Social media outreach is not a tool

by Shannon Paul on January 4, 2009

Since so many blogs have called for the death of everything from press releases to the PR industry-at-large and embargoes, I would like to jump on the bandwagon and begin 2009 by calling for the death of social media tools.

Allow me to clarify: I am NOT calling for the death of social networks, or any kind of communication on the social web, but what I AM specifically calling for the death of the use of the word “tool” as it pertains to social media outreach for business.

I began thinking about this awhile back and included it in a comment on Dave Fleet’s very smart post: Social Media Outreach Won’t Work for Everyone.

From my comment to Dave:

More than a tool, lately I’ve begun using the “instrument” analogy to describe social media communication. In the right hands, social media outreach is beautiful music… in others it’s a painful cacophony of noise.

If we need a metaphor, doesn’t it seem more appropriate to think of social media outreach as a musical instrument as opposed to just another tool?

Monkeys can use tools, but it takes an artist to be able to appreciate the subtle nuance of bringing humanity into our communication to encourage the growth of real relationships without the luxury of a face-to-face introduction.

My question to marketers is this: Are you adding to the beauty or the value of a social network when you represent the company you work for, or are you simply clamoring for attention?
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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

January 4, 2009 smithtodd 1

Great post, Shannon. Tools are meant to be used. I think social media is about developing real life relationships. If I feel like I’m being used, my interest fades pretty fast.

When I started “using” social media a few months ago, I did think of it as another tool to get attention. But I didn’t expect it to change me. Now I think of it as simply an efficient new way to get to know people and for people to get to know me.


January 4, 2009 Shannon Paul 2

Thanks, Todd! It’s always nice to know that we aren’t always preaching to the choir.


January 4, 2009 Jeremiah Staes 3

It’s all outreach.

I’ll take it one step further: I sorta despise the term “Social Media Outreach,” just like I despise the term “New Media.” Websites were “New Media” ten years ago. It’s meaningless and tells the people who may implement nothing except it’s new, which is about a degree away from telling them nothing.

“Social Media Outreach” is the placeholder for what “outreach” is evolving into day by day. Five to seven years from now, Social Media won’t be as new, and it’ll just be part of the regular toolbox or orchestra that everyone who’s going to be left at the end of the shakeout is using (skillfully and in good measure) as part of the whole kit’n'kaboodle.

I do like the instrument analogy better – because “tool” insinuates that everyone can do it immediately, at every skill level (thank you Home Depot and Lowe’s). Well, everyone can – but there’s different skill levels and a bit of natural talent.

For instance, I can use a screwgun, but forget a compound miter saw.

When you put musical instruments into the analogy, you clarify it – everyone knows that NOT everyone can play every instrument, or any instrument, because it DOES take some experience and skill to be good, and each has it’s own strengths.

World-class musicians spend 10,000 hours or more of their life practicing their craft – and so do the best of ANY field.


January 4, 2009 Shannon Paul 4

Jeremiah – this is exactly what I was trying to convey. The teminology is often cringe-worthy but impossible to avoid. I’m sure you’re also right to note that new media will cease to be new at some point and will return to being media. All of this will come full circle, but the impact on how we communicate will be felt for a long time to come.


January 4, 2009 Tom - 5

Wow! great thought. I have always just gone for my attention, trying to get notice for anything I post, but I think from now on, I will leave it til I have something that will add value to the social networks.


January 4, 2009 Shannon Paul 6

My experience tells me that promoting others and sharing stuff (other than just my junk) helps to build my network in much more meaningful ways than simply asking for people to rush to some prescribed call-to-action. Thanks so much for sharing!


January 4, 2009 Mark 7

So what you’re saying is put down the hammer and pick up the artists brush. :)

Thank you for expressing the need for authentic conscious communication in SMO which I feel is the real opportunity emerging with all these “tools”. Being a real person, being kind and providing value for your community.


January 4, 2009 Shannon Paul 8

Mark – You’re welcome! Authentic communication and interaction in business might seem to some like common sense, but it is still a pretty revolutionary concept in most parts of the world. Thanks for stopping by. :)


January 4, 2009 Brian Frank 9

Great insight Shannon. Music is a metaphor everyone needs to start using a lot more often. There are definitely rhythmic and harmonic elements of social media. And music can be a tool too — like the organ at a hockey game or the soundtrack to a movie.


