The Parable of the Social Media Marketer

There seems to be competing schools of thought regarding social media usage for online marketers. At one end of the spectrum, people are encouraged to join every social network, follow and friend everyone possible and tweet everything. In short, they are told to broadcast as much as they can. I refer to that as the “more is better” model.

At the other end is what I call the “less is more” model. Under this line of thinking, social network marketers are encouraged to manage their relationships carefully and limit their involvement to high-value contacts they have the time and expertise with which to interact. Others advocate a more “balanced” approach somewhere in the middle that involves an open “trial period” followed by frequent pruning to weed out under-performing or low-value contacts.

I probably fall more into the “balanced” approach knowing that I don’t have time to read and interact with everyone under a “more is better” mentality. Is that an ideal approach? I’m not sure. Frankly, the dilemma of properly managing social media for marketing purposes is frustrating since it’s difficult to truly converse with more than a few hundred contacts effectively.

In thinking of social media marketing, it seems to me that, in essence, it’s a lot like sowing seeds by scattering over a wide area (broadcasting). That visual picture reminds me of a parable (“a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson”) found in the Bible and called The Parable of the Sower. This parable is recorded in Mark 4:1-20 (also Matthew 13:1-23 and Luke 8:1-15) and told by Jesus.

“Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it. Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away. And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.” (Mark 4:3-8 NKJV)

Illustrations are very helpful to me and, while the focus of this parable is primarily spiritual, I feel it just might hold some clues for understanding social media marketing. So, with that thought in mind, I respectfully offer The Parable of the Social Media Marketer.

“Behold, a marketer went online to connect with others. And it happened, as he used Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and LinkedIn, that some messages fell outside the realm of good taste; and the filters of the corporation came and devoured them. Some messages fell on overflowing accounts, where they did not get noticed; and immediately they were passed over because they had no connection or value. Later when searched via social tools they were rejected, and because they had no relevant content they were permanently deleted. And some messages fell among the self promotional hype and scams; and the spam filter automatically removed them, and they yielded no results. But other messages fell on receptive audiences and yielded a return on investment that enhanced branding, increased readership and produced: some new referrals, some new customers, and some new social capital.”

My question now is what type of social media marketer are you? It seems to me that “more is better” is not always best if the “soil” is wrong or the “seed” is not ready or is poorly scattered. Likewise, a lot of time and bandwidth (“seeds”) will be wasted following this model. The result can lead to a negative reputation and a shrinking pool of influence as large-scale deletions, “unfollowing” and de-friending occurs.

On the other hand, the “less is more” model has its share of problems. For starters, opportunities to find the “good ground” of receptive audiences may be lost forever when social seeds are sown sparingly. That damage is twofold since one misses not only the valuable input of others but also the opportunity to enrich the community by sharing his or her own wisdom. Likewise, small social circles can severely limit one’s marketing potential.

In a nutshell, the Parable of the Social Media Marketer helps me sort out what is important in social marketing. As a general question, is either the “more is better” or the “less is more” model the preferred solution? I don’t think one size fits all in this field. Instead, I feel the optimum marketing benefit is achieved under a strategy that searches for “good soil” before scattering a lot of “seeds.” Such an approach improves relevance and increases efficiency. In effect, it enhances one’s social reputation and thus improves his or her marketing efforts.

Yes, the planting and growing process is challenging but the rewards are a harvest worth pursuing. By carefully planning our social networking and marketing mix, I’m convinced we can match “good soil” with appropriate “seeds” that will produce a hundredfold instead of merely broadcasting content that withers and dies.

Mike Allen
Founder & President
Shopping-Bargains.com

About Mike Allen

Founder of Shopping-Bargains.com, LLC, a coupon and deal source featuring nearly 2000 merchant partners in the US, UK and Canada. Recipient of the Affiliate Summit Pinnacle Awards 2009 Affiliate of the Year. Learn more about my 10+ years in affiliate marketing and my other projects at MikeAllen.me.
You can find Mike on Twitter: @mta1.

