Business fundamentals haven’t changed. Those who think that they have are just plain silly.

  • FollowtheLawyer

    @AngieSwartz Thanks!

    If it were easy everyone would be doing it…oh wait, they are 🙂

    As you noted, making time to do the hard work and resisting the impulse to revert to type will distinguish the next stage in social media and marketing.

    To borrow one of Pogo’s immortal observations: We have met the enemy and he is us.

  • LisaThorell

    Thanks for the thought-provoking! I love your point about actual practices of the holy SM quadrant (conversation, community, listening and engagement) too many times reverting to their primitive pre-Web 2.0 commercials ancestors. i believe this takes place due to three forces at work when companies “adopt” SM (1) implementers/advocates taking short-cuts, eg. build community via a rewardsprogram and (2) related, some implementers are under pressure from management to demonstrate ROI (hence shortcut to it).(3) The social media advocate not being to politically hold the line against reverting to the old school thinking (admittedly, coming from resistant C-levels, it can be tough).

    When 1 or all 3 of above happen, the social media transform is not genuine and, yes, you’re right again: The consumersare going to see social media as a ‘trick” veneer of old school marketing and up the ante back.

  • FollowtheLawyer

    @LisaThorell Great insights. Thanks!

    If we’re honest with ourselves, we all knew it would come to this at some point with big brands. The difference this time around is that there are so many more players exacerbating the situation. Sole proprietors can create as much social media noise as large companies — maybe more, considering location-based marketing.

  • Pingback: Social Media’s Reality Distortion Field « Shatterbox()

  • Pingback: Austin Texas Legal Marketing and Social Media for Lawyers()