January 4, 2009 Mark Evans 10


You’re absolutely right. We’re in the early days of social media so expect the terminology to become more sophisticated – and I mean that in a good way.


January 4, 2009 Eric Brown 11

Shannon, Great Post, And only if your analogy were true, because if it were it would be ever so easy to ferret out which “Marketers” have any real “Social Media” experience or not. One could simply ask the SM Marketer to play a short melody, because as with fine music, either you can play or you can’t, there is no in between.

I am not a marketing guy, just a small business owner/operator fooling around with Social Media because it works, at least for us and our applications. But, I spent a lot of money with folks who “claim” to know about this space we are terming “Social Media” but really don’t, and they are “experimenting” on the businesses dollar.

I believe that a lot of money will be spent by companies on Social Media Marketing too no avail, not because Social Media doesn’t work, but because the person hired is better at tooting their horn than how to play the game. We are already seeing it in our industry and it makes me crazy.


January 4, 2009 Shannon Paul 12

Thanks, Eric – I think we’re looking at the social media outreach from a different angle. I was referring to marketers’ approach to engaging people within social networks — not as a litmus test for showcasing true social media savvy. A litmus test would be great — and would surely save a lot of the wasted time/money that results from the so-called “carpetbaggers”. I was merely trying to help show other marketers/business people interested in engaging people in social networks to dicard the tool analogy and rather adopt the instrument analogy so they can add good things to their online surroundings.


January 4, 2009 Ari Herzog 13

Why must social media be USED as anything? Forget tools and instruments and whatever other terminologies you want to create.

It’s social media outreach. Why must that be qualified?


January 4, 2009 Shannon Paul 14

Ari- Of course nothing needs to be qualified. I just find metaphors helpful when I try to share with others how this stuff works. Lots of people come into communities/social networks without thinking about their impact on the people in the network. I find the musical instrument analogy helpful, that’s all — the tool thing gives me the shivers. Not trying to split hairs, just trying to help people see the difference in approach.


January 4, 2009 Colleen S. 15

What I love best about your blog, Shannon, is that you encourage discussion and debate and not absolutes. I like your nuances of tool vs. instrument. I want to muddy the waters a bit more with my question:
In terms of defining strategy and tactic, would you consider social media a strategy or a tactic to reach a communications or marketing goal?


January 5, 2009 Tim Jahn 16

Excellent way of putting it Shannon. People get caught up in putting social media on a pedestal, as they do with most buzzwords and phrases.

But as you say, social media is more a way of doing things. It’s how you build and grow relationships online. Not some fancy tool!


January 5, 2009 Cory O'Brien 17

An instrument analogy also implies a learning curve, which I like. It’s hard to learn how to use a tool better (take a hammer for example), since you either know how to use it (hit the nail with the head) or you don’t. With an instrument however, you can start using it right away once you’ve got the basics down, but it takes practice to play like a pro.

It’s hard to tell the experts from the carpetbaggers with a tool, because a nail in a board looks like every other nail in a board, but with an instrument, you can really tell the difference between someone who has mastered all there is to know about that instrument, and someone that has been playing for a few weeks and just learned their first song.


January 5, 2009 Stacy Lukas 18

I have actually used the analogy of hammers and nails in a speech on social media, only I said something more along the lines of “anybody can use a hammer and a nail, but only a carpenter can properly build a house.”

That said, I will use all my self-restraint not to release my inner teenager in this comment and make a Beavis & Butthead reference.

I must agree with Ari and ask why we must USE these things. I prefer the word “integrate.” To “use” implies to me that it’s dispensable; but “integrating” something sounds much more seamless. No?


January 5, 2009 Wendy Peters 19

They are still tools. That is why the monkeys using them make so much awful noise. It’s the artist using the tool who will create beautiful things. Instruments are also tools for musicians. Give a violin to somebody who doesn’t know how to play, it sounds like crap. You’re right in that there is an art to beautifully implemented ‘social media outreach’. But I still think it’s a communication tool.


January 5, 2009 Webconomist 20

Best metaphor yet Shannon…and agree too with Ari on not qualifying it further than outreach…analogies and metaphors work well in sales, since they set frames of reference.

The other word I can’t stand is “user” people aren’t “users” of Social Media they are “participants”…”user” is an old days computing term that I think needs to be buried. It makes me think of someone sitting in front of a monitor slipping it a needle of some sort…ugh.


