The Great Debate: Is Social Media Bullshit? [PODCAST]

by · April 26, 20134 comments

Welcome to the latest episode of Explore Marketing Uncensored, Social Media Explorer’s official podcast. Explore Marketing Uncensored is your one-way ticket into the twisted minds of some of the greatest digital marketing and social media thought leaders around. The goal: to provide marketing executives with the knowledge they need to be rock stars in their organization.

For this episode Brandon Mendelson, author of Social Media Is Bullshit, goes toe-to-toe with hosts Jason Spooner and Jason Falls, to finally state once-and-for-all whether or not social media is indeed bullshit.  Inspired by Jason Falls’s and Brandon’s fireside chat at the last Explore event, the group talks through the various shades of bullshit currently affecting the social media marketing world. We also identify the true “secret” for how to get your content to go viral. No bullshit.

Listen if: You’ve ever wanted to sit ringside at a boxing match but couldn’t afford tickets

Don’t listen if: You’re offended by the word “bullshit.” In which case, we warned you!

Don’t miss an episode Explore Marketing Uncensored! Subscribe to the podcast through iTunes and receive the latest episode on your preferred podcast listening device.

Show notes

Social Media Is Bullshit – Brandon Mendelson’s Book

No Bullshit Social Media – Jason Falls Book

Gary Vaynerchuk – Referenced in podcast

Harlem Shake – Example of “viral” content

Orabrush – Example of “viral” content

Will it Blend? – Example of “viral” content

The Filter Bubble – Book referenced in podcast

Can’t Listen Right Now? Complete Transcript below:

Announcer: You’re listing to Explore Marketing Uncensored: everything you need to know about marketing, and a few things you didn’t. Now, here’s your host, Jason Spooner.

Spooner: Welcome to Explore Marketing Uncensored. I am Jason Spooner. Joining me today on the program, Jason Falls. Jason, how are you doing?

Falls: What’s up, J-Spoon? How are you, man?

Spooner: Good, man. Good. A man that needs no introduction around the Social Media Explorer website.

Falls: Yeah, whatever.

Spooner: And also coming on the show, special guest star Brandon Mendelson. Brandon is the author of Social Media Is Bullshit. Brandon, how are you doing?

Brandon: I am great. Thanks for having me on.

Spooner: Great. I want to apologize ahead of time for the large amount of bullshit that we’re going to talk about today. We’re going to use this word bullshit a lot, so if it’s offensive to your eardrums, I’m apologizing now, and it’s the only time I’m going to apologize.

Falls: I’m pretty sure that the people in our audience are well attuned and accustomed to the fact that we will drop the bullshit from time to time, at least the word. So I’m not thinking there’s going to be very many people out there offended. But if you are, this may not be the podcast for you.

Spooner: No. Or I tell you what, play a game. Every time that we say the word bullshit, make yourself hear “cupcakes.”

Falls: Or do a shot. Either one.

Spooner: Hey, that’s what we need. The Explore Marketing Uncensored drinking game.

Falls: Yeah, there you go. Hey, we could market that. That could be an app.

Spooner: That could totally be an app.

Falls: Fun times.

Spooner: We’ll have to test it, of course, extensively.

Falls: Absolutely.

Spooner: Brandon, you down for this?

Brandon: I’m all for it. I’m all for the drinking game. I was already thinking of rules for it. [LAUGHTER]

Falls: Very nice. Good deal. So today on the show—and for those of you that don’t know, I mean, obviously, I think many of you do. But obviously my first book was No Bullshit Social Media, and the whole point of that book was to show businesses and business owners how they could use social media. But translate social media to them in a no-BS kind of way. Look, I’m not going to give you all the rainbows and unicorns fluffy BS that goes along with the pitch on why you should use social media. I’m going to shoot straight with you. Tell you how you can measure it, use it strategically, etcetera, etcetera. And then about a year later, I catch wind from St. Martin’s Press that this Brandon Mendelson guy has written a book called Social Media Is Bullshit, and I thought, “OK, we’ll see. There’s always the naysayers and the skeptics out there.” I was honored to get an advance copy and read it. And I didn’t agree with everything, as I’m sure you can obviously probably assume that I wouldn’t agree with everything, ’cause I really enjoy social media, and I’ve made a nice living for my family and all that good stuff talking about social media, so on and so forth. But I thought that Brandon had a really good perspective, and a lot of good things to say, even though I didn’t agree with them. And so the whole concept and the way that Brandon and I sort of came across one another is after I read the book, I think—I don’t know, somebody may have tagged us in some sort of—trying to poke us on a Twitter argument or something. But I reached out and said, “Hey, I’d love for you, Brandon, to come to Explore”—I think in Portland last fall—”and let’s do a little fireside chat debate,” which quite frankly, I thought turned out really, really well. So we thought we would have Brandon come on the podcast to talk a little bit about his book, his perspective, and so we’re not going to completely reinvent that particular fireside chat. But we want to discuss his perspective on social media. So I want to start out, Brandon, by throwing this at you. To just brazenly come out and say social media is bullshit, obviously you and I have had this conversation before. It’s a real blanket statement. People are going to see the title of the book, and they’re either going to say, “Oh, this is going to be cool. I’m going to enjoy this,” they’re going to buy the book, or they’re just going to completely write off your credibility and not touch it at all. But when you say social media is bullshit, from a high level, what are you trying to communicate to people? What’s the point?

