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This is how Social Media really works

New swings!, originally uploaded by mathowie.

Earlier this month, my wife and I were thinking of what to get our daughter for her upcoming fourth birthday, and upgrading her small plastic swingset that she was out growing was high on our list. I had started scouting around the web trying to find companies that did custom playground stuff that wasn't just huge because we don't have a ton of room in our yard. Everyone thinks bigger is better, but I was looking for smarter, for small spaces.

A few days later I'm reading RSS feeds in Google Reader, which consists mostly of friends and writers I admire. Lilly from Girlhacker posted a great entry about the Obamas getting a swingset playground (March 10th entry) for their kids to have a somewhat normal childhood, and it was the first playset at the White House since the Kennedy family. The post also paints the awesome mental image of an ex-military man on some swings and testing out slides for the Obamas. Lilly does the classic blogging thing that in addition to pointing to the news story she found out about it, she dug up the manufacturer of the swingsets and a few archival photos.

I visited the manufacturer's site, ordered a catalog, and found out I had a local seller. The local seller has a nice big lot where they encourage anyone in Portland to come down and try everything out (yes, including adults, the sets are heavy duty), so we did just that. A few days of figuring out what would fit, and we ordered the set, which got delivered and installed today, just a week after buying it.

I mention this entire story because there are thousands of people all over twitter and blogs that think throwing thousands of dollars at people that describe themselves as a "marketing guru" is the way to increase their company sales. I'm here to say I think that may very well be a waste of money, time, and energy. The Rainbow company makes awesome stuff, has a great website (pretty damn slick all-CSS one at that), and helpful catalog materials (both online and off). They got on my radar when a friend dug up their details for a blog post, in a way no marketing budget could influence.

So maybe instead of getting your company on twitter, paying marketers to mention you are on twitter, and paying people to blog about your company, forget all that and just make awesome stuff that gets people excited about your products, hire people that represent the company well, and when your stuff is so awesome that friends share it with other friends, you may not even need "social media marketing" after all.


  1. Hear hear! Like many others, I’m sick of ‘social media’. In the long run, you do well by doing good – whether that’s good products or good services. It’s not easy, but is the only reliable way of succeeding while also being able to sleep well at night.

  2. Wait… wait… you’re not suggesting that companies actually make something GOOD, are you? And then trust that people will share that with people… on their own? I don’t get it…

  3. I completely agree with this.
    A metaphore I use to explain this is phones:
    It’s as if after the invention of the phone, marketing managers figured out people where using phones to talk about their brands, and dubbed that phenomenon “social media”.
    And they went: “We should do something with phones!”
    Which is utterly besides the point, people talk to their friends over the phone about brands, because the brand is relevant to them, not ’cause that brand happens to have a phone number.
    P.S.: I have a presentation about this on Slideshare, should one be interested:

  4. Great points–and to be a little subversive, I have posted a link to this on my Twitter account that has a large amount of “social media experts” followers.
    BTW, you too can get such a following by making the mistake of using the word entrepreneur in your profile.

  5. Man, I would pay good money for a shot of the admiral testing the playset…
    Ah ha!
    *registers @admiralsonswingsets, commences followgasming*

  6. Great post – so well said. Be interesting and good at what you do as a first step, and the “social media” will take care of itself.

  7. A happy and satisfied customer is our best advertising. Having a team of outstanding employees is key to the experience we provide. It doesn’t matter how much money people spend on advertising or marketing if the product doesn’t deliver.

  8. I mostly agree… but you’re looking at the positive case where this worked. You happened to see a post by a friend when you happened to be looking for a swingset.
    If the swingset maker gets enough positive mentions like that often enough, no, they don’t need social media marketing since most of the people who would be reached by SMM will instead see mentions by friends, etc. But what if they make great products but don’t get enough mentions for some reason (tiny niche, audience that’s not as active creating content, etc)? After all, Swingsets are bought by parents who are likely to be younger (sub-35) and therefore also more likely to be online and active there.
    There’s nothing wrong with SMM as long as you do it in a way that’s genuine, informative and that realizes you have to have a great product to start. It’s when people think they can can put out a mediocre product of indifferent quality but use SMM as a magic bullet that I roll my eyes.

