Amid all of the hype, conferences, and rapid adoption of social media marketing by organizations from sole proprietors to the Fortune 100, there remains an undercurrent of skepticism. This surfaces in posts like Social Media Skepticism, 5 reasons why social media skeptics maybe right and Business social networking: where’s the ROI?. It’s why posts like 20 Ways to Generate ROI from a Corporate Blog have to be written to help people who are “doing everything right” but still not seeing business results from social media make adjustments to their efforts. It’s why a search for “social media sucks” on Google yields almost 12 million results (so much for my SEO on this post, oh well).

Social Media Sucks, but it Vital for Business Anyway

Image credit: Spin Sucks

It’s true that social media remains in many ways a sort of wild west. Many of the participants are shady, self-proclaimed experts are sometimes snake oil salesmen, and paths are still being created. Yet there are also an increasing number of social media success stories and the picture of what social media success looks like is becoming clearer. And there’s no turning back; social media has changed buyer expectations and behavior. Despite the dangers and potential pitfalls of social media, businesses will continue to expand and refine their social networking efforts.

Here are six reasons why social media skeptics have a point, and six reasons businesses must and will continue to embrace social media marketing anyway.

6 Reasons Social Media Sucks

1. It’s full of self-promoters. No question. Certain aspects of social media (such as the ease of building a large following on Twitter—if you’re not picky about things like quality or relevance) are like helium for those with already overinflated egos. Facebook can be a wonderful platform for sharing information, but also a playground for narcissists. These people aren’t shy about telling you how wonderful they are (it’s amazing how many Twitter handles and profiles, for example, include terms like “guru,” “expert” or even “god”), or treating social media as a direct sales channel rather than a mechanism for sharing valuable insights and information. The great thing about social media, however, is: you don’t have to follow, friend, “like” or in any way encourage such folks if you don’t want to.

2. It’s more of a place to interact with peers than to engage prospects. Again, no argument, most of the activity across social networks is of the birds-of-a-feather variety. Marketers follow other marketers, PR pros hang with other PR pros, engineers interact with other engineers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (see below) and it’s the biggest part of what makes social media activity enjoyable. Problem is, few CEOs or general managers are excited about the notion of paying employees to essentially spend their time engaged in online water cooler chats with cohorts at other firms. Ultimately, both sides need to come to an understanding, with management conceding that not all of that peer interaction is a waste of time and employees focusing primarily on achieving business goals through social media activity during work hours.

3. It’s an easy way to waste a lot of time. It can be. The more active a person is in social media, the more time it naturally takes up (e.g. because there are more blog comments to respond to, more Twitter followers to check out, etc.). Then again, almost any activity, improperly management, can be a time sink. The key is to prioritize between networks and spend the time on each wisely.

4. It means giving up one’s privacy. Not an unreasonable concern. Facebook in particular is notorious for privacy issues. Google settled a lawsuit last fall relating to its Google Buzz service. I’ve always found Foursquare a bit creepy; turns out there’s actually an app named Creepy that aggregates “GPS coordinates for any user (of geolocation services like Foursquare, Twitter and Flickr), pointing out their most frequented hangouts on a map…Essentially, it’s a stalker’s dream app.” The solution? Be careful and thoughtful about what you post online. Always assume the entire world can see anything you do on line. If you wouldn’t do it in front of your mom, your pastor and your boss, don’t do it online. That award you just won for your last brilliant email marketing campaign? An excellent thing to add to your online profiles or post a status update about. Last night’s extracurricular activities? Probably better shared over a beer with your buddies than with the world on Facebook or Twitter.

5. It’s just another avenue for spam. Sadly, yes. Twitter was riddled with tweet spam early in its ramp up phase, though the service has added tools and made other significant strides since then to combat spam and p*rn on its network. Google “Facebook spam” and you’ll get 246 million results. LinkedIn has had problems with LinkedIn group spammers, though the business social network has responded by creating new group management tools to fight spam. Yes, like email, social media sites and social networks can be sources of spam. Having learned from email, however, most networks (as a matter of survival) have taken spam-fighting into consideration from the start and make their tools more sophisticated as spammers have developed new techniques.

6. It’s hard to measure the ROI. Maybe or maybe not, the social media ROI debate continues. But in general, measuring the ROI of social media with any precision is problematic because social media far more often influences a sale than leads directly to one. Still, as Jennifer Kane noted at the recent OMS Minneapolis event, correlations between social media activities and sales can be measured—and correlations are good data.

6 Reasons Social Media is Essential Anyway

1. Social media has become a vital element of SEO. Links from authoritative websites are still of course an important signal of authority to the search engines, but social media links now play an increasing and essential role in these calculations as well. So much so that Rand Fishkin now places page-level and domain-level social signals among its top three search engine ranking factors. Michael Gray has written about which social signals the search engines use and Lee Odden has put together an outstanding presentation on how to use social media for SEO. With more than 80% of consumer purchases and 90% of b2b buying cycles now starting with search, this may be reason enough to embrace social media.

2. Your buyers are there, and they expect you to be there as well. According to recent research, one-fourth of all online time is spent with social media. Nearly 60% of American spend time on a social network at least once per month. YouTube reaches 36% of all business decision makers (more than 10 times the figure for And 93% of business buyers believe all companies should have a social media presence.

3. Social media produces high-quality leads. Based on research from MarketingSherpa, my own experience and that of clients I work with, while social media activities don’t usually produce a high quantity of leads, they do result in quality leads–the kind that convert, and buy, at a higher rate. It makes sense; while social media is more about branding and PR than lead generation, those who follow your brand in social media are much more likely to look favorably on your company and its offerings, understand the value, and to have engaged with your company previously than leads generated through most other sources.

4. It’s a critical and cost-effective tool for gathering market and competitive intelligence. Gone are the days of conducting expensive surveys and focus groups to find out what your prospects are thinking. It’s no longer necessary (or at least not as necessary as it once was) to spend thousands of dollars on analyst research reports to find out what your competitors are up to. The buyers in your market are telling you all of this now, through social media. They are talking about their challenges and looking for answers on LinkedIn, in blog posts and comments, on Twitter, Facebook, and dozens of industry-specific social media forums. It just takes listening.

5. It’s an excellent way to find business partners. Remember all of those peers mentioned in point #2 near the top of this post? Turns out all of that cohort networking isn’t such a waste of time. Increasingly, business gets done by networks. Both individual consultants and companies generate opportunities where they provide only a partial solution to a customer’s needs themselves; they need to bring in one or partners who have complementary skills in order to win the deal. Those partners are very likely to come from their social media network, where a level of trust and familiarity has already been built up. It’s a bit like the much-maligned “old boy networks” of years gone by, but much more open and effective.

6. Social media is the new PR. Journalists increasingly rely less on wire services and more on social media (more than 75% say they use social media to research stories) and online newsrooms for story ideas, sources and research. Effective PR has always been about building relationships with reporters and editors, and social media is now how these relationships get built. A PR program that relies exclusively on traditional phone, online wire service and mail tactics is no longer effective.

So, every negative thing you’ve heard, read, or even said yourself about social media is probably true. But that doesn’t matter. The benefits are too compelling. The key is to listen, plan, and monitor activities to maximize the value of business social networking while avoiding the trolls and pitfalls as much as possible.