Brandon: I’ve got to back up a little bit, because we talked an awful lot about the book, the title specifically since it came out. And a lot of people have been like, “It’s really social media marketers, social media marketing’s bullshit.” So the title is misleading, and I think if I had another opportunity, I would definitely go back and adjust it. I think we talked about that when we got together back in November. What I’m trying to get at really is that we just have these tools, and there’s nothing really wrong with the tools. I mean, some are better than others. But we’ve allowed this ecosystem to form of people who don’t necessarily have a marketing, public relations, or advertising—or even a communications background, to essentially overhype them to their own benefit. And so that’s really what I was trying to drive at. In terms of what works for you and what doesn’t, the core message of the book is that it really comes down to customer research and [INAUDIBLE]

Spooner: Right, so it’s not that social media’s bullshit. It’s that the people in the ecosystem, the social media marketers, that’s what you’re saying is bullshit.

Brandon: Yeah. I mean, if you look at a guy like—I have to—I’m trying to be more positive. But if you look at someone like Gary Vaynerchuk, who was presented to the world as this self-made social media success story by the media, that isn’t accurate at all. Gary married in a lot of his money, he was represented by Creative Artists Agency, and that’s how he got all those television appearances. That’s really the kind of thing that I’m finding out. That there’s such this myth and hype, and some of the figures that we’ve had promoting social media aren’t necessarily all that they seem. So that’s really what I was trying to get at.

Falls: So I don’t necessarily disagree with you. And I think there are several examples that you use in the book. Gary obviously, his story—started Wine Library TV, used social media to help his family business, and then saw an opportunity to latch on to this new, emerging world of social media consultant-type speaker/author/etc. and he smartly marketed himself and rode that wave. And I definitely agree with you that we do have an overabundance of people out there who aren’t necessarily qualified overall from a marketing/communications background to say, “This is how you should be marketing your business.” There’s a lot of people who know social, like they grew up on Facebook or they have a blog. But they don’t necessarily understand marketing. They don’t understand business. Totally agree with you that there is a social media douche bag set out there. Absolutely. But what I found more interesting, I think, about your book—that was more revealing, which is what I wanted to talk about with people, because I want them to also know the good in this book—is the truth about the social media success stories. And I think you go into pretty good detail, especially on YouTube and some of the viral sensations out there. So talk a little bit about that, and the myth of going viral, because you make a pretty good point in this book that going viral is actually manufactured, not organic.

Brandon: That’s right. And I think the Harlem Shake is a great recent example of that, where it was very much driven by the corporate interests of places like College Humor and Buzzfeed that made it spread, and not just people alone passing it around to show off how cool and funny they are. So YouTube in particular is rife with these stories of, “Look at this thing go viral.” A lot of people talk about Orabrush and Will It Blend? But this actually just happened at South By Southwest. I was doing a book signing, and the guy from Orabrush walks by. He’s like, “I hear we’re in this book.” And I said, “Yeah, you are.” And he goes, “Oh, cool. Let’s take a look.” And he goes, “you know, a lot of people don’t realize that we paid for the spread of our videos.” Every time people talk about Orabrush, it’s like this thing went viral and it was organic, it’s magic. And we don’t go out of our way to tell people that, because it’s a better story for the media and others, and this community douche bag set, to latch onto this magical thinking.” He was alluding to the fact that they very much—it was a paid push for the spread and success of Orabrush, but you never—up until, I think, this book came out, people really didn’t talk about that. And I’m not saying to pat myself on the back. I just went and did the legwork. And then there’s other stories like Will It Blend? But none of them ever mention the fact that Will It Blend? was featured on the front page of YouTube back when that was the difference between your video getting seen by a few hundred people and a few hundred thousand people. And also led to opportunities like being placed on The Tonight Show and on the Discovery Channel, a lot of different entertainment possibilities that came from that placement. And that’s never, ever mentioned in that story, again because people have these—I guess the social media douche bag set, but also the American media in particular, to latch onto these things and say, “Wow, look at this viral and organic spread that was done through the magic of social media and through the magic of the Internet.” And the sad thing is that all it took was maybe a couple hours to get to the bottom of those. I just poked around. I had some interviews. I did some fact checking. And you see really quickly. All these things you hear about these viral success stories, 99% of the time, they’re not viral at all. It’s very much driven by someone else’s self-interest.

