Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Stop Asking for Trouble in Social Media--Lessons from #McDstories to #myNYPD

There is no sign that marketers live in their own bubbles of self interest quite like their eagerness to invite self-inflicted brand damage via hashtag and other User Generated Content (UGC) campaigns. There are right and wrong ways to unleash advocacy, and given the availability of so many examples of wrong ways, it is inexcusable for brands to repeat these mistakes (but many still will, just as the New York Police Department did yesterday).

It is easy to see how brand self-pity and self-interest can overcome caution and logic, leading to disaster. "Our detractors are too loud," goes the complaint. "But people love us," comes the retort. "All we need to do is ask people to tell others how great we are," is the idea offered with the best of intentions. Thus, the stage is set for a social media embarrassment.

The latest example comes from the New York Police Department. (In this case, the fault lies not with marketers but with Public Relations and Community Outreach professionals). The NYPD launched a hashtag campaign asking people to post photos of themselves and police officers tagged with #myNYPD.

The results were easy to foresee for anyone who has been paying attention to similar programs in the past. Along with some positive and supportive tweets (such as one from my friend, Charlie Isaacs) came a lot of attention-getting negative ones, like the 2012 photo of an officer shooting a dog as its owner lay nearby suffering a seizure.

Cops have tough jobs and do a lot of good, but someone at the NYPD should have known better. No matter what your organization is or does, asking people to talk about how terrific you are in social media is likely to generate a louder negative response than a positive one. Those who hijack branded hashtag and UGC programs run the gamut from true detractors who have had a bad experience to trolls who never miss a chance to have fun at the expense of an organization's reputation. Yesterday, it took just three hours to go from naive NYPD tweet to Twitter backlash to articles on sites like the NY Daily News, Washington Post, Mail Online and New York Magazine.

I am sure the NYPD regrets its hashtag request, but at least it can take comfort in the company it keeps. Much savvier and more highly compensated communication professionals have been tripped up by the same hubris and shortsightedness.

In 2012, it took just an hour for McDonald's to change course with its #McDStories hashtag program after the disastrous and predictable results.

In November, an embarrassed JP Morgan admitted its #AskJPM hashtag was a mistake. "#Badidea! Back to the drawing board!," its representative emailed the media.

A month earlier, British Gas stumbled in the exact same way with its #AskBG hashtag.

Celebrities are not immune from the dangers of asking for (and receiving) harsh questions and feedback in social media. Last year, R. Kelly invited fans to #AskRKelly, and the star can't have been happy with the outcome, as detractors referenced Kelly's past accusations of child pornography and rape.

Other notable brands have been tripped up in the same way. Walgreens used the #ILoveWalgreens hashtag and paid tweets in its 2012 battle with Express Scripts and ended up looking more desperate for the effort. In 2011, Qantas Airlines tried to drum up customer support with a #QantasLuxury hashtag contest and quickly regretted doing so just a month after grounding its fleet and stranding thousands of travelers due to labor issues. In 2009, Skittles turned over its home page to social media feeds, resulting in a string of off-brand and offensive tweets featured on the brand site. That same year, Starbucks launched a UGC campaign to encourage fans to post photos, but the brand lost control when union organizers and a documentary filmmaker encouraged people to post critical content with the #top3percent and #starbucks hashtags.

The grandaddy of brand social media hijackings may be the 2006 Chevy Tahoe debacle. Props to the automaker for experimenting so early and so boldly, but they ended up learning a painful lesson about UGC. The brand launched a website for customers to create their own ads using brand video clips. Problem is, Chevy also permitted users to enter their own text. Before long, the most popular videos were ones critical of the gas-guzzling vehicle, with taglines such as "Like this snowy wilderness? Better get your fill of it now. Then say hello to global warming."

So, why do so many smart people at large brands get tripped up in the same way time and again? Vanity, brand myopia and social media inexperience. It seems some marketers and social media professionals can get careless and caught up in their own brand goals, leaving them unaware of the checkered history these sorts of programs have had in social media.