January 5, 2009 Bryan Person 21

But can’t tools help create beautiful works of art, too? Are paintbrushes not tools for creating (potentially) masterpieces?

I don’t really consider the word as having a negative connotation at all — but maybe that’s just me!

Bryan | @BryanPerson


January 5, 2009 Shannon Paul 22

Brian- Yes, of course tools can also create beautiful works of art, too! But an instrument implies a higher level of sophistication and a learning curve. I’m not really interested in applying new terminology so much as suggesting that the new methods of outreach require fluidity and creativity at every stage of implementation. This was not the case in the past — the old methods only required creativity during the strategic (creation) process. The implementation and the execution were much more regimented, i.e. a carpenter with blueprints — a creative carpenter in this case probably wouldn’t be as good as one who could follow directions properly according to design. With social media we need clever artists who understand how to deliver a message and have it received properly at every stage. We also need to empower those executing messages with the ability to identify opportunities for outreach quickly and in real time.

This aspect makes it difficult to supervise and quantify — it’s like trying to make sure an improv jazz performer sticks to the chord progression. Sometimes it’s up to the performer to do what’s right in the moment. The same is true with those on the front lines of communication with social media.


January 5, 2009 Bryan Person 23

Agree with you here, Shannon, and I like the idea of taking this all to a higher, creative standard!


January 5, 2009 Heather 24

I think the tool vs. musical instrument analogy is interesting. Certainly, social media is a combination of art and science. That being said, are we getting caught up in an echo-chamber situation?

It seems a number of SM experts spend a lot of time disecting verbiage — what to call what we do. Is it a tool or not? It is outreach or just a new way of doing things?

I’d like to offer a different perspective. I work for a PR agency and a number of our clients are starting to dip their toes in social media — trying to figure out how it integrates with marcomm efforts.

From a business’s perspective, do the semantics describing social media really matter? Isn’t it more important to talk about how social media can help businesses achieve their overall objectives? In that respect, SM is just another tool in the marketing toolbox. It just happens to be a very different tool.

Heather (@prtini)


January 5, 2009 Ann Kingman 25

I understand and applaud your intention, but I’m going to disagree with the tool vs. instrument analogy. Most people I know that learned an instrument chose the instrument first because they liked the sound (or because it was the only instrument available from the school). And there are certainly people who are using and learning social media because they like specific aspects.

However, I’m trying to show the people I work with that they need to start with an objective and then choose a method to achieve that objective. Often it is a social media approach, with the tools being blogging, facebook etc.. But sometimes it isn’t.

Perhaps it’s semantics, and ultimately a tool can be turned into an instrument (i.e., like a medical instrument) with practice and artistry — but to some, it’s just one tool in the box of many.


January 5, 2009 PRJack 26

I think the question is more about what the ‘tool/instrument’ (ftr I agree with Wendy that they’re one and the same) refers to …
1) Social Media itself?
2) the process of using SM to reach out?
3) getting information to those in SM to perpetuate a message?

I’d argue that 1) is more of a vehicle than anything; 2) is more of a tool/instrument; and 3) requires specific purspose-built tools/instruments.


January 5, 2009 DaveMurr 27


Well said – I’ve never cared for the word tool when it comes to social media. I just don’t see social media like that.

For me a tool has one function – its built to do one thing and it does that thing well.

The instrument analogy is interesting..

An instrument can be seen as a tool, but it is really up to the musician to use it as he/she sees fit. The results can not be predicted or necessarily determined in black and white.

Much like a paintbrush – it is a tool but the artist knows how to use that tool to create something complete unique. And every artist using the same brush will undoubtedly create something different.

I’m kind of rambling here.. but you have me thinking..

Marketers would be wise to see Social Media as something that is malleable and not, as your photo suggests, a mighty hammer/tool to be used to get the message across.


January 5, 2009 PRJack 28

just to play devil’s advocate David…
What is a chisel? Off the cuff one would say a tool… but with that tool in the hands of a talented sculptor great pieces of art can be made…

The problem with worrying about Tool vs Instrument is that the argument will invariably be drawn into philosophical semantics.



January 5, 2009 Shannon Paul 29

Everyone – To be honest, I never meant to get into semantics at all, but to beg the question as to (1)whether people were considering the amount of marketing-related noise they generate within a social network and (2)to convey the level of creativity required to deliver messages to social networks.