  9. My uncle and a coworker bought Macs because I bought one and could not shut up about how much I enjoyed the product. I don’t think those humorous Apple ads had anything to do with it.

  10. its called word of mouth advertising
    basically the product works and you love it so much you have to tell everyone else and its affordable
    Bit like having a sweet cherry tree Not much fun for 11 months of the year but for one month when you net it and wait you get ripe rich red cherries that burst with flavour and the best bit is you can have one on your patio thanks to dwarfing rootstocks.. For example

  11. I completely agree with the spirit of the morale of your story, I just think the social media part of it is no different from any other kind of word-of-mouth advertising.
    The job of social media hacks like me is to ensure a company who DOES have good stuff is easy to find, and their online marketing stuff is easy to share.

  12. The say goes “Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door”. Just turns out that is not true. I agree that you need great products and services to offer. But you also need people to know about what you are doing and Social Media ia a new way to let people know what you have to offer.

  13. basically the product works and you love it so much you have to tell everyone else and its affordable
    There’s definitely work to be had in nurturing the benefits of word-of-mouth. Well-regarded, limited-distribution products or services are the classic online test case: if there’s a forum or blog thread along the lines of “I want one of those!”, it’s smart to know about it. Even if you can’t deliver, you’re in a position to explain why not.
    To pick up on what Don Lafferty suggests, the overall marketing goal should be to teach companies to seek out and listen to those public conversations.

  14. You have a great point! Good to read this and I absolutely agree with you on having good quality products. But if you can do contribute to your social media yourself as a small company, perhaps it can’t hurt.

  15. Sadly, I’m one of those people that get’s paid to do that sort of stuff. It works, the same way spam works. But it works. Alas, not every company out there is the best at what they do. In some fields, fashion for example, no one is “the best”, so it becomes a question seeing and being seen. It’s old school marketing on a new platform. The more people see you, the better.
    I don’t particularly like this corporate fascination with social media, I think there could be better ways of marketing your business, but it does work.
    I’m not saying It’s right, it’s just the way it is.

  16. Matt,
    This is a great post and I agree with you for the most part. For swingsets, social media is a great avenue for attracting potential customers.
    What about something like a bank though which sells a more dynamic product. By the time I hear about the Yield on a CD it might have changed. Spending lots of money on that sort of thing still makes sense at this point.

    Sorry for the caps, I’ve been reading too many P Diddy tweets….

  18. Just turns out that is not true
    Can you name a few cases where that isn’t true? I’ve found that pretty much every great product finds an audience online organically, and most of what I see described as “Social Media Marketing” is annoying.

  19. With things like Banks, I see tons of financial blogs that do regular write-ups of current rates and reviews. I don’t know if marketing is what they need since there seems to be a sizable online audience already obsessed with that facet of banking.

  20. Thanks for the honesty, gargantuan. That’s how I normally think of marketing and why I wrote this post, but it’s good to hear people in the industry are aware of it.

