March 3, 2010

The Social Media Gold Rush: some worrying signals from the field

In my very first (2002) published article The 4S Web Marketing Mix I reflected on the gold rush of the 90s ending with the millennium Internet bubble (this was the real millennium bug after all!) that turned the nerdy ephemeral e-millionaires from heroes to zeroes. From one day to the other many of them woke up in the real world: from lavish parties in the Valley where Japanese cocks were regularly flown from Tokyo to cook the sushi to the payroll of the local McDonald's. Another memorable phenomenon of the gold rush was the exponential and beyond control explosion of “experts” and "innovators" who could persuade anyone how to become a millionaire online in elevator pitches. 
Looking to the Social Media / Web 2.0 landscape I can’t help drawing some parallels with that era wondering if we see the dot com bubble revisited. In amazement I see the thriving industry of self-proclaimed Social Media “gurus”, “evangelists”, “missionaries”, “specialists”, “authorities” and “experts” all around. Webinars, books, white papers, courses (online and offline) are everywhere. At the same time a growing industry of buzz analyzers, customer voice hunters and cross media marketers wave with their solutions to the horrified marketers trying to come to terms with customers who do not listen any more. In this setting it is not surprising that businesses caught in the hype are jumping on the Social Media train for a trip to the unknown. While the same time last year most businesses have not even heard of social media according to a recent report of the Center for Excellence in Service at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business social media adoption by small businesses in the US has doubled from 12 percent to 24 percent in the last year.

While the Social Media seems to become an important component of the future marketing the inflation of experts without any actual experience or knowledge of the subject does not promise anything good. I read about marketers becoming frustrated from the social media mantra and even becoming sick of the term. Negative reports about the power of social media as information sources begin to surface. Recently I came across reports about low trust on social networks as product recommendation sources for consumers and increasing skepticism of peer recommendations. I am not surprised if such reports are true considering the unavoidable misuse of the social media by some (maybe advised by one of the above mentioned “gurus”?)

I would like to raise a red flag to the Social Media gold rush as a warning that like in the previous gold rush ignorance and greediness can turn things wrong; the knowledge vaccum on Social Media grows and studies of questionable standards and motives appearing everywhere only add to the confusion. Academics should engage actively to the discussion and put the issue in perspective, supported by vigorous and unbiased research. I am the first one who advocates the Social Media as marketing strategy but together with all those who are really interested in the subject I recognize that we still have a lot to learn. The self-proclaimed Social Media gurus, experts etc. remind me a sad story I have seen before and hope not to see repeated again.