Ari and Stacy – Instruments are played, not used. Maybe I simply have a different perspective since I reach for a butter knife rather than a screw driver when it comes to working with “tools”. Also I grew up believing myself to be a musician so I see how the performance metaphor applies to delivering messages within social networks.

Heather – I am not interested at all in sifting through verbiage. I AM interested in bringing to light the interpretive nature of true outreach and calling to question the amount of noise generated by marketers who bring their agendas to social networks.

Wendy – I think looking at social media as a tool is short sighted and mistake that a lot of people make. They pick the tool up and then they put it down. Is blogging right for every company? Certainly not, but only because not every company can maintain the commitment required to build a community around its content and not every company’s culture is ready to deal with the kind of discourse that blogs can invite. Certainly, having the kind of feedback loop that a blog establishes is right for every company, is it not?

Ann – I agree that objectives and methods should be established, but the implementation of those methods requires artistry and relationship building to gain traction across the social web. That often means thinking and acting outside the prescribed “methods” as well as putting in some time off the clock.

PRJack – I am really beginning to believe that a tools-approach isn’t really true. We can teach people until we’re blue in the face how to “use” tools, but the relationships and the ability to foster trust and openness. Perhaps a social network is a platform or an environment in which to meet people to form these relationships, but there again, we’re getting into issues of semantics.

Upon further reflection, maybe the title of this post was misleading.


January 5, 2009 Kate 30

Good post Shannon, thanks. Analogy or not, it takes skills and strategy to make social media work.

So you have to know how to play the instrument (skill), and also how to piece the notes together and play through a whole song artistically (strategy).

You’re making me want to play music, figuratively and literally :-)



January 6, 2009 PRJack 31

But this is a great topic Shannon!! I’ll go back to what @markevans said about how the terminology surrounding SM is evolving. That’s what makes discussions like this both interesting and tremendously valuable! If nothing else we’ve seen how fractious words can be. ;-)

I love the way Kate brought up how a unique skill set needs also to be factored in.

My earlier comment mentioned my thoughts on how SM is more a vehicle – or as you aptly put it, a platform. In a way, that’s not so different than traditional media as it too is/was a similar vehicle.

‘Similar’, however, doesn’t mean that they’re the same. There are some shared traits, but some significant differences. And it’s those very differences that demand new skill sets – and yes, tools – to use SM appropriately. I think the only part of the title that added to confusion was including ‘outreach’. It begged the question ‘is SM the tool? or is it the Outreach that is the tool?’

I’d hazard that SM can be a vehicle to conduct outreach. SM can also be a platform towards which outreach is aimed at.

Link those and SM is both a conduit to an audience and it is the audience itself. But which approach to take is predicated by a clear statement of what the ultimate objective is – and from that development of an adequate strategy complete with the applicable skill and tool set needed for that side of the equation.


January 6, 2009 Geoff Livingston 32

I think tool as a word is fine. To me this is a semantic discussion that revolves around whether or not marketers realize that social means talking WITH other people. But in the CMO’s mind the use of one type of communication versus another really does get down to which toolset to use. The particulars of how to use those tools the right way — i.e. talking at people versus having conversations with them — is the real issue that your post addresses.


January 6, 2009 markwilliams 33

Semantics are important–one uses tools, one plays (or listens to) music.

Are we trying to *build* relationships, or ‘play’ the relationship?

More to Shannon’s avowed point of “(1)whether people were considering the amount of marketing-related noise they generate within a social network and (2)to convey the level of creativity required to deliver messages to social networks.”

My thoughts–

1. It’s ALL noise. To some people, it’s music, to others it’s noise. Fans of Mozart probably think Metallica is noise. Jazz fans probably think rap is noise, while those who think rap is the music of the streets probably can’t hear the music in a Charlie Parker solo.

What is pleasant and reasonates with some, is noisy and offensive to others. It’s all music…it’s all noise. Depends on your personal taste.

Even in social networks, marketing will be treated by some as noise, as music by others, no matter how creative the message or it’s delivery. No change there.

2. I’ll argue that the level of creativity to respond to social networks hasn’t really changed either. Again, not every message will appeal to every person–to suppose that folks who use social media are somehow a homogenous group is just not correct.

It’s a question of getting the right message in front of the right group of people–and that is a marketing challenge that hasn’t changed in some 3,000 years of human commerce.

