Social Media Is Bullshit? Interview With Author Brandon Mendelson

In September 2012, Brandon Mendelson launched a book titled "Social Media Is Bullshit". With such a bold title, it definitely rubbed many in the social media industry the wrong way. After seeing a scathing blog post written about it (which the person didn't actually read it), I was fairly certain it was a complete satire.

Recently, I got the chance to chat with Brandon via Skype and get down to what his book is really about.

So talk about your background and what caused you to write "Social Media Is Bullshit".

I got into marketing/consulting in a weird fashion. I always wanted to be a stand-up comic and I was too young to perform in New York's Hudson Valley because you had to be 21 to get into the bars and clubs. So I found a loop hole in that if I rented out the bar/club, and then booked bands and had them presell tickets (covering my costs), I could then go on and perform stand-up.

And then I had to book and promote all those shows and bands and became pretty good at it, so I started picking up clients, and that lead to bigger opportunities like working on a syndicated ABC television and marketing team and then working on a couple of not-for-profit national outreach tours, and now with Kumbuya.com.

It was during the first national outreach tour where I applied everything Gary Vaynerchuck, Chris Brogan, Scott Monty, Guy Kawasaki, and others were saying and found nothing worked. So I started to do a lot of research (which you can see in the back of the book) and that lead me to the conclusion that "social media" in terms of marketing and PR, is bullshit.

When your book first came out, there was quite a bit of backlash from the social media marketing community and for good reason. Here a guy is saying that it's, well, bullshit, and it obviously didn't sit well. I actually thought the book was satire until digging a bit deeper. What about social media do you find to be bullshit?

I wouldn't say there was backlash until the Dave Kerpen incident, and then people were like "Whoa. This guy is for real and he's coming for us." Before that they kind of (at least my perception of it anyway) tried as hard as they could to ignore the book thinking it was going to go away, and then it didn't because it sold really well and continues to do so. I mean it's six months later and we're STILL talking about the book, you know?

So as far as what exactly is bullshit, to me when we talk about Twitter, Kumbuya, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, any of those platforms, they're just tools. And they're not good or bad tools. That all depends on how you use it and what information you have going in about them. What is bullshit, to me anyway, is a guy like Guy Kawaski who tells you to be honest and authentic and doesn't check his email or write his tweets but has ghost writers do it.

Or a guy like Scott Monty who, well, Jalopnik kind of said it best. Or a Dave Kerpen, who tells you that you MUST be on Facebook. That's what's bullshit. It's certain parties finding a way to make themselves rich at the expense of everyone else by peddling bad or misleading information.

It reminds me of an old joke, "Christianity was a great idea until we told people about it". And that's not to say all social media marketers are bad. I'm a big fan of Jason Falls for example.

So the problem isn't necessarily the tools, but a defined list of rules and etiquette that many social media experts, specialists, etc. are pushing?

Right. Some tools are indeed overhyped, like Facebook, and we need to get real about what they can and can't do and be honest with people and companies about that. The problem the book addresses is that we're really talking about something that's subjective. Facebook is overhyped, but does that mean it's totally useless?

I think so, but that's true for me, it might not be true for you, yet we have legions of people who are pushing these ideas and strategies with little basis in reality, and they're making a lot of money off of it. This is bad for honest marketers and this is bad for consumers. So the goal of the book was to help clean up the mess. Every tool and every person is different.

I definitely agree that social media is different for everyone. Just because Facebook or Google+ or whatever platform may be great for one person, doesn't mean it'll work for XYZ business. I'd love to get your thoughts on actually measuring results from social media. Still, in 2013, this seems to be a big issue where the common answer is "just engage with your audience". Personally, I think that Olivier Blanchard's book on Social Media ROI is a great starting point.

I happen to like that book a lot.

So it's not bullshit? :)

The term "social media" is bullshit. The technology and potential of it is not, overhyped platforms not withstanding. The title of the book is very literal. In terms of measuring results, a lot of scientists in the field, and I mean legit scientists studying social media and not guys like Dan Zarella who claim to be "social media scientists" will tell you it's incredibly difficult to track actual ROI.

That doesn't mean they're not working on it, but for example Taco Bell did a campaign during the World Series where if you used the hashtag whenever a base was stolen, you could get a free taco. I asked the guy at Social Media Explore: Portland who was giving that presentation if he was able to actually demonstrate a correlation between in-store foot traffic and the use of the hashtag, and he couldn't.

