Getting Beyond the Meat World

October 12, 2010

This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for

One of my younger colleagues was asking me recently about my social media habits– which are considerably less active than his.

“I get it,” he said finally. “You like to live in the meat world.”

He’s right, I do. And it’s not merely a function of age. I was watching a Twins playoff game with some friends last week, people my age. They were tweeting and texting and posting Facebook updates throughout. I was content to simply watch the game along with the people in the room.

Malcolm Gladwell

So I’ll admit– though not a Luddite, I’m less into social media than many others I know. Which is why I was so intrigued to come across a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell casting doubt on the effectiveness of social media.

Gladwell argues that social media promote weak ties, making them a poor way of forging strong bonds of shared activism. He points out that the Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has accumulated nearly 1.3 million members– who have donated an average of 9 cents apiece to the cause.

By contrast, he writes, the civil rights sit-ins and protests of the late 1950s and early ’60s succeeded in large part because of the deep personal ties among the participants– ties that are unlikely to be forged in the virtual world.

But my interest is less in social activism and more in how social media work to sell products and promote marketing campaigns. And on that score, Gladwell concludes, they do very well.

“[W]ould you rather do the best possible job engaging with a small but focused audience? Or would you rather spend your marginal hour reaching a large audience on a superficial level?” Gladwell said in an online chat about his article. “There are lot of situations where the latter is a reasonable choice – like if I’m selling something, or announcing an event – ”

Great– one of the premier popular thinkers of our time believes that social media are well-suited to a sales role. The question then for marketers is how to deploy social media and how to assess the results. On these topics, there’s less clarity.

The industry really doesn’t yet have a workable model for measuring the return on investment for social media. Of course, there are certain positive elements that we know we’re getting from social media, without the need to measure: interaction, loyalty and brand awareness, to name just a few.

And we can look at a few fairly crude measurement tools, such as: the number of people who fill out a request form online, the number of influential Twitter users who mention a company or product, and repeating unique visitors to an online site.

But as Web consultant Chris Jordan noted in an online discussion on social media ROI, precise measurements may not be possible.

“It’s like trying to measure the ROI of being involved in your local Chamber of Commerce or business association,” Jordan wrote. “For decades and beyond, businesses have attended these meetings without searching for an unending metric. Social media are like a digital, always-on, Chamber of Commerce where we go to meet others and cultivate relationships.”

I’ve got more than 300 LinkedIn connections, I tweet regularly and I’m a regular commenter in a number of online forums.

But if Chris Jordan wants to find me at a Chamber of Commerce meeting, he should probably check the meat version first.