No, Social Media Doesn’t Drive Sales…but that’s not the point


Okay, maybe I’m overstating it. Some sales are driven through social media channels. I know I’ve bought books and songs and contributed to Kickstarter campaigns many times because a friend shared a link and I thought, “Hey! That’s awesome! I should buy that!” I’ve even tipped a bigger purchase in favor of a friendly recommendation on a social network. But I can count on one hand the number of times  I’ve bought something pushed to me by a brand I follow on Twitter/Facebook or the like.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that social media is a teeny tiny reflection of what happens in day-to-day life. In Jonah Berger’s Contagious, he makes the salient point that only 7% of word of mouth happens online (other studies say 5%). I’m not sure if all of that even belongs to social media channels, either. I’d guess a bunch of it happens over email and private chat.

There are hundreds of ways that your customer will find you (or not find you) online and offline. However, when it comes to spreading a message, word of mouth has always been the most effective way of marketing messages spreading. But these messages become ineffective when they aren’t authentic. But the most salient point here is:

You cannot force word of mouth.

It doesn’t matter the media or the amount you spend on it…some stuff just doesn’t spread. And though marketing impressions make a brand awareness difference – whether it’s a billboard or a paid tweet – it’s never guaranteed to work.

So I’m continually bowled over when I hear people complain about how their social media marketing doesn’t work. Usually a few questions helps me realize what’s really going on:


What’s really going on here is that companies think that paying for marketing is some sort of silver bullet. It’s not. It never was and it never will be. Hell, some super bowl ads go unnoticed – and that audience is one of the biggest captive audiences in the universe!

You are probably asking yourself, “Okay then, why would anybody in their right mind pay for marketing?”

Good question. I sometimes wonder myself because not everyone is ready for it…and sometimes they are too late for it.

But why pay for marketing when the results aren’t guaranteed? Because, like I said before, there are hundreds of ways your future customers will find you (or not find you) and it’s better to be findable than not. And good marketing means that you will be more findable AND have more credibility (if the branding is done right) when people do find you. And all of that helps with what you want: sales.

There are all sorts of wonderful things built into social media marketing that you won’t have built into traditional one-way channels. There are:

  1. analytics – you can’t really tell who paid attention to that television ad, but you can tell who watched your YouTube ad all the way through…and who liked it…and who shared it…etc etc. The data available on how people interact with your content is AMAZING.
  2. feedback – it’s right there in the comments. It’s also there on Twitter. Oh…and you can find out what people are saying on Reddit and their blogs and in forums and…well…that is invaluable. Read it. Report it back to your team. Improve your product with it. Respond to it with thanks. Hell, you pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get this feedback from focus groups each year and here it is for you for free. Completely raw.
  3. relationships – you aren’t going to strike up a conversation through the TV or radio. But that two-way conversation is built into social media platforms. It’s really awesome. You can find out so much about your customers and start to really build a bond.

What really baffles me is the demands that brands make of social media marketing when they pay a fraction of the price to use it. They’ll hire interns and junior staff to run it, they’ll lowball agencies and consultants (“I pay you what for a couple of FB posts?! I can get my kid to do that!”), they get impatient and want instant results without being willing to invest the thought needed or take risks, they’ll tack on a social media strategy (which has no strategy) to a made-for-television and magazine ad campaign thinking that it’s yet another direct marketing channel (which is a limited medium, too).

All of this and the brands ask for stellar results. They look past the amazing insights and feedback and potential for relationships that no other traditional marketing medium every had and they say, “Meh. Social media doesn’t work for me.”

And completely miss the point.

You want to know the ROI of social media?

Number one. It’s the ability to listen. It’s priceless. Not with some damned tool that measures sentiment or finds influencers, either. Really listen.

Number two. Serendipity. It’s opening yourself up to constant and amazing opportunities to participate and by participating, you will find numerous opportunities to lead the conversation and make a great impression. Oreo’s dunk in the dark tweet is a great example of this. They are doing a really great job of being a relevant brand again by seizing opportunities like that. Do they do it every single day? Nope. But when they do, they nail it.

Number three. Community instead of merely customers. The difference is incredible. If you have patience and build a community instead of just a customer database, you will have finally tapped into that magical word of mouth network you wanted to buy a few months ago. But this time, it’s real and authentic and it spreads.

