Are you a Social Media Snake Oil Salesman or are you a Scientist?

If you’ve read about social media or been to social media conferences, you’ve probably heard tons of advice like “love your customers,” “engage in the conversation,” “be yourself” and “make friends.”

I like to call this kind of stuff “unicorns and rainbows.” Sure, it sounds good and makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, but it’s not actually based on anything other than “truthiness” and guesswork.

It’s the modern day equivalent of the witchdoctor or snake oil salesman. A couple of time-honored adages repeated ad nauseum, coupled with the unquestioning awe of an unaware audience, and pretty soon you’ve got an entire industry made of easy-to-agree with smoke and mirrors.

Problem is, bleeding with leeches and magical tonics don’t actually work. In fact, a lot of the time they do more harm than good.

And then along comes real science–real medicine and real data about what works and what doesn’t. Curing disease moved out of the dark ages and started making progress; now it’s time for social media to move past the unicorns and rainbows.

The great thing about the web is that nearly every interaction can be measured and observed in aggregates of tens and hundreds of millions. We can gather more qualitative and quantitative data about human behavior than at any other time in history. Yet the future of marketing, the very industry that is trying to push communications, business and public relations forward, is built on advice that comes from nothing more meaningful than soft-focus fantasies.

To the snake-oil salespeople, social media success isn’t something repeatable. It’s not the outcome of a process; it is black magic, guessing and praying.

Those of us who are a part of this social media thing now will be the forefathers of the next generation of marketing. We’re going to be the ones who decide how it plays out. Of course, there aren’t any formal degrees in this yet, and most of us don’t wear labs coats. But we need to decide if we are going to leave the future of social media to magical tonics, or if we are going to use science and data to discover what really works to motivate people.

To the scientists, social media success is something you can iterate on, plan for and learn from. Things that work can be analyzed to produce repeatable, dependable results.

The next time you see or read or hear someone giving superstitious, feel-good social media advice, question them. Ask what data it is based on, what science? Ask them to prove what they’re saying.

Most importantly ask yourself: are you a snake-oil salesman or are you a scientist?

And if you look around hard enough, I’m sure you’ll see that social media science is catching on. Its encouraging to see that there are at least 7 people on Twitter with “social media scientist” in their bios, lets blow that number up.

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Miriam Schwab February 25, 2010 at 9:46 am

Unicorns and Rainbows! I love it.

I think that social is the new SEO: when proper metrics are put into place it will be possible to monitor real, measurable results, and tweak activities based on what’s working best and what’s not worth the effort.

Tim Glover February 25, 2010 at 1:47 pm

As a relative newbie to social media I am the first to admit that it’s a steep learning curve. I was intrigued by your approach to social media as your research suggested that the point was not to slag others and present your credentials in an honest light, with the objective of stirring the pot to trigger a viral response.
My confusion, this being the first post I have agree to receive, is that your approach in this particular post appears to slag anyone who is not scientific in their approach to social media, yet you are not a scientist – you are just taking a scientific approach.

It would appear that we are in a time where we have to marry art with science or suffer the consequences of a scientific, mechanistic orientation to business, life and people – which has driven us to the current state of affairs relative to global financial blow-out, global environmental challenges and global social challenges.

If the idea is to be provocative, then I get your point. If it is to clarify and point out a direction, I’m not getting it.

znmeb February 25, 2010 at 9:24 am

There are 8, according to FollowerWonk – and neither of us is in the list! ;-) I claim to be a “Social Media Analytics Researcher”, though – does that count? ;-)

Follower Wonk: Twitter users with “social media scientist” in their bios

Oh, yeah – Portland is an ancient unicorn burial ground!

Edin Shaba February 25, 2010 at 9:25 am

Great post!

znmeb February 25, 2010 at 9:29 am

There are 8, according to FollowerWonk – and neither of us is in the list! ;-) I claim to be a “Social Media Analytics Researcher”, though – does that count? ;-)

Follower Wonk: Twitter users with “social media scientist” in their bios

Oh, yeah – Portland is an ancient unicorn burial ground!

King Sidharth February 25, 2010 at 9:48 am

No Dan It's not that way. Social media's very heart is that of lollipop, sunshine and rainbows. People are tired of pro distances, and are tearing the walls apart. People don't want 'gurus' anymore -they want friends.

I'd rater have a unicorn friend than business associate. It's social not science. Mix them together and you get the worst of both worlds.

