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Social media is like coffee …

Published by Eric T. Peterson on February 4, 2013 All posts from Eric T. Peterson

Last week was an awesome week for digital measurement, especially if you were in San Francisco. The week started with a resurgent Webtrends, kicking off their Streams product at their annual Engage user conference, and ended with what is undoubtedly the largest gathering of tag management users and wonks in the industry at Ensighten Agility. Both were great events, exceptionally well run throughout, and my team and I were honored to be invited to present and participate in both.

While both conferences had great speakers, and I certainly learned a ton throughout the week, one of the most interesting presentations I saw was from Charlene Li of the Altimeter Group. I have never met Charlene but knowing a few of her analysts and her reputation I have a profound respect for both her knowledge and her business acumen. Demystified and Altimeter are alike in many ways — we even collaborated on a measurement piece a few years back — and so I find myself watching Mrs. Li and the growth of her firm for clues about what Demystified should do next.

One thing that Charlene said last week really stuck with me for a few days after her talk — the idea that “Social is like air”. I won’t do Charlene justice but you can read her thoughts in the Washington Times and the relevant piece is this (emphasis mine):

“I believe that in the future, social media will be like air – it will be anywhere and everywhere we want and need it to be. We’ve already seen the progression of this over the past five years, with Facebook Platform and APIs enabling social media features and content to be embedded in any application, in any mobile device application.”

Now I certainly don’t disagree that social media has and will continue to explode, becoming near ubiquitous from a platform perspective. Based on the past five years growth in social networks, and especially if you live in or near the Silicon Valley, one gets the sense that if you’re not investing like crazy in social that, well, something is simply wrong with you. So yes, I can definitely see how Mrs. Li would think that “social media will be like air” sometime in the coming future …

But for today, social media is like coffee.

Coffee? But that’s crazy, right? Not everyone likes coffee … some people drink tea, some prefer soda, some folks don’t drink anything but water. What’s more, coffee is an acquired taste, one that more often than not simply does not work for your palette, preference, or state of mind.


Social media is like coffee, which is to say that it’s great if you love it, but that social media is simply not for everyone. Nor every business.

Here I should point out that I do not disagree with Charlene or any other analyst, pundit, or business leader who believes that social media is A) transformational for business and B) tremendously important to our digital futures. At Web Analytics Demystified I have certainly seen (and more importantly, measured) amazing successes driven in large part by social media marketing and social campaigns; that said, I have also seen (and measured) an amazing amount of churn, thrash, and outright waste associated with “trying to leverage social media.”

For instance:

  • What if you are a marketer leading a Fortune 100 company whose primary focus is B2B … how should you leverage Twitter to drive leads?
  • What if you are a billion dollar hardware manufacturer whose name is virtually unknown to the public … do you need a Facebook page?
  • How about if you are a slow moving governmental organization … do you need a presence on YouTube?

The list goes on and on … and note that it will probably never include “retail, direct to consumer” anything as social has clearly (and measurably) transformed marketing in this sector, likely forever. But at the same time there is an awful lot of money being spent in the B2B and CPG space on “marketing” that is eying social media as if it is the only possible hope for the future …

… but it’s not, because companies can live without social media, just like you and I can live without coffee*.

The good news is this: You don’t have to take my or anyone’s word for it — go ahead and invest as much money as you want into social media. Buy traffic and followers on Twitter, build elaborate Facebook pages, and post “why Acme is great” videos to your YouTube channel to your heart’s content — so long as you have a clear, concise, and pre-agreed plan to A) measure the impact of your investment and B) determine whether said investment is “air” or “coffee” for your firm.

Yeah, you knew I’d bring it back to measurement, didn’t you?

I am confident in saying “social media is like coffee” because I have seen the proof. Social media is not for every business. Social media is not for every business plan. Social media is not the end-all-be-all that will save your company … neither is analytics for that matter. In much the same way that I eschew the silly notion of “data driven decision making” I encourage my clients to balance the things they hear with the things they know on the fulcrum of objective, trustworthy business analysis.

What do you think? Am I crazy? Am I missing something profoundly important or obvious? Am I just some redneck heretic from Oregon who doesn’t understand how Silicon Valley (or the Internet for that matter) works and thusly am doomed to failure? Or, like you, am I a business person and marketer who enjoys coffee profoundly …

… just not as much as air.

* Footnote: I cannot live without coffee, nor would I try … but I know some people who can.

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