8 Responses to The Parable of the Social Media Marketer

  1. Scott Jangro says:

    Like many parables, the moral isn't terribly clear. One might read from that, "only sow your seeds on fertile ground", another might get "sow 'em if you got 'em!" (no matter where).

    I guess it comes down to what you're comfortable with.

    well done!

  2. It's definitely a delicate balance. What I try to do is have a broad presence with efficiencies built in, such as new pictures posted to Flickr also hitting Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc automatically.

    Also, I think it's a good idea to secure your brand all over, in the event you decide to scale to a bigger presence.

    A good resource for this is http://usernamecheck.com/ to see if your preferred username (stay consistent with it) is available at the various sites.

    To me, a good approach is to sprinkle seeds all over and then tend to those that start showing growth and promise.

  3. Brand4profit says:

    The old method of advertising is interactive marketing. The term is misleading. Most people think it means that there is some type of interaction on the part of the person advertised to, and there is. But, it is not conversational. Instead, the advertiser wants you to interact with their campaign in a specific set of steps. Following the call to action and visiting a website for instance. It’s the push to make you do something. Live this image. Buy this now.

    Social Media Marketing is just the opposite. It’s the pull of the tribe. The tribe already has your trust so the actions they take are ones you align with. On a larger scale, it’s the allure of belonging in the group as you take action together. “I am doing this so why don’t you do it with me?” On an individual level, the attraction is to behave the same way to get the same results that benefits your fellow tribeswoman or tribesman. “She looks hot! I want to look hot too. I want to go to her hairstylist” and you do. Social Media Marketing uses the power of attraction.

    While advertising tries to use the same tactic, with a billboard for instance, of a gorgeous woman telling you the benefits of the salon, it doesn’t have the same impact because it’s pushing you to go. It is not pulling you in as a trusted friend. Your friends have your best interests at heart and advertisers do not. Social Media Marketing is based on building trust and that foundation will make Social Media a dominant player in Marketing.

  4. Pat Grady says:

    I enjoyed your thought provoking approach to this subject!

    Somewhere in there, since I'm definitely a "less is more" type, it occured to me personally (and I mean no offense by this, and I hope I offer none) that Jesus was a spammer.

    Jesus aside (perhaps in his case, they did all need to hear his message), to assume that everyone needs your message, to me, is horribly presumptuous. At times, it can also be rude and leads to a mentality that I see leaves the message deliverer yapping more and listening far less. Listening for need, hunting it, finding it, mining it, has been very productive for me in my sales and marketing career. Trying to create need, for me, hasn't. Yep, on the less-is-more-OR-more-is-better spectrum, I'm WAY over on the "less" side.

    I try with high intent to understand and respect my brethren and sisteren on the "more" side of the spectrum, but to be blunt, I often feel that those at the very far end of the "more" spread don't listen very well and sometimes see the "less" end of the spectrum with some patronizing disdain. I think this is to be expected and isn't a tradegy of course, nor is my view of the "more" end. But it does come up fairly often when people ask me why I don't blog or do much self-promotion or why I choose to remain anonymous in certain places or why I do certain things for others under the cover of an NDA and so on… it's just my nature. I have a bent in me that says… do something, don't talk about it, talking is the opposite of doing it… and it's a trait shy people understand well. I've grown well beyond my childhood shyness on the exterior, but the underlying thinking is still there. Always.

    And I know my "more" sistas and bros think another way, the opposite of the shy-bent… if I am to do something productive here, talking about it to others means I will do more of it, talking is an integral part of doing, so talk.

    So like I said, no tradegy here on either end, just style. And style happens to make my journey full of flavors, I wouldn't want it any other way!

    Baskin Robbins has over 1,000 flavors in their library… imagine how much the world would SUCK if there were just one flavor!

  5. As the only former publisher of ReveNews (or affiliate marketer that I know of?) pursuing a PhD in Religious Studies (with a focus on early composition of the NT) who also heavily uses and relies on "social media", I feel compelled to speak on this.