Falls: So let me turn it around on you a little bit, because I hear you and I don’t disagree that there is a layer or level of—well, there’s a lack of transparency, maybe I would agree with. And you constantly use the phrase “someone else’s self-interest,” and I understand that. But if I am Will It Blend?—let’s take that example—and I have these videos that I know are—either we’ve tested them with an audience or we’re getting feedback from people and they seem to be really interesting, and it’s funny that you’re chewing up an iPad in a blender, whatever. If I’m a marketing director for Will It Blend, I’m saying, “OK, let’s do an ad spend. Let’s spend some money to get some more eyeballs on this stuff.” And there is an amplification of that, that is viral, that happens. But we’re going to manufacture some audience. In my positions now, both in advising clients and even with Cafepress, I say, “Hey, if we’ve got a good piece of content, let’s support it with an ad budget. Let’s manufacture some traffic, because if we get enough eyeballs on it, then the organic stuff happens as an amplification of that.” And so, are we being fair in criticizing these examples by saying, “This was not viral. It was not organic. It was driven by someone’s self-interests,” where we should be turning around and saying, “Actually, this is just a really good use of social media. It’s a really good use of the medium.” Yeah, they should be a little bit more transparent about it, but they actually did a really damn good job.

Brandon: Yeah, there’s a certain—I have to be careful, ’cause I signed recently an NDA with YouTube and with this particular party. There’s a very large brand that is funded by one of the largest corporations in America, and I’ll leave it at that, who did that. It was a multimillion dollar budget, and they manufactured over two million views to their YouTube channel. And you would never know it unless you were actually behind the scenes working on it. And so when I hear about stuff like that—this comes up quite often—that part of it I’m fine with. The part where I start to go, “OK, let’s take a step back” again comes in with the media in particular and with that social media douche bag set. That’s where I get, “OK, I know you’re excited about this, but there’s more to the story, and I think we need to take a step back from your vantage point and talk about it.” And so that’s really where I drop the flag. It’s not so much you shouldn’t go and do those things. It clearly worked for this brand. I mean, everyone was talking about them and it certainly went a long way to repairing their image from what they used to be. But at the same time, I hesitate to let people use that to take advantage of others. And I know that sounds overly dramatic, but there’s a lot of these snake oil salesmen in small markets all across the country that are rolling up and saying, “Hey, this worked for Will It Blend?” and not mentioning the ad buy that—not in Will It Blend?’s case, but in Orabrush’s case, not mentioning the ad buy that actually funded that viral growth. Instead, it’s very much, “Oh, it’s magic, and you can have some of the magic too.”

Falls: Sure. And I would also echo that. And I think I’ve told you this before. I think I mentioned this in Portland when we were doing our little fireside chat thing. I actually had an entertainment—an agent, a talent agent that I was talking with one time, and I was asking him about the YouTube success of a couple of his clients. And he just, without missing a beat, and not acting like it was any secret in the world whatsoever, turned to me and said, “Well, you know you have to buy the first half a million views.” And I thought, “Really?” And so I was like, “I’m not going to quote you on this, because I know that’ll get you sideways with some people. But you’re telling me that all of these Justin Bieber-esque people that come along, singing sensations and entertainment folks, you’re telling me that there’s really nothing organic about it?” He’s like, “No, they all have talent agents, and we go and we purchase a half a million or more views, because if you get a half a million or more views, then you start to show up on the front pages of those searches, and the recommended videos, and so on and so forth.” And that’s what happens to make a quote-unquote viral success.

