The launch of Twitter in 2006 sparked a social media frenzy that shows no signs of slowing down. But if you ask the average business manager what social is doing for their company, chances are they'll be hard-pressed to give you a clear answer. And despite some notable success stories, most companies that have tried to launch social marketing campaigns have realized few material benefits from the effort and expense invested. Has social business run its course?
Rather than make you read two more pages of text to get to the answer, I'll just offer it up right here: No.
Social media is still very much on the upswing. Twitter and Facebook are still growing, and their collective influence in the marketplace is now stronger than ever. The real reason most businesses struggle with social media is that they underestimate the complexity and depth of the social Web, and fail to fully comprehend the potential of social tools before they dive in.
Fools Rush In
Two years ago I wrote a commentary entitled "Beware the Social Media Charlatans." In it I addressed the still-common problem of unqualified social media consultants preying on businesses in the rush to the social Web. That post met with some pretty heated responses, mostly from social media consultants. But I believe that history has proven the validity of my warning.
Raise your hand if social media has transformed your business for the better. (If you actually work in the social media business, keep your hand down.)
My point here is simple: For every wild success story about a taco truck skyrocketing to fame or a pizza place making its name on Twitter, there are untold thousands of companies that followed the advice of overpriced social marketing gurus, invested crucial time and human resources into tweeting their hearts out, and ended up with nothing to show for it.
I had my own hunches about why this was so, but I called IDC analyst Michael Fauscette, well known for his research on social business, to get his take. "It started as a marketing fad," says Fauscette. "A lot of companies decided they had to do it before they knew what it was they had to do."
In some cases the hubris of cavalier social media campaigns proved disastrous. Take Nestle, which underwent a public beating on its Facebook page last year over its business practices in harvesting palm oil. When activists for Greenpeace decided to use the company's fan page as a platform to attack the company, the response from Nestle proved slow and ham-fisted, compounding the PR damage that Greenpeace inflicted.
In all likelihood, Nestle thought that Facebook would be a low-cost, easy way to generate some buzz for its brand. Had the Nestle marketing staff put more energy into considering all the implications of an open social platform, however, they might have taken into account the possibility that not everyone on Facebook loves the company. The social Web is an open forum, and it can generate as much negative sentiment as positive.
"It's about training your people to respond appropriately," says Fauscette. Had Nestle's Facebook page been manned by someone with the training to respond to sensitive situations, that Greenpeace fiasco might have turned out very differently. A quick assurance that the company was aware of the problem and working toward a solution could have spared Nestle a lot of embarrassment.
The biggest problem underlying both Nestle's abysmal Facebook failure and the general inability of most companies to get traction in social marketing is that most businesses ignore the open nature of social media. Rather than recognize Facebook and Twitter as places where people can talk to their brand, and talk about their brand to other users, most businesspeople think of their social streams as a free broadcast booth from which to shout their marketing message. This is foolhardy.
It's a Listening Party
In the majority of cases, a failed social campaign won't be disastrous, just wasteful. On the advice of some self-styled Twitter "expert," a business will pay a low-level marketing employee to tweet positive messages about the brand at arbitrary intervals (often following some fuzzy math that smacks of numerology). After several months the progress report will go something like, "Yay. We're up to 15,348 followers now." But so what?
In itself, follower count is not necessarily a sign of social media success--15,348 followers doesn't really mean anything as a raw number, even for a very small company. What matters is whether you can use that following to move your brand toward actual marketing goals. In other words, are those followers more likely to buy your products or influence others to do so? More important, how do you know?
Social media is at least as much about listening as it is about following. And while you should almost certainly be posting something for your followers to engage with, you should be investing even more effort into listening to what other people are saying about your brand--whether they're following you or not.
Knowing what customers and noncustomers think of your company and your products (and what they say about you online) is likely to be at least as valuable to your marketing effort as spewing an endless stream of slogans and broadcasting your latest deals.
The takeaway here: Rather than pay someone just to think up clever 140-character messages throughout the day, sit them in front of some social media monitoring software and have them directly engage the people who are already talking about you. Meanwhile, take the opportunity to gather and understand this feedback about your brand.
And, as Michael Fauscette so wisely points out, make sure you've trained that person to hold up your end of the dialogue, wherever it may go. A compassionate, savvy communicator who understands and respects the power of social business can turn outspoken critics into raving fans. An overworked assistant who has been saddled with social media duties without the benefit of adequate training or resources can turn outspoken critics into mortal enemies.
Next Page: Moving Beyond Facebook and Twitter, and Creating a Smarter Social Business Plan