Social Media Marketing – From Bowling to Pinball

Good morning everybody:

From a business perspective, one of the most pressing social media questions is:

Which impact do social media have on marketing?
Are they game changing communication channels or just another internet hype?

As one can infer from the name of our blog, we believe in the first alternative. :-) But how exactly do these changes look like? I’ve seen a couple of very good social media presentations so far. Most of them are trying to tackle this question. Usually, at a certain point, they all come up with some impressive good or bad company case studies of which they inductively derive a list of common mistakes or advises the speakers share with their audiences. At the end of these presentations, from an operational perspective I usually have a good overview on what to do and what not if I were managing social media communications for a certain product or service. What’s missing is a broader concept or metaphor that generally explains the implications social media have on communication patterns and consequently on how and why social media marketing works.

Today, I would like to share and discuss with you an interaction model which we have been presenting on a couple of conferences so far. It follows the model Thorsten has published in the Journal of Service Research in 2010 (publication).

Although a little oversimplified, marketing in the pre-social media era was comparable to bowling. Marketers targeted certain customer groups and sent out their messages like precisely bowled bowling balls. As transportation vehicle they used traditional media to hit as many bowling pins as possible. Characteristic of marketing bowling was the large amount of control the company retained because consumers were given only limited freedom of action.

In a social media world, the bowling metaphor doesn’t fit anymore. Marketing can be better described as playing pinball: ”Companies serve up a ‘‘marketing ball’’ (brands and brand-building messages) into a cacophonous environment, which is then diverted and often accelerated by social media ‘‘bumpers,’’ which change the offering’s course in chaotic ways. After the marketing ball is in play, marketing managers continue to guide it with agile use of the ‘‘flippers,’’ but the ball does not always go where it is intended to.” Through their public communication among each other, consumers have the power to enforce, neglect, or even thwart the original marketing message. Furthermore, for the first time consumers have the audience to bring up own topics on the communication agenda as happened in many famous cases so far (for the most common examples take a look at: A Chronology of Brands that Got Punk’d by Social Media).

As a result, social media forces marketers to take consumer communication and CRM seriously. On the long run, companies won’t be able to survive if they treat customers like anonymous entities whose very role is to simply pay for whatever they got offered. Companies have to relearn what it means to truly make conversation and listen to what the consumer wants. They have to learn how to maneuver the pinball in this new environment.

For us researchers, we have to come up with an agenda that tackles and deeply analyses the dominant social media phenomena in order to develop a coherent framework of empirically proven scientific findings.

Many researchers are already on their way. Scientific journals present new findings almost every month. On our blog, we want to share their results with you and will introduce the most important studies on a regular basis.


Author: admin


  1. Hi,

    first: Nice Project, just added it to my Reader.

    The metaphor of a pinball game fits perfectly well. It is lose of control, losing control of either the customers, because they can interact with each other, but also the ball, meaning the marketing message.

    I believe that the need for “agile use of the flippers’’ is a huge challenge for marketing managers. It requires different, maybe more complicated skills. Also use of social media needs a change in corporate culture. Quick answers can’t be discussed with with every person before communication. “Agile use” requires flat hierarchies and more responsibility for every individual.

    Companies will have to restructure communication departments and train their staff for social media, not just set up a twitter or Facebook account. Otherwise we will see even more “Shit storms” than today…

    • I totally agree!

      Integrating social media into a company’s corporate culture is a huge challenge. Some good case studies of failures and successes are out there. Especially tech-companies have advantages over other industries (e.g. Dell ). The big question to me is, is it possible for all companies to restructure accordingly? And should they all do so? Last week, a little study on chances and obstacles of integrating social media platforms into your company has been released. I’ll introduce it within the next few days…

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.