How can your brand avoid these sorts of mistakes. Some brief tips include:

  • Don't make it about your brand; make it about your customers. Do not ask for positive tweets--earn them with positive product and service experiences.  As for questions, you do not need to ask for them and give your detractors a soapbox; you will get questions anyway without encouragement simply by being present and ready to respond to customer needs in social channels. If you want to encourage questions and educate consumers, do so in your own private community versus the uncontrollable and anonymous Twitter network.
  • Don't just focus on your promoters; keep the detractors in mind, also. It is too easy for marketers to get so wrapped up in the mistaken belief everyone has warm feelings toward the brand that they overlook the other side of the advocacy spectrum. Don't just think of the actions of your promoters and loyal customers; also consider how your detractors may use and misuse your hashtag campaigns and other social media marketing programs.
  • Moderate! We all recognize that authenticity is important nowadays, but that does not mean your brand must be so open that it harms itself. Build and host programs so that your brand can retain a level of control. (Hint: Twitter hashtag campaigns do not permit any control.) To be sure, moderation has risks, but with careful planning, brands can balance the authentic voice of the customer and appropriate brand protection.
  • Be honest with yourself about your brand's position in consumers' minds. Lots of brands talk about advocacy but few brands are so mission-driven, purpose-oriented or committed to the customer that they produce a large number of true advocates. Remember that advocacy does not come from a social media or ad campaign--it comes from who you are, what your brand stands for and its willingness to put customers ahead of profits. Start by creating advocates honestly before you try to unleash advocacy with a social media program. 
The NYPD had the right against self-incrimination, but it waived that right when it waded into social media with a dangerous and pleading hashtag request. Likewise, your brand may think it wants its customers to testify in social media, but make sure you do your due diligence before putting detractors on the stand. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Shame on Eat24 (and Why Your Brand Should Not Repeat Its Facebook Mistake)

I trust this blog post is unnecessary and that company leaders are smart enough to know they must maintain a presence on Facebook, regardless of the marketing challenges on the platform. But given that a small brand abandoning Facebook has been big news this week, a gentle caution may be in order.

In a shot heard round the social media world, food delivery company Eat24 lambasted Facebook for lying about brands' marketing opportunities, then deleted its Facebook fan page. I am sure a lot of frustrated and sympathetic marketers were jealous of Eat24's move. With organic reach getting harder to achieve, some marketers have been left wondering what the point is on Facebook.

The point is that your customers are there, and they have expectations, needs and questions. By deleting its fan page, Eat24 thought it was striking a blow against the Facebook "man," but the company sent an even more powerful and damning message to its customers. The company's actions were not a shot against Facebook (because the social network does not actually make money off of fan pages and organic posts) but against those 71,000 people who had liked the brand, as well as all future customers who might have wanted to interact with the company on Facebook.

Eat24 left a bitter and humorous post for Facebook before deleting its fan page, but here is what it really said to customers:
Dear Customers, 
We were not on Facebook for you but for us. Did you think we maintained our Facebook profile to listen or furnish value to you? Don't be silly--we were there to acquire new customers, and when you failed to help us do that, we decided you were no longer worth the effort. Your likes, shares and comments were of interest only to the extent we could exploit them for marketing gain, and frankly, you didn't help us very much, did you?
Did you expect to reach us with inquiries here on Facebook? We don't care--we were here for the free marketing, not to listen to your whiny requests, ideas, complaints or needs. Is Facebook a preferred channel for you to contact brands? Who cares--chase us to the platforms we prefer.
And to think we wasted all that time coming up uninteresting posts for you to ignore! Really, we expected so much better of you. Our Facebook fans have been a real disappointment, and we hope Twitter users will remember the one important thing about Eat24: We're not here for you; you're here for us! So get retweeting... or else!