Grenae Thompson February 25, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Good post, food for thought. I enjoy the rah! rah! Go Social Media just like the next person; we want to believe it works because “everyone is doing it,” and it partially fills our need to connect. You have raised awareness of a valid issue, however, and I look forward to learning more about what the actual data have to say.

bretsimmons February 25, 2010 at 12:19 pm

I hear what you are saying about snake oil, Darren, but I can't tell from this article where you really stand. Can you point me to the science you show your clients?

simonbostock February 25, 2010 at 1:14 pm

I agree up to a point. But there are two things to add:

1. Much of the social media 'science' is not repeatable due to it being, well, social. It's highly unlikely that Dustin Curtis' experiment continued to be useful after he published his 'You should follow me on Twitter' results because we all became more aware. You should etc me on thingy.

Marketers have been studying these things for years and all of their science gets trumped by multi-variate testing and other feedback tools. Using tools isn't science, it's engineering.

2. More importantly, you aren't the right person to say this. You're a salesman. You're adding value and you're giving data-driven, evidence-based opinion. But you're not a scientist, you're an expert. There is a difference.

GraemeThickins February 25, 2010 at 2:14 pm

I was just discussing (bemoaning?) this very topic yesterday with a colleague who's a brand management professional. He just happened to be trained as a scientist before he became a marketer at IBM. He's now part of the founding team at a stealth startup in Calif, developing a social media service that will appeal to brands of all sizes. I can't wait till we can sit down with you and chat about it, perhaps at a conference soon. Cheers!

danzarrella February 25, 2010 at 2:22 pm

What's the difference?

michaeldaehn February 25, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Back in 2000 I read articles about RazorFish telling fortune 100 clients they were clueless and needed them to show them how to build a website. Seems like the same kind of thing is happening in regards to social media.

BTW, how long until we drop the “social media” and just call it marketing again?

kess_james February 25, 2010 at 3:20 pm

If you have to ask, you're probably not a scientist.

Camilo Olea February 25, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Dan, your post couldn't be more spot on. Kudos. I know way too many Social Media Snake Oil Salesman in my area (Cancun), and the worst thing? They seem to convince upper management that they're actually accomplishing something. But anyway, I am dedicated to really learn the ins and outs of social media, and my goal is of course to be a scientist, not a snake oil salesman. I've learned much from many of your posts so far, thanks!

Cheers from Cancun,
Camilo Olea

natashakhan February 25, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Beware of Social Media Snake Oil

was a good article.


Richard Everts February 25, 2010 at 3:50 pm

King- People can be measured and weighed in their behaviors. That's not being cynical, that's how insurance companies, as well as many others, make their profits.

Simon- There is no difference in this instance. Pulling patterns from the noise and retesting them based on hypotheses of expected behavior is the very nature of pure research. Don't obfuscate the distinction between sales and science because there is little. See Kuhns “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, Milgram's “Obedience to Authority”, and even more recently the problems with AGW and International Peer Reviews.

Dan – Great article. People are starting to get serious, but the problem is the interpretation of the data. If I look at Quantcast demographics, am I getting real information or do I have to interpret the interpreter first? There's too many place to loses the essence of the behaviors I think, but I'm hopeful structures will get in place.

znmeb February 25, 2010 at 4:20 pm

“If I look at Quantcast demographics, am I getting real information or do I have to interpret the interpreter first?”

Yes – you do have to “interpret the interpreter.” Our man Euclid said, “There's no Royal Road to Geometry”, and the same is true in statistics. And it's *more* so the more automation involved, because in addition to knowing the underlying statistics and in error-free implementation code, you also have to know the pedigree of the *input* data!

I don't have any research to back this up, just a gut feel from decades of experience in scientific computing, but I suspect that the number of errors in a dataset grows more than linearly with its size. I wish I could be at the SxSW panel discussion on “big data”, because I'd like to be the little boy saying, “But Mommy – the Emperor is naked!” ;-)

simonbostock February 25, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Richard- you're right about the nature of pure research. And you're right that Dan's doing some great work. But I'd be foolish to take somebody's marketing effort as 'science'.

I can't parse the sentence 'don't obfuscate the difference between sales and science because there is little'. Isn't that a non sequitur? I accept that there are many definitions of science but choose to stick with the, admittedly sometimes problematic, peer-reviewed version when it comes to marketing communications.

Dan- I think the difference between expert and scientist is one of motivation. Experts practice and are accountable to customers. Scientists research and are accountable to a something higher – society?

It's a finnickity difference and, as Richard points out, there are overlaps. But one I stick to when it comes to reading blog posts from people selling something :)

znmeb February 25, 2010 at 4:25 pm

“BTW, how long until we drop the “social media” and just call it marketing again?”

