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Social media marketing undermines medium’s purpose

Social_mediaSocial media is being lauded as the new necessary marketing tool, but as more and more businesses get a grip on how to market in this new medium, social media’s credibility and authenticity begin to falter, writes Vikram Singh.

It’s 2010 and if your business isn’t marketing on at least one social networking site, you are irrelevant.  This tenet, postulated by self-styled “internet gurus”, business developers, and even the mainstream media, is spurring unique new marketing campaigns that utilize users on social networking sites – aka social media – as brand promoters.

But what are the consequences of these new social media marketing campaigns?  After all, social media are intended to be specifically “social”, designed for the public at large, not corporate marketing mechanisms. 

Do these social marketing campaigns represent a dire future for social media?

In a word: yes. 

Examining the medium probably most closely related to social media – the now seemingly ancient telephone – the worst business-related aspect you had to worry about was telemarketers. 

However, imagine if your friend telephoned you when they purchased a frozen yogurt just to tell you they had purchased a frozen yogurt. No doubt you would immediately consider your friend an inane corporate thrall, but for some reason, if your friend did this same thing on social media it’s somehow seen as more acceptable.

This was evidenced by New York-based frozen yogurt chain Tasti D-Lite, who created a rewards program that allows customers to connect their Tasti D-Lite loyalty accounts to their Twitter, Facebook or Foursquare accounts.  Each time a customer uses their loyalty card they have the option of “announcing” their purchase on any or all of their connected social media accounts for extra points.  This marketing strategy proved quite successful, inheriting many early adopters.

Levi’s recently instituted a far more pervasive use of social networking, quite literally building a promotion around the “Like” button on Facebook.  Users can enter the Levi’s “Friend Store” website and “like” individual types of jeans, which then appear on the users’ Facebook news feeds.  Furthermore, users can connect their Facebook account to the Levi’s site, enabling them to see what their friends “like” and whether any of them have upcoming birthdays (to remind them that they need to buy their friends a present...). 

Not all social media marketing is oriented around such supposedly “friendly” activities. 

In 2009, Burger King launched a campaign entitled “The Whopper Sacrifice” wherein individuals were asked to delete ten of their Facebook friends in order to get a voucher for a free Whopper burger.  While Facebook did shut down this greed-reliant campaign (only because it violated Facebook’s privacy policy by notifying users when they had been deleted in the promotion), it received positive reviews and results, and cost Burger King very little money relative to the amount of exposure received.

Although these marketing campaigns are shady, they are only representative of the corporate world just gently dipping its tentacles into social media; certainly the future holds far more extensive and as yet unheard of social media marketing campaigns. 

Twitter, for example, will soon allow “metadata” in tweets.  This will provide software developers with the tools to allow users to attach information onto their tweets, such as locations and notes.  Rest assured, developers will find unique ways to incorporate this extensive multimedia information into their marketing.

But so what? Corporate brand promotion among members of the public is nothing new, for decades people have worn logos embroidered on shirts or had automakers logos exhibited as hood ornaments on their car. 

However, this is very different from social media brand promotion, for some notable reasons.

Namely, neither clothes nor vehicles act as some sort of medium for personal messages that can be violated when a brand is displayed on it. This branding may act as a symbol of affluence or subculture affiliation, but it doesn’t counteract what the clothes or vehicles set out to do: clothe your body and transport you to your destination.

On the other hand, the aforementioned social media marketing examples utterly violate the intent of the medium.  Social media, according to Wikipedia, “are media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques” which “support the democratization of knowledge and information and transform people from content consumers to content producers”. 

How can a social media platform be at all credible when littered with promotions, branding, and advertisements, all from friends? The platform would no longer be a venue for the “democratization of knowledge and information”; information would mainly originate from a few sources, specifically, businesses, or marketing companies acting on behalf of these businesses. 

Furthermore, people would no longer be “content producers”; they would instead be relegated to “content facilitators”, mere stepping stones allowing companies to leapfrog from consumer to consumer.

Then don’t use social media? Well, given the ubiquity of social media, opting out of it is no longer a viable – or at least sensible – option for many people.  Therefore, facing up to some of the more egregious problems related to social media marketing will become a necessity.

The foundation of social media is in genuine social interaction, free from external influence.  Each person you communicate with on social media is almost assuredly a real person, with real emotions, concerns, and lives.   

Yet since users are given this freedom to express themselves, if they are willing to cheapen their goodwill for corporations, it’s widely seen as their choice.

Outside of privacy concerns, it seems that no government, company, or organization has significant interest in ensuring that social media stays untarnished by corporate manifestations.

Consequently, opposition to the looming corporatization of social media must stem from grassroots movements involving plain ol’ people, the very and only element social media were designed for.

Vikram Singh, (@wordsandsuch) is a communications consultant, blogger, copywriter and new media analyst based out of Vancouver, Canada. He’s worked on numerous public engagement strategies for a variety of organizations, and has developed a multitude of newsletters, research reports, and new media strategies.  He has a passion for all things communications-related, and, sadly, he spends his free time doing the same activities he does at work: reading, writing and researching.  More of his work can be viewed on his blog, Communicoction.



0 #2 Wally Glutton 2010-05-18 11:10
It's information pollution, and it's been a problem on the internet for a long time now. There are tools, however, that can improve the signal to noise ratio.

I use FBP ( to remove all app notices (and other cruft) from my Facebook newsfeed. In order to run this script you'll have to be using Firefox with the Greasemonkey extension installed.
0 #1 Chelsea Vohanka 2010-05-17 18:31
Fabulous article Vik! Very valid points that need to be brought to peoples attention regarding social media. Since these networks are as you say pretty much necessary now-a-days it is important for people to be aware of their involvement in corporate promotions and when personal privacy is at risk. It does seem that corporate intrusion is becoming a slippery slope of acceptance made unconsciously by so many people.

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