Social Media or Snake Oil: Does Social Media Measure Up to the Hype?

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Taryn Smith. Photo by Norbert Von Der Groeben

Is the social media phenomenon overhyped? A growing chorus of voices says yes. Critics argue there are no credible ways to measure return on investment in social media. They also contend there’s no definitive data showing that social media create business, or that the number of followers you have on Twitter or friends on Face book translates into dollars earned.

The conundrum is that both the cynics and the cheerleaders may be right.

Kevin O’Keefe, CEO and publisher of Seattle-based Lexblog, which provides social media consulting to law firms, says he does think there is too much hype about social media. “There are a lot of people who don’t know what they’re talking about creating a buzz about it. It’s terribly effective, but that doesn’t mean it’s not overhyped.”

Perhaps the most overhyped metric of social media is the gross number of participants. Consultants waxing on about the value of social media start with Facebook’s 500 million active users and Twitter’s 190 million monthly visitors. Yet tallies of friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter mean little.

“Unless you’re a celebrity,” says Babak Zafarnia, a lawyer and president of Praecere Public Relations in Washington, D.C., “I wouldn’t get too confident about having 300 Facebook friends.

“Too often social media is a bunch of one-way conversations,” he says. “Facebook pages have effectively become Wikipedia entries. Law firms post and walk away, and it becomes a dust- and spam-collecting feed, which creates the impression of being lazy with your online presence. Twitter profiles offer little more than glorified news feeds.”

Search the Internet for more meaningful data on social media effectiveness and you’ll get dizzy with models to measure your “return on engagement” and data that dances around the actual question. If you dig further on the scant statistics, you’ll be hard-pressed to find the original sources in which the data appeared.

“I don’t think there’s seminal research on any of this,” says Robert Bacal, a business consultant in Casselman, Ontario, Canada, and author of the blog Social Media Bust. “Real research is hard to find, and the data does not support and substantiate the value of social media for business.”

One of Bacal’s beefs is that many studies report people’s words, not actions. “It appears you have all these people who are affected very strongly by what they read on social media like Twitter and Facebook,” asserts Bacal. “But that doesn’t reflect what they do in real life, just what they say they do. There’s a lot of stuff online because there’s a vested interest in it being there. There are a lot of businesses selling expertise in social media.”

How many of those legal social media consultants are truly qualified? Hard to say.

“We get at least three calls a week from people wanting to sell us services from search engine optimization to social networking,” says Taryn Smith, business development coordinator at Kershaw, Cutter & Ratinoff in Sacramento, Calif. “The majority … have incorporated social media to make themselves more appealing to law firms. I can smell that coming and see that as a disingenuous ploy.”


If you’re hunting for hard numbers on social media value, you may be searching for fool’s gold. Social media isn’t about statistics. It’s about good, old-fashioned relationship building.

“Numbers on your return on investment are meaningless,” says Daniel Harris of Harris & Moure in Seattle and author of the China Law Blog. “It’s like saying if you speak at a seminar, what’s the return? You never know in hard numbers, but you do know when someone calls six months later and says, ‘I heard you speak. We have this matter.’ ”

Harris says he’s frequently asked the return on investment from his blog. “I have no clue,” he says. “But I’m constantly getting a ton of business, being asked to write for the Wall Street Journal, and have an unlimited number of speaking engagements. I don’t know how I get all this stuff.”

Harris’ “If it feels right, do it” attitude may be key to understanding the value of social media. Just think of it as another form of professional development and networking.

“A lot of people focus on the technology, thinking that it has some-thing to do with Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook,” O’Keefe says. “Those are just tools. People haven’t stepped back and asked, ‘How do I grow as a lawyer?’

“You learn, network, meet mentors and join associations. You go where there are people you could learn from. Social media are very effective for becoming a better lawyer, and it’s a very, very effective way of nurturing relationships with existing clients, which will bring in more work.”

Still, if you’re stuck on analytics, O’Keefe suggests asking yourself these four questions:

• Are you extending your reach—for instance, by having social media content indexed on Google, which pushes your website higher in search rankings?

• Are you engaging people by building personal relationships with them?

• Is your influence increasing in your practice area, perhaps because your content is shared and shared again on LinkedIn and Twitter?

• Are you activating your audience in the form of calls from clients or to speak at events?

“We get way overblown on social media because it’s new,” O’Keefe says. “But it’s not that complicated. Take a deep breath and realize this thing called social media was going on 100 years ago. It’s just building relationships.”

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