  21. As a father-to-be, I’m prowling the net looking for the right crib, the right stroller, the right advice on preventing boys from ever dating her, and the right everything else. I wouldn’t know about most of these products (or of Howie Mandel’s decision to prevent boys from dating her daughter by not potty training her) if the companies didn’t engage in some type of marketing or PR.
    For every good company that is fortunate to have news about its products or services included in a popular news story, there are plenty of other good companies that need help getting the word out.
    Matt, you wouldn’t have known about the swing set if Lilly hadn’t blogged. Lilly may not have known had she not read the wire story on the Argus Leader website. The story’s reporter may not have known unless he or she researched the news release from the White House. And, regardless whether Rainbow Play Systems had publicity help, the chances of getting noticed (or even called) by a reporter on deadline increase tremendously with the hard and/or smart work of a PR, SEO, or [shudder] a “social media marketing” agency.
    I shudder at “social media marketing” because I work in IT for a public relations firm with tech clients, and we no more pitch a “social media strategy” than we pitch an “email strategy” or a “phone strategy.” Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and the rest are simply ways to share and converse with people.
    A good chunk of our clients’ sales comes from people who read business, trade and daily publications either in print or online to help inform their decisions. Many of the people who write those stories work for companies struggling to stay in business. A good PR firm works to understand their needs, cultivate relationships, and connect them with people, products, stories or insights that add something of value to their work. (Meanwhile, a bad PR or “social media marketing agency often floods reporters, analysts, bloggers, and networks with unwanted voice mails, irrelevant emails, useless Twitter chatter, or valueless multimedia.)
    Of course, none of this matters if a company’s product or service doesn’t have enough value in and of itself, but — as @rick suggested in the comments above — neither will it matter if people such as you (or Lilly or the reporter or even Rear Adm. Stephen Rochon) never hear of or learn about the Rainbow Play Systems of the world.
    Matt, congratulations on finding the right swing set. If we ever get a yard, your choice will probably going on the top of our list. And for all the companies selling stuff I might want to buy, make sure it’s solidly built, sustainably sourced, smartly designed, fairly reviewed, truthfully marketed, and easily searched. If that requires the services of a PR firm, an SEO expert, or a social media guru, just do your homework first.

  22. Again, you’re reasoning from the positive examples. Your definition of great products is “great products that have been found.” Asking for counter-examples is easy, but it’s basically asking for a negative proof – “show me something that didn’t happen.”
    Oddly I like your example… So I’m not sure why I’m arguing. Oh, right… dinner’s not done yet. :)

  23. Ah, you see marketing as spam and if someone admits that it’s honesty. Wrong.
    Marketing CAN be spammy and inauthentic and much is… when done poorly. Done well, marketing is simply making people who are likely to want what you offer aware that you and your product exist. That’s all.
    You don’t know that you got the best swingset… you just know that you got a very good swingset that fit your needs – there might be several others out there as good and there might even be one that’s better.

  24. Kawika, you summed it up ALL! It’s not by itself that things appear. Somebody has to make it happen. Great post buddy!

  25. I think this shows that social media, in the form of blogs or just a fancy way of saying “people have access to publishing tools and finding those people whose interest match their own” is just creating a more frictionless marketplace. Instead of non-targeted branding, now as you say, it comes down to just having a good product. Corporate blogs, websites, detailed pictures, all these are things people have access to now to evaluate the product in greater depth then when the only touch point with a potential buyer was a 30 second ad on a national network, with no way to find out more than to track to each individual retailer. Branding can still get you a click and raise awareness, but since a click is a lot less commitment than a trip to the store, people are much more likely to compare. ANd you better have a good product in comparison. So ad agencies and media outlets may be getting less money, but consumers are getting better purchasing decisions.

  26. “Just make awesome stuff” and everything else takes care of itself? Huh? I work in the real world and in my world we have cash and time limitations that often prevent us from producing “awesome stuff.”
    What if you’re the marketing guy at Dodge, or Microsoft, or Huffy. You don’t have any direct input on how the “stuff” is designed or manufactured. It may be crap but your job is to market what you’ve got. What then?
    Or maybe you’re the CEO of a small start-up and you’ve poured your heart and money into a product. It’s not everything you envisioned (it has a few bugs) but you’re out of cash and have to go-to-market with what you’ve got so you can get some revenue in the door and avoid bankruptcy. What then?
    Or maybe you bought an existing company. They produce less-than-awesome stuff. You’re goal is to re-tool and start producing awesome stuff. That will take 5 years to complete. 5 years! What do you do until then?
    Or maybe you don’t produce anything at all. You provide a service or consulting or similar. You don’t have tangible “stuff” that can be easily evaluated. And you cannot afford to hire the best and brightest at this time. You’d like to, but it’s just not possible from a cash standpoint. What then?

