I'm really happy that I'm starting to see articles questioning the marketing value of social media.
I've been using social media for over a decade, since before people used the term 'social media'. As I say in my Twitter bio, I 'live on the internet'. I've met my wife on the internet, and so on, and so forth. I'm not just technically familiar with how the internet works, but I'm familiar with the social and cultural groups which have formed social networks (in the sense of 'people forming groups of friends', you know, what it meant before MySpace) on the internet. This is possibly the area where I have the greatest amount of life experience - and it gives me a much better understanding of what we now call 'social media' than most people who sell their services as 'social media marketing experts'.
What my experience tells me is that almost everyone who thinks there's some value for their company in social media marketing is wrong. The only people who can approach it as 'social media marketing' are companies with huge existing established brands who are looking for ways to reinforce their brand values in front of an existing demographic. (The targeting options for, say, Facebook ads, are perfect for this.) Even then you can't use it to 'engage' or 'have a dialogue' with your customers. It's no more engaging then billboards at a bus stop, just more narrowly targeted and easier to track some level of action.
That doesn't mean that companies - large and small - can't benefit from being on Twitter, and by doing it in a way that actually does engage with real customers and potential customers. I'll look at an example of a small company first.
The Shower Guys (now retired) were a local plumbing company - they look like they were one-man-and-his-assistant. They are the only plumbing company in West Lothian I know, because they used Twitter at an individual, personal, level. They redid a friend's bathroom, posting pictures to TwitPic of the work in progress. It wasn't a faceless marketing drone sending out the standard broadcast-style marketing messages, it was a real person, talking about their real work and their real lives. In that respect, they weren't engaging in 'social media marketing', they were just using Twitter like normal people do.
Twitter can be used to build up personal brands like this, which is why so many 'social media experts' on Twitter use their own accounts and followers as an example of what they can do for your brand. But unless your company is small enough that you can use Twitter on a daily basis like the people you're trying to attract you're not going to have much success. You also need to make sure that your target market actually uses Twitter - which pretty much means you need to be selling to consumers and not businesses. While everyone that works works for a business, if they're using their personal Twitter account they will ignore business-related messages, and if they happen to be in charge of their company's dreaded social media marketing then they're going to be on Twitter solely to do that and not listen to your sales pitch.
That restriction is true for larger companies too - while even huge companies can make good use of Twitter, it doesn't work well if they're trying to sell to businesses. Vodafone are a great example of how a really big company can use Twitter to engage with potential customers and improve their brand. Yes, they had something go horribly wrong, but that can happen in any context - your customer service drone might decide to give his notice by calling every customer who calls your call centre a fuckhead. It certainly crossed my mind a few times when I was a customer service drone.
What makes Vodafone's strategy work is that the people running the account are not behaving likes sales people. They're customer service and pre-sales support. They look for people moaning about Vodafone and try and fix things (which is an excellent strategy I've seen VMWare use, and benefitted from). This is possibly the best possible use of Twitter any company can make. Find people who are being publicly unhappy, find out why, and do your best to make it better. People post angry venting messages to Twitter all the time, and every single one of them makes some company look rubbish. If you can turn that around you'll win over a friend for life.
Once people realised that Vodafone were giving useful non-sales responses, they started contacting them directly using Twitter's @-reply features. These are still public messages, so everyone can see Vodafone being awesome on the internet. It leaves a permanent trace of good customer service - which is something that is genuinely new and exciting about social media, since normally good customer service is invisible and vanishes. Twitter is now just another customer services channel - only a friendly and informal one where it's easy to build up good feelings about an otherwise generic provider of telecommunication services.
As proof that it works, based on a colleague's positive experience with Vodafone on Twitter, I'm considering switching my mobile phone contract. If Vodafone had just put out press-release style sales messages, I wouldn't've even thought about it.
I've talked mostly about Twitter since that's where I see most people trying this. Facebook lends itself more easily to a traditional 'broadcast' style of marketing, as does YouTube. In those cases there's nothing hugely special about it, it's just something to be aware of. If you have renowned adverts, make sure they're on YouTube - or at least don't set the lawyers on them when other people do it for you. My earliest experienced with social media were at LiveJournal, but its nature means that this isn't really relevant. The community there has evolved to resist anything that looks like marketing. Having said that, I think The Independent has done well by partnering with LiveJournal for its commenting system, leveraging the existing social structures on LiveJournal. It's pretty much a one-off for LiveJournal, though, and not something that could be done repeatedly.
But I think that's the story of 'social media marketing', it's not a magic bullet that will increase sales and make everyone love you. It's a tool that you can use if you can find a way to make it fit your business and brand. Just using an automated tool to post press-releases or following people who say the right keywords won't work - it'll just make you look lazy and sloppy. Social Media isn't for marketing, it's for social interaction. If you can dress up customer service to look like social interaction, that can work well. If you can actually interact with your customers in a real and meaningful way, that can work well.
If you can't, then don't even try. You'll just be wasting your time.