Spooner: I want to add to this too. We’re talking about this in terms of social media. But this kind of—not bait and switch, but this kind of paid exposure, that’s nothing new in marketing. It happens all the time in PR world. It’s been happening for 30 years in PR world. It’s been happening even longer than that in Hollywood and Tinseltown. In the 1920s, where you paid for that exposure. To me, this isn’t anything new. So should we treat it with—why should we cast it in a different light, or why should we say that it’s more shady than what was going on in PR in the ’80s?

Brandon: Because it’s been recast in a different light. Because I make the point in the book that social media is just the new buzzword for Web 2.0, and Web 2.0 was just the buzzword for repackaging new media. And so even though it is the same—and I talk about that quite a bit—it is the same exact [INAUDIBLE] Edward Bernice was using at the turn of the century. We still have allowed people to repackage it as something new, and because of that, because of the lack of critical thought that occurs, particularly among my core audience of millennials and younger, and particularly among the American media, it is important to get out there and say, “Whoa, there’s more going on here than what you’re actually hearing.” And just to Jason’s point, it’s actually amazing how dumb the algorithm software Google, Apple, and really any—especially Amazon—because they can’t scale in such a way that if they were smart it would take forever, and people just wouldn’t have that. And don’t—they’re actually incredibly easy to manipulate, and it’s become a multimillion dollar business. And people should be aware of this, that when they see stuff popping up on the iTunes store, there were things like sock puppets that were used. People were buying the views or essentially doing other things to game the system, which I can’t really get into with too much detail. But people should be aware that the things that are being presented to them by these algorithms that we’re presenting as magic and wonderful really are easily manipulated.

Falls: So let me throw this out at you. And I think I’ve asked you this before, and I liked your answer then as well. And I’m sure it will be similar here. So you say a couple times in the book that the purpose of this is to make—especially small business owners aware of the reality of social media, and that they could get—sink a lot of money and a lot of investment into listening to some of these social media blowhards and not get a lot out of it because they don’t have big budgets, etcetera, etcetera. But I was a little disturbed by the fact that, despite the fact you said that a couple times, and you were looking out for the little guy, there weren’t a whole lot of case studies or perspectives on small business in the book, that said, “Here’s why small businesses shouldn’t do this.” And yet, while I will admit, a lot of really good, high return on investment small business examples aren’t easy to find, I thought you could probably have done more to illustrate that. So why was there a lack of resonance there?

Brandon: There’s a couple of key reasons. The first is that I deferred with the publisher in terms of some of the sections that were cut from the book and some that I would have preferred to have been there. And there was two key sections that were cut that dealt with that. And the logic was—and it goes into the second part of this—is that everyone is different, and so it’s extremely difficult to talk about a case study where there’s a cupcake stand in New York City that did a post on Facebook, and the next day they had a line around the block. And so to them, that obviously is a social media success story. But can you then go and say to other food providers and other retailers, “Well, it worked for them. It’ll work for you”? And the answer’s no, because it’s very subjective and very different. That was really their logic behind removing it, ’cause they said it runs counter to stuff I’ve already established, where I said, “Everybody’s different. Every platform’s going to be different. How everyone experiences these platforms is going to be very different, because we all have different customers and different needs that we’re trying to meet.” So it’s difficult to present a success or failure on the small business side and then try to give someone a takeaway from that.

Falls: Fair. That’s fair. I could appreciate that. And I’m sure the publisher also said, “No. If you’re just hammering social media in every chapter and making it look bad, it’ll sell better.” [LAUGHTER]

Brandon: There was definitely some of that.

Falls: One of the last questions I wanted to ask you—and then I’ll turn it back over to Jason and we can wind things down—I really appreciated your take on Facebook marketing. Don’t agree with it 100%, but I wanted to give you the opportunity to share your take on Facebook marketing with the audience, because we—as I’ve gotten a little bit more exposure to some larger companies using it and whatnot, I have some different information now than I had when I talked to you before. But at the same time, I thought your perspective on Facebook marketing was really, really, really clear. So should companies be using Facebook to market? Why or why not?