Social networking *tools* are just another mechanism for trying to accomplish the goal of getting the right message in front of the right group of people, so the message is perceived as useful information that leads to a positive action for the consumer.

Whether we think of ourselves as craftsmen or artists…well, every field makes that distinction, doesn’t it? :-)


January 6, 2009 ulumarketing 34

Philosophy and semantics aside, Shannon proves a point. Tools are a means to an end goal. They help propel an effort towards a goal. Instruments are not designed to accomplish a goal other than to create music, and in the hands of a gifted or trained person, they can do so.

Social media was mean to create conversation, elicit thought and share ideas, not necessarily as a means to an end. While it can be used as that, it is much much more.

Let’s just say that there are a lot of tools using social media incorrectly and cluttering the relationships that others are trying to build.

-AJ @ulumarketing


January 6, 2009 Shannon Nelson 35

Instrument is much more appropriate than tool…but it’s really about the person behind the instrument…if you don’t know how to play it, it’s going to sound like nails on a chalkboard.

And if you use the tool terminology it’s the same–you don’t want a plumber coming to build your deck.

So no matter what word you use, it still boils down to the basics–understanding “how” to use social media/social networking effectively and appropriately.


January 6, 2009 Donna Vincent Roa 36

In practice and theory, social media simply represent new channels for communication.

Labeling social media “tools” and “instruments” do not appropriate describe the interaction or the potential interaction for two-way communication.

When we call these new channels of communication tools or instruments, it seems to give power of messaging to the sender. I wield the instrument. I have the power.

Social media allows two way communication and gives both parties equal chance to communicate. Both parties have power. The sender-receiver relationship is more balanced.

As business communicators we want and benefit from participation…two-way communication. Honoring and respecting the relationship is paramount.


January 7, 2009 Beth Harte 37

“Monkeys can use tools, but it takes an artist to be able to appreciate the subtle nuance of bringing humanity into our communication to encourage the growth of real relationships without the luxury of a face-to-face introduction.”

Love this statement Shannon. To me, the tools are things like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn. And they can go away in a blink of an eye. The artist knows this and what they embrace isn’t the tool(s) itself, but process and implementation of any tool to make the final piece (in this case, I think, you mean conversation).

@GeoffLivingston and I had a similar conversation around the term ‘social media marketing’ (a term that I am not fond of). His comment here sums it up best:

“The particulars of how to use those tools the right way — i.e. talking at people versus having conversations with them — is the real issue that your post addresses.”


January 7, 2009 Kathryn/ 38

This is timely. [Oh, I love how big your comments section is! Nice!] As a publicist (30 yrs!) I just had a chat with another friend and colleague of mine this very morning about Twitter and social media in general, sharing my excitement that Twitter provided the opportunity to erase some of the formalities we were accustomed to in traditional pr exchanges, HUMANIZING the experience. “You take from an experience what you bring to an experience.” And I do see that some people are bringing more formal agendas to their Tweets and some really are opting for Being Real, bringing more personal, more honest selves to the process. I have no judgment about these two approaches. They both have value. But I largely suspect those who have the most to gain are those willing to (with integrity and consideration) bring their full selves to the table, enabling much more authentic relationships to unfold where there is reciprocity.
It’s an exciting time and I’m glad I’m here to be part of it! LOVE it, actually! Thanks for contributing to the conversation so expertly.


January 10, 2009 Anon. 39

Don’t kid yourselves kids. Social media is nothing more than than conversation in the town square, but spread across a greater distance. Look to G. Livingston’s answer above, and read all the old books you can get your hands on. The human condition doesn’t change because of forum, electronic or not.


January 10, 2009 Joni Hubred-Golden 40

I love social media, but the reaction I hear most often when I talk about it is: What’s the point? I think the disdain is about just this issue: the difference between broadcasting every minute detail of one’s life and sharing information with a purpose.

Beth Harte, the quote at the end of your comment tied this all up for me. The success of social media, like everything else in life, depends on whether we’re acting or reacting, giving or taking. Old school press releases have always worked the same way: You’ll have more success pitching a meaningful story that addresses a current issue or problem, than slinging a bucket of fluff and hoping for the best.

If all you do with social media is push your “message”, nobody’s going to listen. Create an interacting community around solid information, deep networking and provocative ideas, now there, you’ve got something.


January 10, 2009 Joni Hubred-Golden 41

And my web site is I left out an “i”.

Good grief.


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