Can Social Media Sell Soap?

ONE morning in mid-December, Pope Benedict XVI gazed down on an iPad and composed his first tweet. From a marketing perspective, it was about time. While the pontiff had been issuing his traditional encyclicals online, other world leaders were venturing further, onto Facebook and Twitter. The Dalai Lama, for example, was already spreading his wisdom in 140-character packets to more than five million followers. And as people retweeted his posts, his messages winged through social media, reaching tens of millions. How could the Vatican resist such marketing magic?

Growing legions of marketing consultants are pushing social media as the can’t-miss future. They argue that pitches are more likely to hit home if they come from friends on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or Google+. That’s the new word of mouth, long the gold standard in marketing. And the rivers of data that pour into these networks fuel the vision of precision targeting, in which ads are so timely and relevant that you welcome them. The hopes for such a revolution have fuelled a market frenzy around social networks — and have also primed them for a fall.

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