A few years ago, skepticism about social media was rampant.

While skepticism remains, there does seem to be a general consensus amongst marketers and business executives that social media is important, even if it’s still overhyped by some.

But just how important is social media? Can social media prolificacy, for instance, convince media buyers to buy ads for television programs that aren’t killing it in the ratings department?

Turner Broadcasting is hoping the answer to that last question is ‘yes.As detailed by AdAge, the cable network home to Conan O’Brien’s ‘Conan‘ show is trying to make up for CoCo’s lackluster ratings by playing up his social media presence.

Just how bad are the ratings?

…after seeing mammoth initial ratings due to the NBC controversy, Mr. O’Brien’s TV viewership has begun to settle. While his first show scored around 4.2m viewers, nearly 3.3m of which were between 18 and 49, according to Nielsen, his average since then has been about 1.06m overall, with approximately 769,000 in the 18-49 category. The summer has proven more challenging. Mr. O’Brien’s average 18-49 audience was surpassed in August overall by every rival except Chelsea Handler on NBC Universal’s E!

According to Turner’s Linda Yaccarino, Conan’s ratings don’t tell the whole story. “TV is only a fraction of it,” she told AdAge.

If you combine online and television, the comedian’s audience balloons to 20m individuals between the ages of 18 and 49, she says. As AdAge notes, Coco’s, more people (1.7m to be exact) like CoCo on Facebook than tune into his show on television.

If Conan O’Brien’s online audience is really 20m, it would seem that advertisers have a great opportunity to take advantage of his television ratings to snag bargain media buys. But is the 20m figure realistic?

If recent studies about Facebook’s efficacy for brands are to be believed, Conan’s 1.7m Facebook fans aren’t necessarily rabidly ‘engaged‘ with him on the world’s most popular social network.

The same would certainly apply to Conan’s 3.9m Twitter followers. As for TeamCoco.com, Turner says “The average time spent viewing ‘Conan’ content on his website, TeamCoco.com, has increased 30% since the show launched, and the average time spent per visitor on the site has increased 103%.

But Alexa estimates that the average visitor to TeamCoco.com spends under three minutes on the site, and Quantcast sees 95% of the site’s visits as coming from ‘passers-by‘ (individuals who visit once in a given month).

In terms of raw traffic, Quantcast estimates that the website received 110,000 unique U.S. visitors in August, while Compete estimates a slightly more respectable 208,000. Even if both services are underestimating traffic by, for argument’s sake, 50%, TeamCoco.com clearly isn’t pulling in blockbuster traffic.

None of this, of course, means that Conan’s digital presence, the most prominent parts of which are social, isn’t worth its weight in gold for advertisers. With the right strategy and integration, it might be.

At the same time, lumping Conan’s television and social audiences together might be likened to putting lipstick on a pig. A television viewer is not the same thing as a Facebook fan, Twitter follower or unique visitor.

Pretending that they are arguably does a disservice to each.

So what should media companies like Turner do, and how should advertisers deal with media properties like Conan? There are few one-size-fits-all answers here. But two things are clear:

  • Selling channels (and how they can be used to develop integrated, cross-channel campaigns) is likely to be more fruitful than promoting a combined audience figure that is as flawed as it is impressive.
  • Advertisers need to be vigilant. Facebook fans and Twitter followers aren’t the metrics that matter. If you don’t know what a channel’s ‘audience‘ really represents, and if you’re not tracking and analyzing your campaigns across channels once you’ve made a buy, you’re more likely to buy a pig with lipstick.