Social media is changing marketing. Or so we're told. But are marketers really just fooling themselves?

In an insightful AdAge piece, strategist Jonathan Salem Baskin argues that when it comes to marketing and social media, there's nothing new under the sun.

Community isn't new, he writes, nor are individuals socializing for the first time:

People have always had conversations about brands. Before the internet, there were communities of geography, profession, education, religion and a host of social groups that were perhaps less broad and bright than those available online, but instead more deep and sustaining. Their activities were certainly more literally hands-on and their outcomes more lifestyle-defining. Social behavior isn't unique to technology; it's just that we have partial visibility into some aspects of how people converse now, so we want to prompt or participate in those activities. Marketers in the 1950s made the same pitches for TV and print brand advertising that their progeny do for digital today, only without the presumptions of direct influence.

According to Baskin, marketers are trying to do what many have often done in the past: distract. He argues that "a social campaign that does nothing but entertain is as artificially opaque as the worst output of the bad old days of mass media" and concludes that "it's almost like we hope that we can keep consumers busy enough through online engagement so they won't notice that many of us are offering them generic products and services."

Needless to say, Baskin won't have a hard time finding detractors. By his own admission, he's been called a 'dinosaur' amongst other things. But is he?

Baskin may certainly be right that there's nothing new under the sun. But that's not the entire story. Even if communities and brand conversations aren't new, looking at something that isn't new from a new perspective is often the key to unlocking real value. The opportunity to look at your business, products and customers from a new perspective is what social media affords, and social media is clearly a positive thing to the extent that is has encouraged marketers to listen more closely to customers and consumers. There's a lot to be gained from this, and the visibility social media gives us into consumer conversations shouldn't be dismissed simply because those consumer conversations have existed prior to the internet.

Looking at social media in this fashion, it's easy to think that Baskin is too dismissive of the phenomenon. But that might be over-reading the point I think he was trying to make: to the extent that social media has convinced marketers that it can directly influence consumers and turn them into puppets and shills, it isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Consumers treat 'advertising' like a four-letter word because marketers have often relied too much on smoke and mirrors to push products and services that don't live up to their ads. Today, in many instances, social media is being used in a similar fashion for entertaining, hyping, distracting. In other words, it's just another tool for creating the same smoke and mirrors.

For better or worse, Baskin just might be right here. Marketers have never been able to resist indulging in too much of a good thing, and sadly, for all of social media's virtues, it is, for many marketers, just another channel to be overused and abused. But sad as it may be, that's not entirely surprising. After all, there's nothing new under the sun.

Knowing that, perhaps the best approach is to ignore the debate altogether and enjoy the fun while it lasts.

Photo credit: fdecomite via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 23 November, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2641 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (9)

Save or Cancel


I certainly agree that we should all be enjoying the fun while it lasts! As for the earlier points, do you not think that including comment and review sections on a website eliminate the whole smoke and mirrors thing? And do you not think that, if dealt with correctly, social media channels offer a multitude of ways for brands to get to know their end consumers?

Moreover, social media is more than just brands communicating with their customers, it's about customers communicating with each other. Marketing principles might still be the same, but never before has choosing to "like" something made such a wave. Never before have all 432 of my friends on Facebook been privy to all of my thoughts, likes and displikes. It is screaming from the rooftops times a billion- and that is certainly something new.

Tamara Jacobs,

Adaptive Consultancy

over 7 years ago



Well the post is certainly debatable.Each one has their own perspectives and Baskin is certainly entitled to his opinions. As far as Social Media Marketing is concerned, i thing it is here to stay. With the social media buzz increasing by the day, companies are not only increasing their social media activities and using new social media innovations, but also others who weren't part of the bandwagon before are showing interest in it. So either ways i feel it's a win-win for SMM.

over 7 years ago


Michelle Carvill

I agree with the key essence - that conversations have always taken place - however, digital platforms (current social media channels) such as Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, YouTube etc - enable speed of communication and through 'sharing' facilities - all important REACH.  All marketers should be embracing these channels - and getting their head round the key factors that they offer: immediacy, reach, and direct conversations.  Digital conversations are not a fad - and like it, embrace it - or not - we'll see more and more platforms and platform enhancements coming into play in the future that enable even more one to one and group conversations, immediacy and reach. In my opinion, it's still very much fertile territory. 

over 7 years ago

Ed Stivala

Ed Stivala, Managing Director at n3w media

I would certainly whole heartedly agree with Baskin's points. There seems to be an increasing number of people that are seeing through the hype that tends to surround social media and are recognising it for what it is.