There's a certain large platform, and if you guess you can probably guess correctly, that approached me at a conference who told me the same thing for their platform. So that's what really bothers me about some (NOT ALL) social media marketers. If the legit researchers are saying, "We don't know", then you shouldn't be out there telling people that you do. Dr. Duncan Watt's book "Everything is Obvious" is highly recommended for more on that subject.

What about utilizing tools such as Google Analytics and tying them to various campaigns? Clearly we have the technology to track where people are going and what they are doing. However, does that take us back to certain information being put out there that social media ROI is too difficult to track?

I think Google Analytics is a wonderful tool, and we should all take time out of our schedule to be skilled in it, and they certainly help to tell the story, but there are so many factors that go into purchasing and the way people use these tools that a lot of evidence would be superficial at best. And that's really the whole trick to this.

There ARE stories of people posting something on Facebook and seeing in-store foot traffic, and where I (and most reasonable people) diverge from this bad pocket of high profile social media marketers is that they will tell you this is a Facebook success story, and we'll tell you "There's more to this story and those factors shouldn't be omitted because you found an easier narrative". Unfortunately, those other factors are incredibly hard to measure. They're almost like mini-Black Swans.

Setting aside other factors that are very hard to measure, the ability to still connect with customers and potential customers where they're spending a ton of time is valuable, no?

It all depends. If you work in PR, Twitter is useful because journalists as a group have heavily adopted it. If you work in sales, LinkedIn is very good in terms of keeping track of your clients and potential prospects. What I'm finding is that if you work in a field that requires you to sell something intangible, these tools have their use.

If you work in a field that requires you to sell something tangible, then it's hit or miss depending on your comfort level, time, resources, whether or not your audience is there in the first place, and the will to put the time in. I'm convinced there's nothing lost by not being on these platforms that can't be made up through other means like good PR.

And that goes back to the subjective nature of this. What works for me might not work for you and your audience.

What would you say is the key takeaway from your book? Maybe several of them?

There's a line from a Bad Religion song that says, "With such a wealth of information why are you so poor?" And I take that to heart, as does the book. There's no excuse now to blindly hire some of these less desirable people passing themselves off as "experts". Or in many instances, to spend money using these platforms. The truth is, there aren't any in this field.

So the onus is on you to figure out who your audience is, what tools they use, and then look at what you have to work with. From there, you need to do some research and come up with a plan. That plan MAY include these tools, but I think most of us will find that these tools ultimately are more complimentary than neccesary, and in that case, totally optional to use.

The other takeaway, and this is touched on numerous times in the book, is that the big social media success stories that we're often pointed to involve large corporations and big celebrities. And the media outlets that peddle these myths like Mashable have a lot to gain by essentially lying to people about them.

There are many social media success stories for small businesses though. However, working in this industry, I definitely do see the bigger success stories among large corporations and celebrities gain more attention. Think a lot of it comes down to pageviews. What would you rather hear about: How Jessie's Cupcakes posted an offer on Facebook and 200 fans came in with a 15% off coupon or how Mega Corp got 4.7 million likes (although likes don't necessarily mean success)?

There are, the issue with those small business success stories are the factors we can't measure and easily replicate for other people. I've seen more than a few times a restaurant try to copy something another did on Facebook and saw absolutely no results.

So I want to be clear I'm not saying you can't have success with these different tools, but what I am saying is that it's incredibly difficult to predict, measure, and duplicate to the point where doing other things in liue of using these tools would produce similar or better results.

And you're right, the media, certainly the national American media who are in bed with these companies and the social media companies, like to play up the big pageviews over the little success stories. Which is a huge problem. I was told by freelancers pitching the book, and from more than a few radio and TV producers, that they wouldn't cover the book because they were afraid of upsetting Facebook or some of the companies whose campaigns I mentioned weren't successful for the reasons they want you to believe.

And yet we come full circle again: What works for one person or business does not mean it will also work for you.

Exactly. You know what the ridiculous thing about all this is? I'm not saying anything new or revolutionary. It's really just common sense. The problem is that common sense isn't so common.

We should probably wrap things up at that. It was really great talking to you BJ and where can people find you and learn more about your book?

Likewise! There's a sample chapter of the book and links to buy it over at http://www.socialmediaisbullshit.com, and my website (along with an FAQ about the book) is at http://www.bjmendelson.com. People can call me any time to talk at 518-832-9844.

Awesome! Ironically, I sent you a friend request on Facebook during our chat :)

Ha!