  27. Nom they were probably the reason you bought the Mac!

  28. What then?
    If you work at a company doing crappy stuff or you don’t produce actual things, I think the lesson is still to try and be the best you can be. I personally wouldn’t work for a company producing inferior products and I’d never take a job trying to help sell crap.

  29. My experiences with good PR are very few and very far between, while I spend the rest of my life wading through a fog of noise created by every other PR firm. They’ve covered TV for decades, and now the web, email, and twitter are overrun with these meaningless messages of noise trying to promote one thing or another.
    I found out about the product from a friend. Word of mouth is about the most important thing in my purchase decisions (which is why I’m violently opposed to “Word of Mouth Marketing” and think it’s the most evil form of advertising possible). I don’t buy most mainstream products and go out of my way to research the best and most well-designed stuff, frequently asking friends what worked for them.
    I tend to think I would have done fine if social media marketing never existed. I think I’d be doing fine if there never was a single person doing search engine optimization either. As people work to get their products and ideas in front of everyone at any cost, we all suffer. Google is doing a good job kicking out everyone trying to endless game their system, and I can try ignoring every hack on twitter, but I’m tired of living in the noise.

  30. Matt, that is totally disingenuous. Let’s say 10% (generous) of companies/services/individuals make the best stuff. What does the rest of the 90% do? Go on strike?

  31. What does the rest of the 90% do? Go on strike?
    Maybe aspire to make better stuff instead of spending time/effort/money on shoveling crap down everyone else’s throats?

  32. Matt,
    I think what you’re acknowledging here, though not overtly, is that social networks influence purchase decisions, and social media tools can help facilitate that process (in your example – RSS feeds and blogs). More to your point they can increase the awareness of good products, and bad products as well.
    btw nice product with check out as there are obvious parallels.

  33. But isn’t the definition of “better” to any given person whatever fits their needs? In Matt’s case this was something that was recommneded, easy to find online and extra bonus: had a local presence that was fun and agreeable.
    I am not “wrong” when I say SMM is spam, to me. Other people may have more of a back-and-forth feeling about it, but as a blogger who gets dozens of PR pitches from people who think “my audience” might want to know about their product, I find the whole industry exhausting and not valuing the time and efforts of the people whose influence they are attempting to utilize. One “hey you might want to know about this…” email doesn’t seem intrusive to the person sending it, but once it gets multiplied it becomes not only obnoxious but clearly forced.
    As soon as I learn that someone promoting a product is getting in any way paid to make me think the product is valuable or worthwhile, it immediately downgrades the product in my eyes. That’s as valid a perspective as yours as far as the value of marketing goes.

  34. Social media marketing does not equal paying people to blog or tweet about you. That’s called advertising. Paid placement. And, yes. It is a total waste of money.
    Good social media work is about listening, not paying people to speak. It’s about telling product managers the critiques people have about their products then following up with the complainer to let them know the issue was fixed. It’s about building relationships online and offline so there is no need to cold pitch. It’s about not sharing a client’s news if you think it’s BS and going to hurt your own reputation.
    It is unfortunate that you have not had good experiences. Like good programmers, good PR pros (social media or otherwise) are hard to find. But, I think we can all admit that if good products were enough to keep a business afloat, good manufacturers wouldn’t fail.
    The truths that do shine through: 1) don’t pay for placement in social media 2) there are many annoying self-professed “social media gurus” to avoid and 3) good products generate word of mouth marketing.

  35. Vis a vis Apple?
    The effect of social media is not to create a new marketing medium, it is that all marketing must change. You cannot effectively manipulate opinion in social media so standard marketing strategy goes out the window.
    This post is exactly right- and I am a social media ‘marketer’. I have learned that marketing in social media is a lot more like great customer service rather than messaging. The product must be able to stand the scrutiny of the users in a public, global forum.

