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.
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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.
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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.
Beyond Facebook and Twitter
When people think social media, they automatically think Facebook and Twitter. But social business involves more than barking at customers. Within your business you can engage customers, employees, partners, and suppliers through a variety of public and private social software platforms, and these can have a clear, tangible return on investment in the immediate term. Regardless of whether Facebook makes sense for your marketing plan, consider giving the people you actually do business with a way to interact with your company directly.
Setting up a customer community on your Website (actively monitored and curated by your customer service team) can radically reduce your support overhead, giving your most loyal customers a chance to share their knowledge of your products with those who are just learning to love you. It can also yield valuable market insights that you can collect and aggregate into a clearer view of how your products are perceived outside your office walls.
Likewise, creating open social channels between your internal staff and your external suppliers can strengthen essential relationships and give your business the agility to respond quickly to new opportunities. Internally you can improve communication about your business processes and do a better job of sharing institutional knowledge by launching social tools on your intranet.
The single biggest reason that most businesses fail at social media (in the sense that they get little out of it relative to the resources exhausted), according to Fauscette, is that they neglect to think holistically about what social media is. In thinking of social as merely a Facebook page or a Twitter profile, businesspeople ignore a far larger world of legitimate business tools that can reliably ratchet up productivity while cutting operating costs down. Connecting your sales staff directly to your suppliers may not be as buzzworthy as scraping together 50,000 Twitter followers, but it likely offers a more provable return on the investment in time and labor.
Radian 6 and Lithium stand out as clear choices for social media monitoring on the marketing side. Salesforce–which is buying Radian 6– now includes powerful social listening tools that can help reps get a closer look at the social streams of their prospects–in the hands of an intuitive closer, knowing that a client recently recently got married, or is about to take a vacation, can be all the intel necessary to lock down a deal.
A recent IDC social business adoption survey found that businesses boosted productivity by 11 to 30 percent when implementing social tools within the operational side of the business.
To find the opportunities that make sense for your business, start by getting your team together. Too often, particularly in larger companies, social media campaigns start at an almost grassroots level within an organization. That may sound cool, but as each department starts its own profile and dupes some underling into hammering out a few tweets a day or posting polls on a Facebook wall, the company could have a half dozen schizophrenic personalities bleating mixed messages into the marketplace by the time any two department leaders actually attempt to coordinate their efforts in line with a larger set of coherent goals.
“Get your company’s internal departments in sync first,” says Michael Fauscette. “Siloed companies are not going to succeed in an open social environment.”
Fauscette’s generalization may not hold in all cases–just look to Dell for an example of a company that met with widespread social media success despite what appeared to be a fairly ad hoc early effort on Facebook and Twitter. The company has clearly centralized its social media efforts since that time; it now integrates public-facing social streams into its partner-specific communities in a cohesive way, and delivers customer support via social tools.
My point here is that, while spontaneous social media plays can succeed, in general they stand less chance than well-planned efforts. You can pull together your spontaneous efforts into a more coherent plan once you’re already in the game, but the best planning will examine your entire business from the outset.
So, regardless of whether you already have a few social streams in place or you’re still standing on the shore preparing to jump in, take the time to build a comprehensive plan that can serve your entire business. You could find that your best option isn’t on Twitter at all, but on your own Website.
And it may very well turn out that your customer service group–rather than your marketing staff–is the best crew to execute the plan. That’s the kind of valuable insight you almost certainly would not get if you just left the planning process in the hands of the marketing department as most business do.
Here to Stay
Social media isn’t even close to declining–let alone fading away. So even if you’ve made a few efforts that fizzled, you have ample reason to take a step back, look at the broader field of social tools available to your business, and make a strategic push back into fray. By bringing all of the leaders within your business together to find the best opportunities and to set clear, measurable goals, you can draw tangible benefits from the social Web without buying into the hype.