The funny thing is that Eat24 thinks it has deleted its presence on Facebook, but it is still easy to find--only now the company is absent and unable to manage or protect its brand on the world's largest and most active social network. The primary brand page may be gone, but not this page. It was launched two weeks ago and looks like an Eat24 page, but is it? Customers are confused--one posted "Nice to see you back" and another added "I knew you'd be back"--but are fans liking an official company page or a page launched by a spammer? Who knows?

Of course, that is not the only Eat24 page. There's this page, also launched two weeks and looking quite official. And this one, apparently launched by a fan. And this one. And this one. Consumers expect brands to be on Facebook, and now when a customer goes searching for the company, there is no telling what they will find or to which pages they will connect.

If your brand is disappointed in the shrinking opportunities for earned media on Facebook, it ought to reconsider its options, but deleting the company page is not one of them. If you are investing too much in organic content that is not delivering the value desired, post less. (Problem solved!) Or reconsider if Facebook is really a marketing channel aside from the opportunities offered by its paid media offerings. Now is the right time to reassess if your Facebook page might be better suited for customer care, advocate programs and reputation management rather than for acquisition, awareness and conversion.

Does this look like abandoning customer
care on Twitter? 
My prediction is that Eat24 will be back; it would not be the first brand to make a big show of abandoning a social network, only to return with its tail between its legs. A year and a half ago, Charter Communications announced it would cease customer care on Twitter. At the time, I predicted Charter would reverse course, and it has. While the company has not relaunched a customer service profile, it is actively answering customer complaints and requests via its @Charter Twitter presence. Charter found it could not ignore customers' preferred channels, and Eat24 will likely learn the same lesson.

There was a time when companies threatened to abandon their early websites because the sites failed to drive the marketing value expected. Today, brand websites are less about marketing than sales, service, recruiting, education, investor relations and other business objectives. So, too, will it go with Facebook and other social platforms. Smart brands will find the right way to create value, both for the company and its customers.

I do not believe brands will follow Eat24's lead, because smarter and cooler heads will prevail. Eat24 has cut off its nose to spite its face, but smarter brands will sniff around for other ways to create value.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Ducking Responsibility: Marketers and Agencies Playing a Shameful Facebook Blame Game

In the last couple of months, as the organic reach of brands' Facebook posts plunged, some agency and marketing leaders have engaged in a game of blame shifting that I find distasteful and disingenuous.

'Facebook lied to us" seems to be what many marketers are saying; in fact, this is specifically what one company, Eat24, said as it deleted its Facebook fan page. A media executive accused Facebook of "one of the most lucrative grifts of all time" for, supposedly, urging brands to "purchase" fan bases and then charging those same brands to reach their fans through paid media. "Marketers feel tricked," my Forrester friend Nate Elliott recently noted.

To be sure, the decreasing opportunities in earned media have put agencies and marketers in an uncomfortable spot. For years, agencies promoted and marketers purchased programs to build fan bases on Facebook, and once that was accomplished, those same agencies and marketers invested still more money to exploit those fans with games, contests, real-time marketing newsrooms and content strategies. There has been a great deal of investment in "earned media" strategies on Facebook that now show little promise with paywalls going up and organic reach plunging.

Who is to blame if those strategies were ill advised and the benefits of earned media were overstated? Everyone with a frustrated boss or disenchanted client raising questions about Facebook's dwindling organic opportunities are certainly quite clear: Blame Facebook!

