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Jeff Schmidt

Does Social Media Sell?


P.T. Barnum said, There is no such thing as bad publicity, as long as they spell my name correctly. I wonder if US Airways feels that way this week.

I consider myself pretty plugged in and aware when it comes to social media, but I freely admit I learned a new acronym today. NSFW: Not Safe For Work. I learned this over the fracas caused by a US Airways (@USAIRWAYS) tweet.

In case you missed it, US Airways had a tweet go viral in an historic way. Unfortunately it wasnt for its positive value, it was due to the shock of the inappropriateness of the tweet. The tweet heard round the world contained a picture of a woman with a model airplane. Im going to leave the rest to your imagination. Within an hour the tweet was removed from @USAIRWAYS feed, but it was too late. It had already received millions of retweets.

Beyond the retweeting, people started tweeting and hash-tagging US Airways in not-so-friendly ways. I have to admit, most of what I saw was double entendre, and poking fun at the company for its inappropriate sexual content. There were also people understandably disgusted and angry that US Airways would let something like this happen. As a casual observer I would say that the jokes and the funny attacks far outweighed the anger.

What is clear is that cyberspace is all-abuzz with US Airways. Trending is the official term, and trending they are in ways that I dont think any company has ever achieved. Most people will never see the photo that was published on their feed for an hour. Because of the graphic and disgusting content, most others wont dare show it even as an example. So people hearing of this event are left to wonder what it was. What they are not left to wonder is with what company it was associated. US Airways is getting more attention in the last two days than the multi-week missing Malaysia Airlines plane saga.

It begs the question: Was P.T. Barnum right? Will this new notoriety be beneficial or harmful for US Airways? Based simply on my unscientific analysis of the tweets Ive reviewed, I dont think its going to hurt. They are clearly the butt of a lot of joking right now. Just a week ago, however, if I did a positioning ladder analysis and asked you to name as many airlines as you could, I dare say US Airways would not have been on the list.

Wearing my brand marketing strategist hat, heres the really interesting question: Does social media lead to sales? From an advertising buzz standpoint, digital (social media) is certainly the shiniest new toy. But is it driving sales? All Things D writer Jason Del Rey shared this in a November 2013 article:

Last year, IBM poured some cold water on social advertising when it said social sites like Twitter and Facebook had almost no impact on online Black Friday sales.

This year, things arent much better.

In tracking traffic and sales at about 800 e-commerce sites, IBM says it found that only about one percent of visits to e-commerce sites this week come from social networks, according to Jay Henderson, strategy director for IBM. And, once again, just a fraction of one percent of overall orders are made by people coming to the e-commerce site directly from a social network, he said.

I dont think the implication is that social isnt important, Henderson said earlier this week. But so far it hasnt proven effective to driving traffic to the site or directly causing people to convert.


People ask me all the time, How do I use social media to drive sales? I submit that they are asking the wrong question. I have always viewed social media as just another platform on which to help build top-of-mind awareness. What makes it attractive is that its largely free. However, all marketing and advertising starts with strategy. You have to know what youre advertising and why youre advertising it. You have to know whom you are trying to reach and what behavior you are trying to change in those you reach.

So when the dust settles, will US Airways sell more as a result of this intense exposure? Not likely. But equally unlikely is the prospect of them selling less as a result.

All we know at this point is that more people will be aware of them as a result. So was P.T. Barnum right? 

What do you think?

Jeff Schmidt is EVP and Partner with Chris Lytle at Sparque, Inc. At Sparque. You can reach Jeff at

Twitter: @JeffreyASchmidt