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Reasons to Avoid Social Media

market researchDavid Meerman Scott has a good post on Web Ink Now that discusses how we try to find reasons to avoid the inevitability of social media. David talks about how we tend to use our own experience (“I don’t read blogs”) or rely on flawed polls (many people don’t know that they are using RSS feeds when they look at Web pages) to decide whether social media is “taking off” yet. David’s insight reminded me of a similar experience I had recently.

I don’t want to identify the conference or the research firm, because I don’t have any need to embarrass anyone, but it was a moment of denial of inevitability on social media. I was getting ready to present to a prestigious conference on public relations when the prior presenter went through some original research that sought to allay the fears of the traditional publicists in the crowd by showing that social media had not really caught on yet. There was a lot of misinformation passing for insight, but my favorite was:

90% of word-of-mouth marketing still occurs offline.

Calling this misinformation is not exactly fair, because I don’t doubt that it is true. I had no reason to question the research methods of the study, or the researchers’ competence or honesty. Let’s stipulate that it’s fact, in the absence of evidence to the contrary. (See ma, I coulda been a lawyer.)
The problem with this statement is the conclusion that most people draw from it:

Social media is not important [yet].

And that conclusion is completely wrong. The reason that it’s flawed is that it equates the impact of online and offline word-of-mouth, which makes no sense.
Think about it. The last time you passed along a tip offline, how many people did you tell? One? Two? Contrast this with online word-of-mouth, where you might post a comment on a blog post or a review of a product or an e-mail to a long list of folks. How many people saw that opinion? Probably more than one or two. Perhaps thousands.
So, rather than counting the number of occurrences of word-of-mouth marketing, we should instead be looking at its impact. But for those of us looking for reasons to avoid social media, we’ll find them, as David pointed out and as I experienced at that conference. If your competitors remain in denial, this strategy might work for you, but I guess I wouldn’t count on that.


Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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  1. Avatar Jim Novo

    Mike, agree with the idea of looking at “impact”.
    Seems to me we need a “quality” score in here somewhere. Sure, you might tell only 1 or 2 people offline, but that situation has much more conversion potential behind it than the 100’s or thousands that might see a blog comment.
    As we have learned time and time again online, more is not equal to better…

  2. Avatar Mike Moran

    I agree, Jim. You’re right that word-of-mouth passed to 100 people isn’t necessarily 100 times better than when it was passed to just one. I don’t know how to measure the impact, but I suspect that the impact of online word-of-mouth is generally higher than offline because of the number of people involved.
    More isn’t always better, but it often is. Clearly, if I send an e-mail to 10 close friends influencing them, that has a bigger impact than if I tell three of them something offline, just because I didn’t run into the other seven. But you are right that a stranger’s review, even if read by hundreds of people might be less influential than one close friend’s whisper.
    I don’t know how to measure impact, but anyone looking for me to tell them it’s OK for them to ignore social media needs to look elsewhere.

  3. Avatar Craig Klein

    Sort of the same concept as the importance of keeping your content relevant. You can post away but, its relevance IS its impact.

  4. Avatar Eva Lyford

    Very good point Mike. Also it seems fair to note that if offline word of mouth is at 90%, then online must be at 10%, which is a solid increase over the time when it was at zero not so far in the past.
    In measuring Impact, not only should we look at the breadth of the spectrum (# of people told), but also the clarity of the signal – an online word of mouth message is usually actionable immediately, whereas an offline word of mouth message requires the target to recall it and take independent action later – a much more ‘lossy’ signal.

  5. Avatar Andy Sernovitz

    Great post, Mike.
    The real confusion is trying to separate online and off, as if they are occurring in difference worlds.
    WOM dips in and out of the web: Friend recommends a restaurant, I go and write an online review, someone reads it and tells their spouse who emails 3 friends and tells 2 face-to-face, one of them tries it and blogs it …
    Social media is driving the offline conversation in velocity and range.
    Andy Sernovitz, Author
    Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking

  6. Avatar Mike Moran

    Good points by both Eva and Andy that I had not considered.
    Eva, your point that the impact of the message must atrophy when it must be recalled and acted upon later makes perfect sense to me, and is one more reason why it is so hard to know what the impact of word-of-mouth marketing is.
    Andy, your point is also intuitively obvious (as soon as you pointed it out to me). I remember that same kind of battles over whether the Web was important for offline convresions back in the ’90s–those debates suffered from a similar blind spot about how many (most?) conversions blend online and offline interactions. It would seem that word-of-mouth marketing would be fluid across online and offline, too.
    Thanks to you both.

  7. Avatar David Meerman Scott

    Hi Mike. Some great analysis here. Thanks for expanding on my original post. The quote you gave makes no sense. ALL word of mouth marketing happens offline because it is verbal.
    Andy Sernovitz may disagree with me, but I tell people that “word-of-mouth” is offline, while “word-of-mouse” is online. I like to overtly draw out the distinction so people see the difference.

  8. Avatar Mike Moran

    Hi David,
    I like the way you contrast word-of-mouth vs. word-of-mouse, but I don’t mind using traditional terms to apply to online, because I think it helps people make the leap from what they know (offline) to what they don’t (online). I don’t think that the problem is so much what we call them as how marketers think about them. And there are way too many marketers that are ignoring social media at their own peril. I bet both Andy and you agree with that, and I am noodling on what we can do to overcome their fears and inertia.

  9. Avatar Tim Peter

    Excellent post, Mike. And great comments all around. For me, discussions like these bring back memories of “nobody’s making any money on the Web” (Web 1.0 c.1998). In fact, that’s all anyone until Dell announced it was selling $1 million of inventory. Every day.
    I’m pretty confident we’re on the cusp of a similar moment with social media. Call it intuition. But there are enough examples of powerful social media usage among companies (HR Block, Comcast, JetBlue, and, yes, Dell), that measurable success stories likely aren’t far behind.
    Keep up the great work.

  10. Avatar Mike Moran

    Thanks for the kind words, Tim. I agree with you that the rise of social media is on the cusp. (Nothing ever seems to be off the cusp, though…)
    And if we’re right, I suppose there’s no need to be concerned about the marketers that are slow on the uptake. Economics has a way of forcing the right behaviors over time, and this will be no exception. The ones who go willingly will benefit and the ones who are dragged kicking and screaming will find social media turns into one more cost of doing business that they incur to catch up with their competitors.

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