Of course social media can have it's uses, and as part of the communications toolkit,  can have a role to play. But it isn't magical, revolutionary or a panacea. It isn't even subject to 'different' rules. Just a different communication channel facilitated by the evolution of technology and now reached critical mass (and is therefore useful) in it's adoption.

over 7 years ago


grow lights

You are absolutely right that there is nothing under the sun. It may possible that Social media is changing itself or have done some little bit changes. We shold try to understand what we are doing so that we can know that things have changed or not. The post you have made over here is really useful so that people can know about the reality and importance of social media.

over 7 years ago


Gabriele Maidecchi

I've always thought social media is a new approach taking advantage of old-school mechanics, and the true difference is between an old-school marketer looking into it as just another advertising channel and an open-minded individual finding new, revolutionary way to relate with his audience.

Sometimes the two personalities converge, sometimes they don't, but I don't think social media - as a principle - is new at all, just the tools and scenario around it are evolving.

over 7 years ago


Dan Sodergren

I love it - the simple act of cat amongst the pigeons :) nicely done sir.

But he is so wrong that it is almost funny - but tragically sad.

Social media might be a little over hyped and this is no bad thing - every dog needs its day.

But the real thing is the shift in culture, in the acceptable norm, which is moving us all towards a day of small brand no advertising. On big brands not shouting but listening and then engaging.

This is all #greatmarketing and yet it is also unmarketing as well. It IS NEW as everything is new - you can never enter the same river twice.

But the rules are the same. The river however is very different. And how you enter it will either let you sink or swim.... :) (how exciting says ukmarketinghelp)

over 7 years ago

Jonathan Salem Baskin

Jonathan Salem Baskin, Author at Histories of Social Media

Thank you so much for reading my essay and giving it your consideration! I think once we get past the glib cliches that pass for analysis when it comes to social media, there's lots to discuss here and we probably agree far more than we disagree.

For starters, the headline for my essay -- “Dangerous Lure of the Social Web” -- wasn’t the original one; it was “The Danger of Dreams: Does the Social Web Distract Brands From Business?” I wrote the piece because my primary (if not only) point is that I think we need to talk more about the purposes of engagement, its measures, and the ripple effects it has on our business, social, and civil relationships overall. Just for the sake of clarification, the things I think we should talk about a lot more are:

  • PURPOSES: While the social web has “changed everything,” I’d maintain that it has also changed nothing other than modify and amplify behaviors that are centuries old, and some of the comments here noted. Does the availability of a new technology mean utterly new behaviors, or are we doing ourselves a disservice and ignoring how our tools tap into who and what we've always been (and done)? I just have this sneaking suspicion that every blog post or magazine article that starts out "The X # of New Rules For..." is probably not terribly smart.
  • MEASUREMENT: The funny thing about the 24/7 always-on web is that trends can be measured in nanoseconds, and even many of the loudest collective voices quickly dissipate into the void. I’m pained to find compelling examples of companies that have truly suffered from supposed dings to the online reputations and, if they have, the damages have been short lived. Customer service is a particular bugaboo for me, and I can only conclude that most customer complaints are the result of operational business decisions that management knew would leave customers wanting more (or different). This is partly where I get my distraction angle: does the web simply let companies address the small percentage of outliers while lowering performance for the great quiet masses? And we call this an improvement?
  • RIPPLE EFFECTS: I take issue with the conventional wisdom these days that brands never talked with or listened to their customers, as Patricio noted. It's simly not true: businesses always listened to customers, only some did it far better or more regularly than others, and there were a myriad of ways to have conversations before the Internet. A better historical context for this phenomena might get us talking more about the content of those newly-enhanced conversations vs. arguing that having them is the great opportunity of our times (which led me to the original headline). I do believe that marketers who focus on the magic of social and not the substance of operations are leading their employers or clients into a dangerous distraction or dream.

The social web has blown up traditional conceptions of authority and privacy, whether at businesses, governments, or in the lives of individuals. Is the fact that conversations large and small are subject to forwarding and scrutiny a good thing? Do we understand more content even though we sometimes share less context? I really don’t know the answers to questions like these, but it blows me away sometimes that more marketers aren’t asking them.

Anyway, I think more conversation about conversation is spot on, and I'm thankful for it here.


over 7 years ago


David Cushman

Social media is more about making things than it is about using people as channels. The 'media' bit of the name has given marketers a bum steer.

They focus too much on content and conversation and too little on connection, collaboration and co-creation.

It ramps up our ability and willingness to express metadata - and that metadata helps us to connect.

The 'new' bit is the global scale - and that is very significant. It isn't like chatting round a camp fire. You can't sit next to everyone at once around a camp fire.

Anyway - v quick explanation here:

In summary consumers aren't out there waiting to be done to, but they may be expressing intent to join in making something important to them.

best dc

over 7 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.