I am far less convinced this is where the blame lies. If you disagree, let me ask you a few questions:
  • Did you think social media changed basic consumer attitudes toward brands and marketing? Did you suppose that consumers who avoid marketing communications in every medium--skipping TV ads and abandoning commercial radio for subscription music services--where going to suddenly gravitate to brand content in social media?
  • What did you anticipate would occur as more brands pumped more content into Facebook? As brands multiplied and marketing posts expanded, did you imagine consumers would push aside their family and friends in order to embrace ever more marketing content? Or did you anticipate that your content was going to be that much better and more engaging than everyone else's, not just within your industry but across every brand, celebrity, news source and friend that your fans liked?
  • Who told you could reach most of your Facebook "fans" in the first place? When Facebook announced EdgeRank four years ago, did you understand what it meant to your organic reach? Did you recognize the significance of Facebook's announcement two years ago this week that Pages organically reach just 16% of their fans on average? Where did you get the impression that your brand could get free access to more of your fan base--was this expectation set by Facebook or by a vendor or agency?
  • Did you believe Facebook would set aside its own financial goals in order to help your brand achieve its goals? Did you expect Facebook to frighten off users by turning their news feeds into a constant flow of marketing communications at the behest of marketers? Or was it your expectation that your brand could make free money on Facebook while Facebook itself set aside its own financial objectives?
  • Who told you that harvesting large numbers of fans was the right strategy? When you were sold on a dubious program of giving away crap in Farmville or forcing disinterested people to "like" your brand in order to enter your sweepstakes, who was sitting across the marketing conference room table--was it Facebook execs or sales folks from an agency or vendor?
  • Who urged you to invest in Facebook content strategies? Was it Facebook that recommended you launch real-time newsrooms to spam customers' social discussions about events such as the Super Bowl or Oscars? To whom did you cut checks for all that content your brand developed for Facebook? Did Facebook get paid to develop all those viral videos, infographics, pictures of kittens and posts that asked your fans to "like if you drink coffee or comment if you prefer tea"?  (Thank heaven those desperate and useless bids for meaningless engagement will come to an end, now that Facebook is clamping down on such tactics.

Perhaps someone can dig up a rare Facebook post or some old Facebook sales deck that demonstrates the social network misled marketers, but I doubt there is much damning evidence to be found. At worst, Facebook seems guilty of failing to discourage inflated marketer expectations. (Of course, it was in its best interest not to.) Conversely, it is easy to find thousands upon thousands of blog posts, tweets and Slideshare decks from agencies, consultants and vendors painting an unrealistic picture of the future of earned media on Facebook and other social platforms.

Heck, as recently as three months ago, marketing media and agency bloggers were tripping over each other to praise the ridiculous Esurance Super Bowl Twitter sweepstakes, congratulating the brand for useless fans and valueless tweets. (In the months since, the brand has lost half of its new fans and is getting less engagement than before the misguided promotion.) This sort of mentality--than any fan, any post, any engagement drives brand value--is precisely what led us to the current level of disappointment in Facebook. Even as agencies and marketers are coming to realize the reality of earned media on Facebook, they are repeating the same mistakes in other social platforms!

Today, social media marketers are waking up with a Facebook hangover. They binged, partied, drunk-dialed consumers, posted regrettable selfies and damaged relationships while under the influence of free marketing via earned media. In the harsh reality of the morning after, it is easy to blame the bartender, but Facebook wasn't the one doing keg stands with your brands' content for the last several years.

"It's Facebook's fault" may be a convenient and safe excuse, but taking responsibility is the first step to a cure. Blaming Facebook may get marketers or agencies off the hook today, but if they repeat the same mistakes in Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Snapchat and the like, they will only end up with same painful hangover.

Today's unpleasant realization about organic opportunities on Facebook is not just a problem but a golden opportunity to reconsider social media strategies across all platforms. Marketers tested and they learned--the only failure at this point is to expect different results from the same strategies on other platforms. As noted in my last post, I urge marketers to consider what it means if everything they understand about social media marketing is wrong.

Rather than assign blame, now is a good time to take a fresh look at what social media is doing to brands rather than what it can do for brands. That is the mindset that can lead to a new, different and successful course for your brand's future social media strategies.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

What if Everything You Know About Social Media Marketing is Wrong?

What if everything you "know" about social media marketing is wrong? What would this mean to your upcoming and current social marketing programs? Better yet, what might it mean to your job?

If you are employed in social media marketing, it is time for a healthy dose of reality followed by some serious soul searching and career planning. Some of you are lucky enough to work in the rare companies that create advocates with great products, service and mission and thus are equipped to leverage social media for marketing gain; most work at companies that have inflated their opportunities in the medium and are floundering with their social media marketing and content strategies.

