The Biggest Problem with Social Media is the Hype (And 3 ways how to avoid that)

January 2012

As 2012 dawns, most marketing managers have ‘update Facebook’ or 'set up Twitter' on their 2012 action list. But before you push the publish button, or delegate to one of your team, Nualan O’Brien advises you to carefully consider why you are doing it in the first place.

There is no doubt that social media is growing fast. It took Facebook a mere 9 months to reach 100 million new users in 2010.  It took Television 15 years to reach only 50 million users.*

*Source: Socianonomics.

And the irony is that the only real challenge social media currently faces is the hype.  

As the biggest challenge marketing managers face is not (as is most commonly thought) that they might be missing out on the benefits of social media, but that they succumb to the hype.

Everyone knows that social media matters, but most are unsure how to leverage it to promote their brand.

In 2006, Facebook was considered a fad.  The only 40 or 50-somethings who used Facebook were tech-savvy parents who knew it was a handy way to keep tabs on the kind of parties their teenage children attended.

In May 2010, Facebook announced that they had 500 million users. By January 2012, the number of active users, namely users who log in at least once a month, is 800 million.

There is however, very little useful information in the public domain advising brands in a way that translates into you actually making money or selling from social media.

Before I go any further, allow me clarify what social media means exactly.

Social media are interactive internet-based platforms like blogs, chatrooms etc.  The best known ones are Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn, Tripadvisor and Twitter.  Social media, or web 2.0 is a progression from the web where you passively surfed for information. Before this, the only interaction possible for you was to buy something or send an email and wait for a response. Social media allows for real-time conversations.

While the web revolutionised how we find information, social media has revolutionised the potential for how we interact with our customers online. Note the use of the word ‘potential’, as most brands deploy traditional marketing messaging in an untypical medium and the result is about as appetising as a three day old pancake.  

To avoid the hype, keep it simple. Before you embark on any social media efforts, you need to establish why it matters to your brand.

These are the following 3 reasons as to why Social Media matters to you.

1. People are rating products and services online and other people trust those recommendations.

The average Joe and Jill are rating products and services – products and services like yours – on social media platforms. And your potential customers are being influenced as ‘to buy or not to buy’ resulting from what they read.

According to the Nielsen Company, who are considered an authority on research, 78 per cent of consumers globally trust recommendations from other consumers above all other forms of advertising*.

(Online Global Consumer Study of 2007)

Five years ago, if you wanted to get a review of a household item, your only real option was to subscribe to Which Magazine, and while on average, the Which review is still better, you can still access some, fairly decent reviews for free via social media platforms.

I got a rather pleasant surprise recently when social media helped resolve a domestic dilemma.

While installing a bathroom in my house, the builder recommended a particular type of toilet (a pump toilet). Now I am not into DIY, more of DIH (Do It Himself) kind of gal...but there was something in this builder’s smile that alarmed me.

 “Would it be easier for you?” I asked.


 “Yes,” he said, beaming. But his response was just a-little-too-quick. His smile just a-little-too-broad.

My natural-born ‘builder trying to fool Blondie’ instinct was on high-alert.

I tell him I’ll sleep on it.

And while Blondie doesn’t do DIY, plumbing or anything that involves car engines, she does do Google searches.

So hi-ho, hi-ho off to my friend Google I go; and I punch in the words ‘pump toilet review’. And within less than 5 minutes I had an informed, quick decision. This type of toilet was only suited to small-scale use, like a garage or an office, not for something with the renting masses descending on it.

My Father, a very refined man is well familiar with my DIY-angst (a quality, according to my mother, I inherited from him) was particularly impressed. “You found a review of the toilet on the Google-page,” he said to me – rather awe-struck.


So with 5 minutes of social media perusing, I had successfully avoided untold hassle, expense and tenant-ache.

Without being an expert, thanks to a free social media DIY forum, I had access to helpful experts. And these experts happily spend their time helping other citizens out – because they are passionate about this particular thing.


2. Social media is here to stay: we are at the beginning, of the beginning of a curve...


At the moment it’s mostly tangible stuff like books and products that are being rated by social media, but in time, it will be everything: people, service industries, politicians, musicians, concerts. For example, in Ireland, there is a site where school children can rate their teachers:


3. Big Brands are using social media. Big brands are also reducing their spend in mainstream advertising.


 In 2010 – for the first time in 23 years, Pepsi stopped advertising in the Super Bowl. Incidentally, they increased their overall advertising spend, they just they shifted a large proportion to digital media.  In the same year, Unilever increased their spend on digital marketing. “You gotta fish where the fish are.”

And of course social media is being used as a Public Relations tool. When Tiger Woods, one of the most recognised celebrity brands in the world, first commented to the world following his ‘string of birdies’ allegations, he did so via his blog. Unlike the rest of him, his blog was a medium he could control.

US President Barack Obama was hailed to be the ‘first election’ to be won online. His was a veritable blitzkrieg of one-to-many customer engaging experiences via blogs, Facebook, Twitter, versus the high-maintenance, traditional one-to-one press the flesh, campaigns that most politicians rely exclusively on. He raised money online, he communicated his beliefs: he got his supporters to become ‘brand ambassadors’ and arrange meetings, rallies via Facebook. Interestingly, he used social media more as a 'facilitating' the organisers tool, as opposed to a tool of persuasion.