Today is fine with me. ;-)

MrScottMeyer February 25, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Great post Dan. We're trying to use the scientific approach with What we find is difficult is that we often have to educate our clients first about what they should demand and then show them that we are giving it to them. When the market doesn't demand science, the marketers don't do it because it takes a lot more effort than creating snake oil.

Also, just bought your book for my brother. Look forward to it!

Evo Terra February 25, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Well crap on a crap cracker. Here I was all set to announce I was changing my Twitter bio to read “social media scientist”, and znmeb shows me I'm not the first douche on that wagon. Shucks.

Thanks for shining another light on this topic. It often gets me in hot water with others in my space. And I think it's a slippery slope to assuming things don't work in the absence of evidence. But the tools — and the science — are getting better. What we can't measure today may change tomorrow.

znmeb February 25, 2010 at 9:13 pm

According to FollowerWonk I'm the only “Social Media Analytics Researcher” on Twitter ;-)

Chris Englund February 25, 2010 at 10:26 pm

Dan, great posts as always. You really have your finger on the pulse of this industry and movement.

Here's my vent: You know you're a social media snake oil salesmen when every tweet you make follows the formula:

“Extremely provocative question? Read more on my blog

And then the blog is a thinly veiled, information-poor, lame excuse for gathering hits for your company's site all while barely fulfilling to answer the question posed.

No thanks, I'd rather follow the guys who tell me how to make money with adsense. haha

znmeb February 25, 2010 at 10:45 pm

You can make money with AdSense? Sure coulda fooled me! ;-)

Chris Englund February 25, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Yep, it's about hedging your buys on adsense and then serving up adwords…
Read all about it on my blog:

bkjrecruiter February 26, 2010 at 2:41 am

Great article, but….

I am not part of either…. I am part of the “third tribe”…. Best, Brian-

danzarrella February 26, 2010 at 2:55 am

Of course, everyone wants to be unique and different and better than others.

bkjrecruiter February 26, 2010 at 3:01 am

Were all created equal, and I am no better than any human….

This is a great article, however there is a HUGE group of people out there that want to build community, and are not ashamed of leveraging there leadership/influence to earn an huge income…. “third tribe”…

Take care Brian-

danzarrella February 26, 2010 at 3:02 am

That has nothing to do with this post.
The question here is, do you use data or do you use guesswork?

sebasluke February 26, 2010 at 3:30 am

Woooow…. if you combine this post with the one talking about enemies and opponents you can build a business strategy.

I've never thought of it as you are putting it right now… see, in my social media circle, spanish speakers from Ecuador, most successful tweeters are not talking with a script, but random things…. now that I think of it, they are successful only in the reduced place my country in twitter is.

Great to find this new idea. Thanks for this one.

By the way, I'm loving your book, great investment made :)

sebasluke February 26, 2010 at 3:33 am

I'm neither a scientist, nor an expert…. what's the difference?

Mike Stenger February 26, 2010 at 4:57 am

Dan, I understand what you're saying how that advice hasn't actually been measured. And yes, you want to get results based on data and advice that works, but what I'm getting out of this post is that we shouldn't do any of this until there's proof, scientific proof?

I'm really confused. I'll be honest with you Dan: I appreciate some of your posts and what you have to share but really man, this is kind of bullsh*t. You can't just base everything in social media from science and these scientific “formulas”. Yeah, some of them work but I promise you, if you're not building relationships/friends, somewhat caring about those you follow, and just fake being you all the time, and not as you say “engaging in conversation”, it's not going to work out in the long run.

Maybe I'm getting your post all wrong, who knows. There is a great place for science in social media and again, I appreciate and have paid attention to some of your findings, however, there's a reason why people build friends, be themselves, and care…..

It just plain works, period. And no scientist can prove that doesn't work. If you can prove that wrong, I'll gladly dedicate a one minute long video to how I suck and how everyone should check out your blog and how amazing you are. Seriously

IIMA February 26, 2010 at 5:32 am

Dan, we support you in your effort to showcase measurable business success for people gain a better understanding to connect with people. We are always interested in learning more, I hope you can take the time and connect with us in the near future with more posts like these.

danzarrella February 26, 2010 at 6:00 am

I'm not saying don't “engage in the conversation” or don't try anything until its proven.
What I'm saying is don't accept any advice as fact until it's proven. Experimentation and discovery is an important part of science.