    This parable (as most of Jesus' parables do) has a surface reading that is easy to get at and expound upon. However, these parables weren't cute bedtime stories. They were (perhaps still are to some audiences) frequently loaded with insider language meant to cause a startling reaction to the original hearers (1st century residents of Galilee/Judea as well as we can reconstruct them… remember, this parable alone appears in three of the canonical Gospels and they've all been transmitted, edited, etc for the last millenia after being written down 50-70 years after Jesus might have said them). The parables go beyond simple story telling with a moral into something unqiue (hence, we use the term parable instead of story to convey that) that has a startling and unexpected hook. There's one here too.

    With this particular parable, there is a fairly widespread consensus among more mainstream scholars, priests and ministers that the parable should be called the "Parable of the Hearers" rather than the "Parable of the Sowers." That has great implications for your point of the post and how marketers should approach social media.

    Brad Young, a widely respected professor on the parables and their connections with earlier forms of literature from Hebrew University, says it best in his work "The Parables":

    "The traditional name, parable of the Sower, focuses attention on the farmer. The whole story, however, revolves around the reality illustrated by sowing seed into four different types of land, and its title should reflect the essence of its message. The parable should be called "the Hearers," because Jesus, in a word-picture describing seeds' growth in various soils, portrays four different types of disciples who hear his teaching. Their response to the message is the primary focus of the parable, rather than the sower, who represents the preacher, or the seed, which referes to the word of God. The condition of the soil determines the growth of the seed and the success or failure of the harvest. The good soil produces a hundredfold return." (page 251)

    In other words, this isn't necessarily a parable about spreading your seed around and hoping that someone will respond. Instead, this is a parable directed to people who need to consider how receptive they are to receiving messages.

    So, you could still use the parable as an analogy to your point. I'd call it "The Parable of the Social Media User" and talk about the different types of users present on these platforms and how receptive they might be to marketing messages (both good and bad).

    Personally, I've scaled back dramatically on the number of people I follow on Twitter (from around 3,000 down to around 80) and the number of feeds I read in Google Reader. The reason is that I'm more interested in ideas rather than egos. If you're talking about something that I'm interested in, I will find you through my Track combination of Yahoo Pipes, RSS, Google Alerts, etc. And I'm not alone… there's a big "social media" backlash coming in the next year or two as people who use these platforms heavily continue to be bothered with "contextual" advertising and brand marketing on social networks.

    Just as this parable asks us to shift our mindset from the sower to the hearers, "social media marketers" need to re-consider the mindset of spurting seed all over the place and think about their hearers as well.

  6. Lia says:

    I really enjoyed this article and especially the responses to the parable. I am just beginning to use all of these social networking sites and am still deciding how many to be involved with. Deciding which users I want to be involved with and which social style I want to adopt.

  7. Scott Aikin says:

    Thanks for the post Mike, it's definitely an interesting parallel and refreshing to see some of the gospel being brought into affiliate marketing. I also want to point out that this focuses more on the 4 different types of soil rather than the sower. What the parable is saying is that everybody's heart is in one of these 4 different conditions when we receive a message. So according to these verses we need to have a good heart with a clear conscience to receive the gospel and flourish, but if our heart is hard we won't receive it and will miss out on the benefits of the word.

    Imagine if someone were to speak at an affiliate conference and talk about ways to reach our audiences in a fuller and more meaningful way while putting revenue to the wayward. Those with a hard heart might look at this speaker and boo them off the stage for disregarding the fattening of their wallets. But those with a good heart might take this message and become inspired to work more as a humanitarian rather than a business person. For me this post definitely inspires me to look at this business in a more meaningful way so I can do more than just fatten my wallet.

  8. Very interesting piece you got here. And yes, you have a lot of points in your parable. Jim Rohn, one of the greatest motivational speakers and business philosophers in the United States shared a similar parable when talking about Network Marketing.

    What I remember clearly in his version is this "If you sow long enough, your idea will fall on good people (soil)". I think the same applies to the Social Media Marketer. If he/she keeps sowing the seeds, they will eventually fall on good people (soil) and give him/her the results desired. Thanks for sharing this, once again, Mike.

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