Another big attraction of social media, it that is both interactive and a yet much more controlled environment than other media like TV, print or radio. Social media lacks the vagaries of TV when little ‘accidents’ happen, like the Murdoch-owned Sky leaving the mike on ‘record’ after a heated debate when the then Prime Minister, Gordan Browne was caught calling a Rochdale lady a bigot. And the ensuing ‘bigot gate scandal’ arguably cost Labour the election.

Imagine, how much more effective this would have been if Labour had invested more resources into an Obama-style heavy hitting social media campaign?


Little brands can learn a lot from big brands. Why? Because big brands have much bigger budgets and in my humble experience, the more money people have, be that organisations or individuals, the more careful they are where they invest it.

Social media matters, not because you can fill up space on your homepage, with a meaningless 'Find us on Facebook' icon, but social media matters because you can find out how customers are rating your product or service. And in a challening economic context, there is nothing more valuable than that.

Most brands skim along the potential of social media. The visionary organisations like Ben & Jerrys Ice cream use Facebook to promote themselves as an ethical, community based organisation, who happen to sell delicious ice cream. Their 'Do the World a Flavour' campaign, where they get their customers to design a new ice cream is very successful.

So learn from others mistakes. And better still, learn from where others go right. With that in mind, think about:

1. Finding out what customers are 'saying' about your brand.

2. Responding to what your customers say about your brand.

3. Using social media to educate your product or service design team about changing customer preferences. Then you can tweak your product or service to match any new needs, or else coming up with a product that matches what has been articulated.


Keep it simple.  No sudden moves, just the right ones.

And if you do that well, 2012 could be a more successful year!



March 2010 - Is Making Tea (not war) the Key to Leading a Team to Glory?

Adrian Birrell, Coach to the 2007 World Cup Qualifying Irish Cricket team talks to the Venture Business Network about how making tea, not war, can help separate the men from the boys.

“If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are too heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you.“

Gladstone, 1865

On St. Patrick’s Day in 2007, when Ireland watched the 9pm news and learned that the Irish Cricket Team had beaten Pakistan, ranked 4th in the world - the average Irish reaction was:

“Wha? We have a cricket team?”

And puhllesse, ladies and gents, don’t pretend you knew better.

Even I thought that. And considering that I had dabbled even with cricketing greatness (well I had played for two seasons in Trinity). My coach told me I had “potential.” But so did my social life you see, and that seemed to incur a rather higher rates of quick wins.

And - while I tried to be happy on the outside for our sporting heroes, I couldn’t ignore the little voice on the inside which wished I had the capacity for time travel and having been closer to a bookies earlier that day. What had the odds been?!?

Read More


Febuary 2010 - Web Summit Post Mortem, Trinity College Dublin.

I just can’t remember the last time I left a lecture hall feeling that good. I left with a warm, glowy feeling of “the world is a good (no great place)”. It certainly provided me with a new view on ‘internetonomics’.

As a Trinity alumnus, with very fond memories of my college time, I initially indulged in a large dose of pleasurable nostalgia while nestling into one of those blue 'James Usher Theatre' seats. This resulted in me really only pricking up my ears when the last two speakers took to the podium, namely Mat Mullenweg, Word press Founder and Craig Newmark, CraigsList founder.

Well either that or I was simply tardy- as I was for most of my college lectures.

First of all let me commend Paddy Cosgrave, conference organiser who secured arguably the most engaging line up I’ve ever seen at a tech anything in Ireland. Instead of focussing on the technology the speakers focussed on the human element and the pointers they could give the audience.

Neither Mat nor Craig droned on with boring slides and PowerPoint charts demonstrating enormous growth and market share. Au contraire, they spoke succinctly, gadget-free, clearly and eloquently. They were not cocky, if anything they were humble, attributing success to others who had helped them on their path. And they left plenty of room for the audience questions. Sadly most of the questions were a little dull, often quite technical and one or two a little negative, but the speakers

Read More


January 2010 - The 5 biggest tech developments in the Noughties?

In the Ireland of 1999, dial-up was standard. For any reader under 20 - yes you really did have to choose between making a phone call and using the Internet.

In 1999, if you said “email me” to somebody on the 46A, they would look at you in awe.

A dear friend once asked me “Do you know how to send a he-male?” I told her I met he-males - daily.

Back then, using email was considered pretty advanced; sending files over the internet was impressive and the very idea of 'downloading a file' was deemed positively exotic. Offices often shared one email address which everyone accessed (and often only one computer had 'internet access'). A typical email addresses in a small business was ' company@iol.ieThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it ' Having your own domain name was a luxury akin to owning a villa in Marbella.

Thanks to favourable corporate tax breaks we are now the home of Google, the world's most popular search engine, and a company who influences how we all use the web in a more significant way than we realise.

In 2010, broadband at home in Ireland is common; dial-up is but a dodgy and distant memory. Every punter has an email address and pretty much everybody who works at a computer has internet access. This year my Canadian-based brother posted an video of himself modelling the Guinness Pyjamas on YouTube as a Christmas family greeting.

Read More