Snake Oil Serum

18 November 2013

Fracking the Snake: In Case You Don’t Have Enough Bad Facebook Advice

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who’s Extremely Allergic To Snake Oil; featured photo by Mister Serum via Wikimedia Commons…

“Snake oil” originally described the fake medicine that con men sold across 19th century America. The worthless ointments and lotions supposedly cured everything from basic pains to baldness, when the only thing they consistently cured was “heavy wallet syndrome.” Scientific American describes how these faux experts worked:

 “…the ‘doctor’ was aided by a shill in the crowd who would, at the appropriate moment, call out that this medicament, ointment or tincture had solved his woes. Once the unsuspecting public had purchased the con artists’ wares, both would quickly depart before the townspeople discovered the worthlessness of the claims…”

Sound familiar?

Fast forward two centuries and you’ll find that “snake oil salesmen” are now “social media consultants.” These self-proclaimed gurus push worthless advice on gullible businesses, often aided by shills in the form of misleading blogs and Web 2.0 companies:

Snake Oil

Today he’s a “guru” who speaks at social media conferences.

  1. They find a business that knows little to nothing about social media — which is most businesses, including many Fortune 500 companies.
  2. They hype the numbers that are publicly visible (followers and “likes”) and downplay the invisible ones that really matter (sales and customer value).
  3. They fling around vague jargon like “engagement” and “brand equity.”
  4. They underbid to win the project, which keeps most credible marketing agencies out. For example, they’ll bid $500/month to manage a client’s Facebook Page, which no legit agency could afford to do.
  5. After winning the project, they conscript unpaid interns into posting empty banter on the client’s Page: “It’s Friday – what do you plan to do this weekend?” and “Hit ‘like’ if you love puppies.” The interns get paid in “valuable experience,” and since most are under 30, the client thinks they’re also social media experts.
  6. The hucksters then buy 1000 likes for $5 from a social media sweatshop in Bangladesh. They show these 1000 likes to the client as proof of their mad skills.
  7. This grinds on for about six months, with the huckster pocketing $2970 and spending $30 to buy 6000 likes. The client finally asks why their Facebook Page isn’t generating sales, and why all their fans are in Bangladesh. The huckster responds by saying “likes” and “engagement” and “disruption” all in one sentence.
  8. The client finally fires the faux expert and claims that “social media doesn’t work.” No sweat – the snake 2.oil salesman has already found his next sucker client.

Of course, all these hucksters would disappear if not for one extremely powerful enabler…

Facebook: Squeezing More Oil Out Of That Snake

Remember when Mark Zuckerberg hated the idea of advertising on his beloved platform? No? Well, neither does he, particularly since Facebook went public and he has to sell a lot more ads.

Now here’s where fracking comes in. In the petrol industry, fracking is a destructive method to squeeze every last drop of oil out of the earth.  Since I love to mix metaphors, I created “fracking the snake” to describe how Facebook is trying to extract every possible ounce of oil out of its platform — and every dollar out of naïve businesses.

Consequently, Facebook is now pushing its ads even harder to anyone who runs a Facebook Page. As I’ve written in other posts, most ads on Facebook fail. You’re better off throwing your business card out your car window, because at least the cop who pulls you over will learn your company’s name. So Facebook never talks about how its ads generate sales — rather, it talks about how they’ll help you get more “likes” for your Page.

Ironically, the one thing with less financial value than ads on Facebook is “likes.” Keep this in mind: if you post something on your Facebook Page, less than 2% of the people who “like” your Page will ever see it. That means 98% of the fans you worked so hard to attract never see anything you do on Facebook — unless, of course, you buy ads to reach them. That’s right: you buy ads to attract fans, then have to buy more ads to reach them. That’s high-octane 200-proof snake oil there. I’ve heard the ads also cure basic pains and baldness.

The latest attempt to frack the snake is called “Pages to Watch.” On your company Page, Facebook recently foisted this inane tool:

Facebook Pages To Watch

Just in case you have spare time and money to waste.

“Track the progress on any Pages you want to watch. You’ll see how many likes they get so you can keep up.”

Wow, our prayers have been answered. Facebook has finally given us a tool to spy on our competitors and see how many worthless “likes” they’ve generated so we can “keep up.” Be still my beating heart!

Time To Question The Answers

Now, let’s say our boss or client is obsessed with “likes” and wants us to keep track. Well, here’s what we’d want to know:

  • Are the people who “like” our competitors the same people we want? Facebook won’t provide data or qualitative details on them. All those “fans” could simply be our competitors’ friends, family, and employees, or freeloaders who “liked” a page simply to enter a contest.
  • Did our competitors buy all those “likes” from a Bangladeshi sweatshop? Keeping up with the Joneses gets expensive when the Joneses are faking it.
  • What value are those “likes” actually providing our competitors? Facebook can’t show you how many of those people bought anything, the value of their purchases, or whether they’re actually pissed off and simply liked your competitor’s Page to post complaints.

So Pages to Watch does worse than nothing; it focuses our bosses and clients on the wrong priorities. Instead of encouraging us to develop our relationships with the customers who already and truly “like” us, Facebook wants us to divert time and money to “keep up” with a worthless statistic.

Of course, for the snake 2.oil hucksters, Pages to Watch is a priceless shill. It makes “likes” appear to have value and turns them into a competitive game. That leads to more jobs for gurus, since a race to “keep up” is a race that can’t be won. In the meantime, your customers may now be on Twitter — or were never on Facebook at all — but as long as Zuckerberg and the snake 2.oil salespeople keep pushing “likes,” they hope you will push them, too.

Don’t let them frack you.

Facebook and even social media consultants have a right to make a living, but they should do so by ditching the snake oil and selling us something we really do “like.”

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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