As you review all of the inevitable blog posts this month that list 2014's top PR blunders and Social Media #Fail examples, ask yourself if these mistakes were ones caused by an exploration of untested strategies in a new medium or an inability to apply (or perhaps believe) the available data and lessons learned? I think you will find yourself agreeing with me--this year's crop of social media errors and disasters are no different than last year's--same causes, same mistakes, same outcomes. It's all been said before.
The same can be said for this year's success stories in social media. Thousands of brands ran social media promotions, shared content on social networks and maintained blogs and podcasts. How many can claim demonstrable success and offer repeatable examples for others to follow? And for the rare ones that can, did they get there with some wildly innovative strategy or by the same customer-focused, data-driven, omni-channel process that worked in social media in 2013 (and pretty much every other medium before that)? It's all been said before.
Some may argue that the rise of Instagram was a new and exciting development this year for brands, but is this really true? I mean, sure, your brand can chase the higher engagement presently available on Instagram, but by this time next year we will be talking about how paid media is pushing aside organic content and griping about the declining engagement rates on that platform, just as we are about Facebook today. It's all been said before.
If chasing weary, disinterested and distrusting consumers from one new social network to another sounds like effective marketing strategy, feel free to pursue it, but you will need to pardon me for not sharing in your enthusiasm. I aspire to be a brand and business builder, not an engagement hacker.
The news about the higher engagement rates on Instagram is hardly the only recent instance when I saw some newsworthy social media situation, considered sharing my perspective on my blog, and ultimately rejected the idea. The reason is that I can no longer find a way to cover this space without resorting to cutting and pasting words and messages I have already shared before. For example:
- I could have written about the blowback Bill Cosby faced attempting to deflect attention from his disgusting rape scandal by asking Twitter users to hilariously meme him. But why would I once again address the dangers of asking the crowd for feedback or action. We do not need to learn over and over that consumers have their own minds and will take it upon themselves to reveal the truth whenever brands and celebs think they can manipulate the truth away.
- I could have composed a post about how idiotic it was for Lena Dunham to threaten legal action if Truth Revolt did not take down a blog post containing excerpts from Dunham's biography. (As I'm sure you know, Dunham wrote that she did "anything a sexual predator might do to woo a small suburban girl" with her younger sister, which begs the question if her editor was incompetent or powerless.) Of course, her threats of legal action only fueled the backlash Dunham faced, a completely predictable outcome. I have written about the Streisand Effect more than once in the past, and I cannot bring myself to repeat yet again that brands attempting to use legal means to make criticism disappear will only multiply it, instead.
- I could have been inspired to write a blog post about how Facebook is yet again changing the rules on brands, squeezing out posts that are overly promotional, but I have repeatedly shared the data that demonstrates Facebook's organic reach is dying. I simply cannot find a fresh way of saying that organic content strategy on Facebook is a shrinking proposition and will grow ever weaker and less valuable as fewer consumers see unpaid brand posts in their news feeds.
- I could have pointed out the embarrassment of singer Rita Ora receiving just 2,000 retweets after promising her 3.9 million Twitter fans a new song in exchange for 100,000 retweets. The popular singer, whose collaboration with Iggy Azalea hit the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart this year, asked for just 2.5% engagement and got 0.05%. She later claimed her account was hacked, a laughable and humiliating attempt to save face. Does anyone need to read one more post about how "fans" and "followers" are not advocates to be managed and exploited?
- I could have explored how Digiorno, in its desperation to be fast and real-time, plunged the brand into a terrible PR blunder by making light of a hashtag people were using to explore domestic violence. But why author yet another cautionary blog post about the idiocy of real-time marketing and how brands are unwelcome, spammy and embarrassing when they try to co-opt consumer discussions for their own brand value?
- I could have written that attempts to replicate the Ice Bucket Challenge have all fallen flat, despite the fact hundreds of blog posts by consultants and agencies claimed there was something for marketers to learn from the A.L.S. success. Of course, viral success is not some marketing equation to be repeated, which is why chances are you have never heard of the "Lather Against Ebola Challenge," "Rice Bucket Challenge" or "Pay My Tuition" challenge. I couldn't motivate myself to again say that crowds are unpredictable and memes are impossible to manufacture.
- I could have authored a blog post about how the Center for Strategic and International Studies blamed an intern for tweeting a message to Amnesty International to "suck it." After some consideration, I decided there was no need to again state the obvious risks of allowing young and inexperienced social media professionals to represent brands without the right review and approval processes in place.
- I briefly thought about writing how GOP Communications Director Elizabeth Lauten lost her job after making an ill-advised Facebook post, but I have already shared guidance for people to minimize the career risks inherent with social media participation. Lauten was experienced and smart enough to know she was violating professional norms by criticizing the president's daughters, and no one should need another reminder that thoughtless tweeting can jeopardize their careers.
The secret to social media success (and failure) is no longer secret. Companies need to stop talking and start listening. They need to stop broadcasting and start responding. They need to stop posting to people and instead encourage people to start talking with each other. They need to stop promoting new products in social media and instead use social to collaborate when developing new products. They need to stop publishing content they hope people will share and instead give people product experiences consumers actually want to share. They need stop trying to be entertaining in social media and instead offer great customer care in the channel. They need to stop counting fans and tallying engagement and start creating advocates and measuring business value. And finally, brands need to stop positioning themselves as more caring, more transparent and more committed to the customer and instead be more caring, more transparent and more committed to the customer.
If you find yourself nodding your head with that last paragraph, take a moment to parse the first part of each sentence from the second. The first part describes marketing activities (broadcasting, promoting, publishing content, being entertaining, tallying engagement, positioning) while the second part describes activities outside of marketing (listening, responding, product development, customer service, earning advocacy, being better corporate citizens). Therein lies my growing weariness with the topic of social media marketing--marketing is literally the least interesting thing brands can do in social media.
To me, that describes the big shift underway (both in the world and on my blog). Social media remains a powerful force reshaping our lives and companies, but that does not mean it is a powerful marketing tool. So, as I have in 2014, I will continue to focus on how customer experience drives great results (in social and elsewhere) and how social behaviors and technologies are reshaping consumption and business models in the collaborative economy. But whether some brand did a cute Vine or got 500 shares of its hilarious Instagram picture is no longer very interesting to me (and I am frankly unsure why it would be interesting to anyone else).
I said I hate to repeat myself, but here are a couple of things that bear repeating: Social media is not a megaphone for brands; it is a mirror. It does not give your brand "a voice"; it gives consumers a voice they can use to share their good and bad brand experiences. It does not allow you to fashion messages that change minds; it reflects what the brand is and does in a way that changes minds (or, more likely, not).
If you want better brand results in social media in 2015, do less marketing in the channel and find ways to treat your customers better. The brands that will succeed this coming year will not be the ones developing content and leveraging Instagram but the ones developing better relationships via product and services in consumers' real and digital worlds.