Social Networks Aren’t Cocktail Parties


If you do a Google search on “social media cocktail party” you’ll get 999,000 results.

There’s even a 2008 book written by Jim Tobin and Lisa Braziel called: “Social Media Is A Cocktail Party: Why You Already Know the Rules of Social Media Marketing.” The idea that social media is a cocktail party is also a favorite meme of David Meerman Scott, the popular social media consultant and author (David’s “New Rules of Marketing & PR” is a must read).

The thinking behind this analogy is that companies should not discuss their products or services on social networks.  As David notes in a post on the topic:

“Do you go into a large gathering filled with a few acquaintances and tons of people you do not know and shout “BUY MY PRODUCT”?  Do you go into a cocktail party and ask every single person you meet for a business card before you agree to speak with them?”

Well, of course not.  And that makes sense, but only if you buy in to the “cocktail party” metaphor in the first place.

In fact, social media isn’t a cocktail party.  And it never really was in the first place.

Social networks are web-based communication platforms.  People use them for different reasons – and so do brands.  There are lots of customers that want you to talk about your product.  If I’m researching cameras or cars online, I want Cannon and GM (client) to provide me with information about their products.  I want to know things like lens sizes or gas mileage.

The idea that you can’t talk about your products and services on a social network doesn’t ring true and actually flies in the face of the evidence.  Take some examples of brands that have been roundly praised for their social media efforts.  Most are talking about their products and what they do:

  • Blendtec is famous for its “Will It Blend” YouTube videos.  They are creative and hilarious, but at their essence the videos are product demonstrations.  Tom Dickson puts crazy things – iPhones, marbles, golf balls, etc. – into one of the company’s blenders to show how powerful and how durable they are.  The videos are all about the product.
  • The New York Times has a Twitter account with 2.4 million followers that does one thing – broadcasts links to articles on its web site.  The Times does no engagement, follows less than 200 other people and if they have ever typed a RT or the @ key, it was probably a mistake.  Yet the account is the 23rd largest on Twitter and a big success.  Yet the account does is showcase product, which happens to be news.
  • Zappos has widely been held up as a social media king, especially for its use of blogs and Twitter.  The company focused its contents exclusively on customer service and writing about footwear (they happen to be in the business of selling shoes).

In fact, David talks all about social media and marketing on his blog.  And guess what?  He’s in the business of social media marketing.

Now I know that the social media as cocktail party message is a metaphor and that the advice that tumbles out of it can be excellent (listen more, be helpful, provide value, etc.).  But many companies have taken the idea that conversations about products and services online is a big no-no.  But it is not.

You can talk products and about services (isn’t that what social networks like TripAdvisor, Angie’s List and Yelp were actually designed to do?).

You just need to think about doing it in creative, interesting, compelling and entertaining ways.  You have to discover how your target audiences want this information and how they want to interact with it.  Straight sales pitches and “speeds and feeds” conversations might not make great content for social networks, but heck for some audiences they might be perfect.

Social networks aren’t a cocktail parties, they are a communities.  And like any community the way information is created, shared, digested, explored and processed is different in every segment of the community.

That’s your job – figuring it out.

So what do think of the cocktail party analogy and the idea that brands should avoid product conversations?  Agree?  Disagree?

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5 Responses to “Social Networks Aren’t Cocktail Parties”

  1. George,

    Totally agreed. How to engage your audience should be taken on a step by step approach.
    You have to view your audience like a sales rep views his clients. If a professional walks into your store, you are going to view that person completely different from the baggy-jeaned urban kid who walks in.
    The best way to communication in Social Media, is to figure out who your audience is and finding out what they want.
    The people who excel in Social Media are the people who already have a knowledge of there product. Take the New York Times for example, they know that the people who follow them want the News so it’s best if they just Tweet links to their stories.


  2. Completely agree with you! Its the same approach I take when my clients come to me panicked about social media and their lack of activity within the space. Without a sound strategy and measurable goals, you might as well be walking into a cocktail party with a bullhorn!

    Great blog post!

  3. Hi George,

    Thanks for mentioning the book. Those who’ve read it know it’s all about how to sell product via social media marketing, so clearly you need to talk about it.

    You write: “The thinking behind this analogy is that companies should not discuss their products or services on social networks.” That’s not at all the thinking in my book or what I do for my clients (Microsoft, Intel, Disney, etc.).

    The question becomes how you talk about it, when you talk about it and in what context you talk about it. Oh, and who is interested in the conversation in the first place. I help my clients figure that out.

    Let’s remember, an awful lot of deals get done at cocktail parties. Lots of money is made and lost by how people behave at cocktail parties. And people definitely talk about work at cocktail parties. (Hopefully it’s not all they talk about…)

    If you’re interested in reading it (or skimming), it’s also in the Kindle store for 99 cents. Hope you enjoy.

    Because if you’re the expert on a topic/product that someone brings up at a cocktail party, and you don’t say anything… That’s a little weird.


  4. Hi Jim:
    Thanks for stopping by.

    My bad – I should have mentioned that I had not read your book – YET.

    So while the title conveys the cocktail party analogy, I really didn’t have the insight into how you fleshed out the concept in the book.

    Thank you very much for clarifying something that your clients probably already know.

  5. George,

    I largely agree with the meaning of the post, but disagree with this part: “The thinking behind this analogy is that companies should not discuss their products or services on social networks.”

    I’ve heard the cocktail party analogy before and use it (albeit slightly modified) myself. Whenever I use it, I don’t explain that a company *can’t* talk about their business in this kind of setting. I suggest that they don’t *lead* with it. I suggest that they join these e-cocktail parties to listen and truly engage – like you would at a real cocktail party – and not just sell and promote. Offer value around the theme, idea, topic, whatever.

    Aside from the upfront stipulation, your post is spot-on.

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