  36. Some advertisers I ignored paid the salary of Brooks Barnes to write this article I thought you’d appreciate:
    Wall Street is nervous about Pixar’s stubborn reluctance to care about how many action figures can be baked into their stories: “We seek to make great films first,” Disney’s chief executive said. “A check-the-boxes approach to creativity is more likely to result in blandness and failure.”
    Pixar chief John Lasseter said it better: “Quality is the best business plan.”

  37. That said, permit me to float a trial balloon here.
    My first job out of college was reporting for a daily newspaper in Oregon. Ads among (what I hope were) well-researched and reported stories paid a portion of my salary. My previous job was with Apple. Effective marketing of (what I felt was) the “best and most well-designed stuff” helped pay a portion of my salary.
    Today, I work behind the scenes for a PR firm whose high-tech and cleantech clients pay my salary. The only way they’ll continue to do so is if we’re effective in our efforts. And, ultimately, the only way our efforts will be effective is if they are relevant to people who make decisions on technology purchases.
    You (like hundreds of millions of spenders) are wary of the fog machines and weary of the noise makers. Good. That is forcing me (like tens of millions of Americans working in or supported by marketing, advertising, and public relations) to create work of relevance so the economy doesn’t grind completely to a halt.
    We may in fact need each other.

  38. >> >This is weird, apparently The Wall Street Journal’s All Things D does a reblogging thing. I sure wish they asked me first though. That’s a hell of a lot of ads on my “excerpt”
    Maybe, but I would have never known about your page/blog but for allthingsd reblogging /having the excerpt of your nice article on their page.

  39. “I personally wouldn’t work for a company producing inferior products…” Huh? Again, I work in the real world and in my world there are limits to the number of job opportunities at great companies. We all can’t work for the 10% or less that produce awesome stuff.
    Say you are out of work. BMW and Lexus are not hiring, but Dodge and Kia are hiring. You have a family, a mortgage, and a shrinking bank account. What then?

  40. I work in the real world as well, I don’t know why you think I live in a fantasy world (though wanting to live without the fog of constant noise from annoying marketers is, I admit, a fantasy).
    And I said I wouldn’t work for a company producing inferior products because I’m at the point in my life where I can pick and choose what I want to work on. I personally would have zero motivation to get up in the morning and shovel shit down people’s throats if I had to be an ad or marketing guy for say, Pontiac or a cigarette company. Motivation to work on stuff I love is more important to me than money these days.
    If you have to take a job to pay the bills, you have to do what you have to do. Not every job I’ve held was my ideal, but I was always working towards my ideal and thankfully I’ve been lucky enough to accomplish all the goals I’ve set out for myself.

  41. When I was three years old I came down with meningitis and was in the hospital for two weeks. I remember a lot about the experience, just because it was such an incredibly unusual experience compared to my normal three-year old existence, and also because the look of shear dread and concern on my parents’ face during the most serious moments of those two weeks was literally unforgettable.
    I remember the new nightgowns they bought me so I didn’t have to stay in the hospital gown (one featuring rageddy ann, one with yellow and red flowers). I remember my five year-old sister coming into visit me and looking very scared and uncomfortable. I remember my father coming to visit me at night by himself, after he had commuted home from work and had dinner, and I remember him wheeling around my IV to help get me down the hall so I could speak with my mom on the pay phone every night before I had to go to sleep. I’ll never forget what it was like to hear her voice over the phone for the first time.
    But what I remember most of all was the sunny day in May that I was released from the hospital. When the car pulled into our driveway, my parents told me there was a surprise waiting for me in the backyard. It was a brand new swing set and one of those turtle-shaped sandboxes. I had never felt such excitement in my short life than I did that moment seeing the bright new green box full of brand new clean sand, begging me to play in it (and get my brand new baby blue summer dress soiled in the process).
    So, long story short, my point is that your daughter may one day read a blog post and remember climbing and running on her brand new big girl playground, smiling and laughing while swinging on one of the first sunny days of Oregon’s spring, and she’ll think of how much her parents have always loved her.
    And that’s also how social media works.