(and there are dozens more…but you get the point, right?)

So PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF DOG stop thinking of social media as a direct marketing tool or some sort of silver bullet that will drive sales through the roof. Stop reading those case studies where Facebook…no…Pinterest…no…Polyvore…no Snapchat drove millions of dollars in sales from a viral campaign.

That’s not the point.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Categories: community, eMarketing, featured, marketing

Author:Tara Hunt

Strategist. Researcher. Interdisciplinarian. Founder, Lime Foundry + Buyosphere. Author, The Whuffie Factor. Speaker. Mother. Karaoke lover.


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38 Comments on “No, Social Media Doesn’t Drive Sales…but that’s not the point”

  1. November 25, 2013 at 08:12 #

    That’s a common topic in France as well, even more so in Germany. Social Media sounds cool to most CEOs and execs, because many of them think “oh cool, I’ll post some status update a couple of times per week and I’ll have fans who’ll buy my stuff, free promotion for me!” But when nothing comes out of the one-way conversation, they get frustrated…

    Well anyway, as always, excellent stuff Tara :-)

    • November 25, 2013 at 14:48 #

      Generally brands don’t understand two way conversations and the last thing a media agency will recommend is paying for content and engagement since the margins are low and it doesn’t scale the way a media buy would.

      • November 26, 2013 at 19:46 #


        Agreed 100%.. They will have to pay soon. Transparent branding and authority growth for them as personal brands will be the cause for big boxes and CEO’s next year as they discover that you can’t be a one way brand in terms of communication.

        We want to know the real folks behind a brand and put them in front of it. Two way communication is expected now.. big brands better figure that out fast. :)

        It’s a wonderful change for the better

  2. November 25, 2013 at 08:37 #

    Wow. As in…WOW! So on point, Tara! Stop looking for the magic bullet and realize what social media is meant to build – an authentic community that gives you honest feedback and real insight. That, in turn, lets you know what really appeals to the community, and THAT insight can help fuel sales. But if you figure you can throw money at social media, hoping something sticks and blows up into an overnight sensation…well, you have better chances with the lottery! ;)

  3. November 25, 2013 at 10:09 #

    A great post. Every brand should understand the social media process and act according to that for better results. Overnight success in Social Media ? No Never happen. Well crafted.

  4. November 25, 2013 at 12:26 #

    I loved it! sharing in 3…2…1…

  5. November 25, 2013 at 12:26 #

    Tara, thanks for this most prescient piece! I hope it brings the community back down to earth! Lawrence

  6. November 25, 2013 at 13:28 #

    Terrific post. (There’s some feedback for ya!)

  7. mikepitt1
    November 25, 2013 at 13:29 #

    Hi Tara,

    Thanks for your post. I agree with your premise that Social Media is not a ‘silver bullet’ but have to disagree with your contention that Social Media does not drive sales. When used as part of a structured Content Marketing strategy Social Media is driving sales for our clients and for ourselves. Therein lies a fundamental issue – too often companies think Social Media Strategy when they should first be thinking Content Marketing Strategy.

    Best regards,

    Mike Pitt
    Founder – Marketing Fundamentals Ltd

    • November 25, 2013 at 14:21 #

      Well, as I said in the opening paragraph…that is hyperbole. I know it *can* drive sales, but I just want people to stop using it as a direct marketing channel. It ruins it. It’s like peeing in the community pool. It may suit your purposes, but everyone around you has to swim around in your waste now.

  8. November 25, 2013 at 14:00 #

    Nice article Tara! It’s often not the social media that do not work for someone, it’s them;)

  9. Sabrina Espinal
    November 25, 2013 at 14:03 #

    I glad to see more people talking about what social media really is and that it’s not the Superbowl Ad effect. Now, over time (and with an engaged community) it can be magical!

  10. November 25, 2013 at 16:47 #

    This is spot on. Thank you for reminding me I’m not the crazy one…

  11. Ben Wolfe
    November 25, 2013 at 17:12 #

    GREAT ARTICLE! The ONLY problem with this article is that the people that don’t need to be convinced will nod their heads and say “yeah…she gets it”…and people that need it most will keep following their own prescription of insanity and believe that they know better than anyone else. Yeah…Good luck with that.

