Is social media losing its lure … and return on investment?

September 8, 2010


How do you know that social media is folded into the narrative of American life? Perhaps when people are being encouraged to give it up for a religious holiday.

Offlining Inc., a group of Silicon Valley types, is promoting the occasional break from social media and tech devices in general by blasting an ad showing Lindsay Lohan. The message: “You don’t have to be Jewish to make amends for your tweets on Yom Kippur.”

It’s a good idea — we could all use time off from our iPhones, not to mention Twitter, Facebook, et al. But Americans don’t actually spend that much time on social media. Which is good because the reason many people have embraced social media (which would be marketing) is turning out to have a lousy return on investment, if you consider the opportunity cost of time.

Certainly, the numbers of folks using social media is on the rise. Over 100 million people are on Twitter, and more than 500 million on Facebook. People keep guessing which will be the next big one: Foursquare? It’s got over 3 million users. Missed in these numbers is that most of us aren’t heavy users.

Nielsen recently released figures reporting that Americans spend 906 million hours per month on social media. That sounds like a lot, until you consider that there are 240 million of us online. That means Americans are logging less than 4 hours per month on social media, or less than 1 out of the 168 hours we have each week.

Of course, there are heavy users. Someone is sending the 50 million tweets per day that Twitter reports, and judging by the number of posts in my News Feed, plenty of people (like me) spend a lot of time on Facebook as well. Many are doing it solely for the social outlet. Or something.

I recently saw a tweet that consisted of a string of 140 stuck-typewriter style characters; the next tweet from that user mentioned that her young child was trying to learn what 140 characters looked like.

But in an economy where 26% of us, according to a Kelly Services survey, consider ourselves free agents, many view it as something more. Namely, free advertising. And so, the world of social media marketing gurus is exploding, all with the promise that social media will let you connect with customers like never before.

But if by “connecting” you mean eventually getting them to buy something from you, I’m not buying that. As I’ve written recently, the number of people who visit my blog via Facebook and Twitter is small compared to the total number who visit my blog directly.

It’s not just me who’s skeptical. I interviewed Dan Schawbel, author of Me 2.0 and a social media guru who has 90,000 Twitter followers and has maxed out his 5,000 allotted Facebook friends. “If you are famous — Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga — you’re going to get a lot out of it,” he says of social media marketing. “People are begging to hear that you’ve brushed your teeth.”

But for many of us, who are in the sole proprietor or small business space, the big social media tools have a fundamental problem. “I know that Twitter is not as effective as it was when it first started,” says Schawbel. Nor is Facebook. Indeed, he cited a finding that 70% of people who “fanned” a brand said they didn’t feel they’d given that company permission to market to them. As everyone gets more friends or followers, messages get buried, unless you’re using social media constantly.

Which you can, because it’s free, and it’s very addictive. Getting an email about a new follower on Twitter or a new friend request feels like opening a present. But what business owners often miss in all this is that time has an opportunity cost. Time you or your employees spend on social media is time not spent, say, calling potential clients, or trying to turn the ones you have into bigger spenders.

Over the past few months, as I’ve been trying to market my latest book, I’d estimate that I’ve only sold a handful through Facebook or Twitter connections. I do enjoy interacting with readers that way, and reading feedback from people who don’t write to me personally. But in terms of moving copies, I do better in very old-fashioned ways: networking with people who hire me to speak, or give copies to their employees, etc.

And despite his legions of followers, Schawbel has found the same thing. As he markets the new edition of his book, coming out in October, he reports that “I’m going to spend a lot of time getting people to do book reviews.”

This is a guest post by Laura Vanderkam, a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors. The opinions expressed are her own.


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Great article and I have to say, I agree. I’ll point to this one when ever I noticed people getting a little to fired up about what social media can do for them.

Posted by DanielDiRico | Report as abusive

With all due respect, Laura, your perspective seems to reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of how social networking platforms should be leveraged. Though they may have some (limited) value in generating sales, that should not be viewed as their primary purpose, especially for small and independently-owned businesses. As you noted (unwittingly perhaps) in your piece, their value is far greater with respect to general brand development and marketing. For example, though I don’t follow Dan Schwabel on Twitter or FB, and I’ve probably never read his blog (which reminds me: blogs are social media too … and so are book reviews), I certainly know who he his because of his strong digital presence.

Social media encompasses far more than the public social networking platforms (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook) that garner most of the media attention. Folks who want a richer understanding of Digital Era technologies are invited to read Part 1 of the Social Media Primer I’m developing, which can be accessed at mer.html.

It’s also important for folks to take a longer-term view of their social media investments and realize that trying to apply a linear metric to capture ROI may not be an appropriate way to measure success in the non-linear world of the Digital Era.

Courtney Hunt
Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community

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