  42. You said: “So maybe instead of getting your company on twitter, paying marketers to mention you are on twitter, and paying people to blog about your company, forget all that and just make awesome stuff that gets people excited about your products, hire people that represent the company well, and when your stuff is so awesome that friends share it with other friends, you may not even need “social media marketing” after all.”
    I couldn’t agree more – but with one caveat:
    Create great products!
    Create stuff that is so great, people can’t help but rave about it.
    Find ways of utilizing social media in order to enable your fans to rave about your stuff.
    The beauty of social media is that it connects those who want to be connected. The best advertising is word of mouth, right? Social media makes it easier to connect the dots between fans and potential fans.

  43. Matt – spot on. Social Media tools are an enhancement to doing great stuff – but they are NOT an end unto themselves which is how you even get “social media marketing”. I like to say that there is no such thing as a social media marketing campaign” because the impact of social media is an ongoing 24/7 connection with customers not an episodic ad. Just like when we all discovered the web it was first a “marketing channel” until businesses realized – shit, e-commerce – we can sell stuff here! Because the net is a communication medium – it is the communicators who jump first but the real impact is on understanding how social media can improve product creation, customer service etc – not as a new distribution channel for ads.

  44. The problem is that most products are in fact mediocre quality and as a result the marketing/ad industry is huge. Where else on earth can you make someone believe that water tastes better if it comes in a square bottle instead of a round one. :)
    As to Twitter, it is pretty annoying that 95% of those that follow you first are trying to sell you something. I guess the real question is why are 100k users following those people?

  45. The product is the catalyst that sparks the discussion and social media is the conduit through which it’s channeled. Social media is a utility system that fosters word-of-mouth.
    I agree that companies need to make great, purple cow products that market themselves. However, I also that companies need to pay attention to what people are saying via social media and interact with those who either commend or criticize. Call it PR 2.0, customer service 2.0, or (fill in the blank) 2.0, companies can’t excuse themselves from the conversation, not completely anyway.
    Now, to the point of hiring social media “gurus” to tout inferior products, that’s another matter.

  46. I like it; do what you do, Well, and you will get the results you are trying to pay for – maybe better.
    But paying for it is the easy route, and the big companies can do that, us little guys have to work hard on it.
    yet there may be a middle ground where there is sense in making a moderate monetary investment in drawing attention to you blog.

  47. Well said Matt.
    Social media can be a great thing for getting the word out about brands. But sticking someone in there (ala paying someone) to blow the brand’s horn is the same thing as planting someone at your friend’s next BBQ. It’s lame if it’s not honest.
    Oh, and as far as making good quality products…don’t get me started.
    -Joseph Fedcamp

  48. Matt, first great post, well argued and well positioned, but I need to play devil’s advocate. The large majority of the “things” that are in your house are not products that a normal person can feel passion about. A bar of soap, laundry detergent, garbage bags, etc. These products are good products, but are largely viewed as a commodity. There is relatively little in terms of creating that passionate experience that you described. Social Media (I also believe that whole web is quickly becoming social as evidenced by CNN’s twitter experiments) has become a place where people gather and spend large amounts of time. As with every other media that has been ad supported (and it doesn’t like like Social Media will be different) the marketing dollars will follow the audience. And these marketing expenditures will be proved to change/enhance attitudes about these products.

  49. Please forward this article to every email account in Hollywood, TY.

  50. You do realize that social media IS word of mouth, and you got that from a social medium — reading a friend’s blog.
    Hence, social media works. :)

  51. I don’t get it…random inspiration quotes tweeted out at random times seems like a no-brainer to me!
    Kidding. Great post. The phrase “You can’t polish a turd,” needs to enter the social media vernacular.

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