    Fact is that EVERY major corporation, every major brand…in the world…advertise. Why? Because they HAVE to. Advertising is simply an extension of word of mouth, delivering that message instead of one at a time, to the masses. People don’t run to the store because you tell them about something you got or an expertience you had. No…it buys a small piece of real estate in your brain. When it is reinforced, that small piece becomes a little larger. When it is large enoujgh when someone says something related in the way your brain cross-references all information, your company…your product…will be recalled. Many times we don’t even remember where or when we first heard about it…do YOU remember the first time you ever heard of Crest or Colgate? …But you remember the brands. In the absence of experience, familiarity breeds trust. Once that trust is acted on and someone makes a decision to buy or use your product or service, then, it isn’t up to your marketing. It’s up to YOU as to what kind of experience you give them. Many executives and mid-level managers to front line employees blame marketing because it is easy and simple when in many instances you don’t have much farther to look than your own backyard for the reasons people are NOT buying from you. Marketing is not the alpha or the omega. It’s what determines what happens in between and coordinates with a lot of other things. But here’s the main one to think about: the fastest way to destroy a brand is to market the hell out of it and then fall flat on pricing quality or service. If you fail in any of these other areas, you are usually percveived as lying…and it will take TEN times the amount of money and effort to fix it as it did to create the problem in the first place.

    It isn’t your marketing that is broken when that happens. It is your business!

    Tara makes a great point that marketing is a partnership…and if you expect marketing to do ALL the work for you, you need to ask yourself when that ever worked…and the answer she gave is absolutely, 100% accurate all the time: NEVER.

  12. November 25, 2013 at 19:24 #

    Great post. I think the point about analytics cannot be overstated, especially as we move into the realm of contextual social media. Knowing when your audience is in the house is going to be extremely important.

  13. November 25, 2013 at 20:29 #

    Oh wow, I agree. That’s weird.

    • November 25, 2013 at 20:39 #

      haha. Okay. ;)

  14. November 26, 2013 at 00:49 #

    I love it when I come across an article that is not typical fodder! I recently came across a Linkedin Group post in which someone posed a question asking if anyone was seeing any direct revenue as a result of SM. Needless to say, most said no–especially small biz owners. Tara your artilce should help them understand the true value of SM can’t be acurately measured in dollars and cents.

  15. November 26, 2013 at 05:32 #

    Great article. I only wish more people understood that setting up a few social accounts for your security company is not going to bring in droves of eager buyers.

    Yes, you might get a couple of sales, but if that’s your main expectation, you’re almost sure to be disappointed.

  16. November 26, 2013 at 12:56 #

    I made a french translation of this fantastic article ( for a better understanding for non-english speaker.

    Thank you so much for your work Tara !

  17. kshayes513
    November 26, 2013 at 15:04 #

    This is everything companies need to understand about the most fundamental level of how social media works. I wish I had written it myself (yes, I’m jealous!).

    Even the “experts” don’t always understand this. I read an article on Forbes recently that attributes the success of the new series Sleepy Hollow to its social media strategy – as if social media is all it takes to turn viewers into avid fans, when of course, the reverse is true, it’s the avid fans who turn the social media into a success, which can then spread the word of mouth.
    Thanks. I’ll be sharing this with my network, too.

  18. November 26, 2013 at 18:46 #

    “You want to know the ROI of social media?

    Number one. It’s the ability to listen. It’s priceless. Not with some damned tool that measures sentiment or finds influencers, either. Really listen.”

    Reminds me of the concept of deposits into an emotional bank account found in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

    • November 26, 2013 at 18:47 #

      It’s funny. I know this is nothing new, but decade after decade (and medium after medium), we need to reiterate it. Why?

  19. November 29, 2013 at 09:00 #

    Good article. It got me looking for more answers regarding the issue.

    Social media doesn’t sell directly, but this graph on US SEO ranking factors in 2013 makes it clear why the indirect impact may be even bigger.

    So maybe the fourth point of ROI in social media, is the indirect influence it has on sales through improving search rank and increasing business from organic search.


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