Brandon: First, everyone is different. I made this mistake in the book, where it was more generalized than it should have been. But everyone is different, and so if your customer base is on Facebook, then it is worth exploring their use of it, and whether or not what you do is unique, and something they’ll pass on and share. There’s also something to be said about tangible products, when you have an actual physical thing you can go into stores and buy, versus something that’s intangible, like news or content, things like that. Because the people at Buzzfeed will tell you that Facebook marketing is absolutely awesome. And for them, it’s easier to spread something that isn’t tangible. And so for them, it does seem to work. They do seem to have a lot of traffic that’s starting from there. That said, a lot of people make the mistake of falling into this trap of paying for promoted posts or paying for fans and paying for likes and things like that. And that to me is where I start to go, “OK, we need to take a step back.” ‘Cause there’s really no reason, unless you’re doing some viral marketing, in which case you have to have 100,000 fans, and how you get there usually results in spending $8,000 to fake it, just so you have the appearance of being viral to the press. Stuff like that, but honestly, I don’t like people spending money on Facebook. That’s just from the research I did for the book, and there was about three years worth of research that went into it. There hasn’t been a lot of stories where people went, “I paid X and I got more than what I spent on Facebook.” In fact, in a lot of the cases, we’re finding with these large corporations in particular that Facebook is acting more as a loss leader. So there’s a whole lot of little disparate elements, and really the reason why I point out these different things—I don’t think they’re not connected—is that I’m trying to encourage people to take a full step back when it comes to Facebook, and really do their research and say, “OK, we know that some of this stuff works when it comes to intangible products.” What does that mean? If we buy fans, what do we get from that? There’s just not a lot of critical thinking that goes on when it comes to that stuff. And so it’s my hope in talking about Facebook in particular that I start that process. And I believe pretty firmly that once that critical thinking takes place, that people will come to the conclusion it’s not, 99% of the time, worth spending money on Facebook. It is, however, worth spending some time in there as a customer service point of view, or maybe just as an informational point. I can think of one company in particular who does—where people have sold or mostly invested in their product—that they love those Facebook [INAUDIBLE], that they live for it. And it all comes down to really doing the research, getting your act together, knowing what you’re getting into and thinking critically.

Falls: I think as a conclusion here on the conversation, I definitely appreciate Brandon’s perspective. And Brandon, I appreciate you sharing it with us, because I know that—I read—I was inspired when I read your book. I was reminded of the book The Filter Bubble by EJ Pariser. And The Filter Bubble basically talks about, if we are homogenizing ourself with viewpoints that are just like ours—like if we only have Facebook friends that are just like us, and we only have Twitter followers that are just like us and whatnot, all of a sudden we’re homogenizing our view of the world, and it prevents us from growing and seeing the world in its broader perspective. And so that’s why I was not at all intimidated when someone said, “Hey, you’ve got to get this Brandon Mendelson guy who wrote this book called Social Media Is Bullshit. You guys ought to debate.” ‘Cause I’m like, “Yeah, that would actually be pretty cool, even if I think he’s an idiot. That would still be fun.” But fortunately, thank goodness, I don’t think you’re an idiot, and I think you’ve got some really good viewpoints, and I appreciate you coming on to share them.

Brandon: Hey, thanks so much for having me. It was a blast.

Spooner: Love it. All right, guys. So let’s switch gears, do a little thing that we like to call the lightning round. We’re going to ask you four questions, Brandon, and you can just name the first thing that pops into your head. Are you ready?

Brandon: I am ready.

Spooner: All right, great. Question 1: what do you think really works in marketing right now?

Brandon: Publicity. Just good, old fashioned PR.

Spooner: Question 2: what do you think is broken in marketing right now?

Brandon: Everything else. [LAUGHTER]

Spooner: Question 3: if you could advise a CMO to focus on improving one part of their business, what part of their business would you choose?

Brandon: It’s all about the customer. If I say to you, “Who’s your customer?” and you go, “fuck if I know,” that’s a big problem. [LAUGHTER]

Spooner: And question 4: what gets you excited when you think of the future of marketing?

Brandon: Being able to interact with customers in a way that is [INAUDIBLE] and friendly, and that transfers that emotional investment they have in you offline into a way that you can continue that online.

Spooner: Great, great, great. Well, I’d like to thank Brandon Mendelson for joining us today. The book is Social Media Is Bullshit. You can buy it at Amazon.com or BarnesAndNoble.com. Jason Falls, also thanks to you for joining us today.

Falls: Yep.

Spooner: Always a pleasure to have you on the show. My name is Jason Spooner. Until next time, with Explore Marketing Uncensored. We’ll see you later.

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About Jason Spooner

Jason Spooner

Jason Spooner is the Director of Client Services for SME Digital, the digital marketing extension of Social Media Explorer. During his career as a digital strategist, Jason has worked with a variety of large and small companies including: NAPA AUTO PARTS, NASCAR, Kraft, Wal-Mart and Wrangler. His passion: creating powerful digital marketing strategies that drive results. Oh, and he does improv comedy. Follow his antics @jaspooner.

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