People used to say “don't call yourself a guru” and then I found that Twitter accounts with “guru” in the bio have more followers than the average. “Engage in the conversation” is far too nebulous to test or to even really mean anything and be good advice.

znmeb February 26, 2010 at 7:44 am

'People used to say “don't call yourself a guru” and then I found that Twitter accounts with “guru” in the bio have more followers than the average. “Engage in the conversation” is far too nebulous to test or to even really mean anything and be good advice.'

I think you *can* measure “engagement” and you can count “conversations”. It's a nightmare to do it for large social graphs, but then collecting the large social graphs is a nightmare in the first place. I really think the fundamental “analytics breakdown mechanism” for Twitter is the fact that you can track how many clicks a tweeted link gets, and you can track when it gets retweeted and by whom, but there's no way you can individualize a link to each follower without sending DMs, and Twitter will pull your plug if you do that.

Promotional Products February 26, 2010 at 8:51 pm


Great post. We must always be weary of those who come and have something to sell us. It is always good to get a background check through others in the industry before investing in someone who will make you look the fool later.

Promotional Products February 26, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Straight up and to the point! This is why I enjoy reading your blog so much.
Just thought you’d like to know!

sheilaenn February 28, 2010 at 8:19 pm

Dan I really enjoyed this post but felt it could be interpreted as saying something you probably don't feel — I think you're referring to the fact that “engage in the conversation” can't be the beginning and the end of the message about social media marketing. But your post comes across as if you feel that point is trivial and so last-year. I'm sure you appreciate that, especially in markets outside the US (I'm a content creator and advising companies on social media strategy in Ireland and Scotland), “engage in the conversation” is still new, and scary. There's much handholding to be done just to convince them to step onto this roller coaster (direct engagement via sociable conversation with customers, moving away from the one-way conversation and sparkly language of press releases and brochures…all that stuff that is yadda yadda to old hands but is very new-age to these guys. )

Especially in business-to-business, marketing directors working on creating social media strategies are crying out for science and case studies. But you have to pass the unicorns on your way to the science. I'm sure you're aware of case studies which cite science/data and explain how same helped companies — I'd have loved to hear some in this post!

Sheila Averbuch — ENN

joshcanhelp March 2, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Great post, Dan. Completely agree… without data to back up business decisions like these, you're just playing around.

scalvin March 15, 2010 at 12:05 pm

I agree with simonbostock; what makes you a scientist? As far as I can see you're a data analyst with a particular interest in Social Media…not the same thing at all!

Ali March 16, 2010 at 9:33 am

I just started reading your post – it’s the first time I’ve ever been here. interesting site. A large pop-up appeared inviting me to subscribe, before I’d even finished reading. Can I just say how offputting this is? Please feel free to delete this comment, but I just wanted to get that off my chest.

Carri Bugbee April 15, 2010 at 9:00 am

I'll be thrilled when speakers at conferences stop talking in unicorns and rainbows. How many times can we hear “Listen first! Be transparent! Convert your customers into fans!” ya-da-ya-da-ya-da…

People who should know better ought to be moving into the next phase and discussing exactly HOW you do all these things and operationalize them within an organization. I almost never hear that talk (with the recent exception of Mike Volpe at Social Fresh). I usually can't even GIVE that talk because so many think it's too complex for the average marketer. Which is probably why the SEO folks will continue to eat the ad & PR folks' lunch for a long time to come.


Roger April 26, 2010 at 6:29 am

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brittanyyu May 17, 2010 at 9:41 pm

“To the snake-oil salespeople, social media success isn’t something repeatable. It’s not the outcome of a process; it is black magic, guessing and praying.” – Amazing line. I’m pretty sure I have clients that actually fit the “snake-oil salesman” profile. Many companies want to be involved in social media but don’t believe in it so they are always fighting again the nature of what it stands for.

Secondly why is everyone getting so caught up the use of “scientist”? Get over it. I think it’s a great article!

kmore May 17, 2010 at 9:40 pm

While agree much of what is out there is about as useful as a kick in the head, you're glossing over some of what can be truly valuable. I hate the term social media, to me what we can do these days is talk directly to individuals and thIs practice of engaging, connecting and loving are indeed ways to build one part of your marketing arm. This highlights the main problem, this notion that Social Media is a panacea for what ails your efforts, it's not and won't ever be, but as part of a planned effort it can indeed work wonders.

One last, completely unrelated note. Leeches can in fact be good for you and are still used by modern medIcine. :)

Underground coal Gasification May 29, 2010 at 10:58 am

I am social media snake oil. I love social media

Social Media Cost | Rate June 25, 2010 at 7:20 am

nice post.

karolynliberty August 26, 2010 at 2:15 pm


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