Here's the way a large number of social media professionals today go about justifying their programs, along with some recent data that may (and should) scare the hell out of you if you work in social media marketing:

  • Consumers welcome brands' social media marketing. Untrue: A recent study by Kentico found that 68% of US consumers “mostly” or “always” ignore brand posts on every social network. A recent study of US college students by Concentric found that "nearly half stated they didn't believe brands should be on social media or they didn't personally follow brands" and "nearly 70% report following three or fewer brand across all social media." A 2013 YouGov survey found that "most social media users feel negatively towards marketing strategies by companies on social media sites, with 35% saying that they often hide companies’ updates if they update too often." And a global research study commissioned by Pitney Bowes recently found that 83% of consumers have had a bad experience with social media marketing.
  • Forrester found consumers have substantially less trust in
    companies's social posts than they do of company websites.
  • Consumers find trustworthy the information shared by brands in social media. Untrue: In 2013, an Adobe study found that just 2% of US consumers felt that company social media pages were best for credibility, a figure almost 90% lower than the credibility of company websites or traditional advertising. Forrester's recent data demonstrates that just 15% of US consumers trust the social media posts of brands, half the rate at which consumers trust information on company websites. Likewise, Nielsen recently found that ads on social networks were among the least trusted form of advertising, significantly lower than trust in ads viewed in traditional media.
  • Consumers who follow brands are interested prospects, making social an acquisition channel for brands. Untrue: The 2013 Adobe study found that more than half of consumers indicate they like brands because they already purchase from them while just than one in six US consumers indicate they like brands on Facebook because they aspire to buy from those brands. A 2013 YouGov study of UK consumers found that "the followers / likers of companies are most likely to be current customers (33%) whose primary motivation is a desire to get something in return (34%)." Digital consultancy L2 studied nearly 250 prestige brands and found that over four years, less than 0.25% of new customers had been acquired through Facebook and less than .01% from Twitter; this compares to almost 10% for paid search and 7% for email marketing. Moreover, L2 found that "customers acquired via social channels register lower lifetime value than customers acquired via search."
  • Every fan and follower has value, because they reflect brand affinity and are a leading indicator of future success.  Untrue: There is no social media sacred cow more hallowed than this, yet this belief remains largely unstudied. I've tackled the issue twice. In 2012, I evaluated the 40 companies with the greatest Facebook fan counts that were both tracked by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) and publicly traded. I found a modest negative correlation (-0.3) between Facebook fans and customer satisfaction and no correlation (-0.1) between Facebook fans and stock performance. I repeated a similar evaluation last month, studying the stock performance of the companies with the top 50 brand accounts on Twitter; I found the average performance of these companies was no better than the NASDAQ index and their median performance was significantly below the NASDAQ index.

    This data is supported by plenty of empirical evidence; for example, Lady Gaga's ARTPOP saw disappointing sales despite the fact she heavily promoted the release via her Twitter profile, the fourth most popular profile on the service. Blackberry has collapsed, despite being one of the most popular brands on Twitter with 4 million followers. Dippin' Dots declared bankruptcy mere days after collecting its 5 millionth Facebook fan. And Facebook likes were found to have little to no correlation to election results in the 2010 gubernatorial and House races. I continue to believe that fans earned authentically with the right brand purpose, products and services deliver value, but so many companies have "bought" meaningless fans with deals, discounts, sweepstakes and freebies that there is no correlation to be found between fans/followers and business outcomes.
  • Social Media content increases purchase intent. Untrue: While some social media content can deliver sales (see the mention of @DellOutlet in yesterday's post), there is no evidence that the vast majority of brand content leads to any demonstrable increase in purchase behavior. The Kentico study found that 72% “never” or “hardly ever” purchase a product after hearing about it on a social network. A 2013 PwC study found that only 18% purchased a product as a result of information obtained through a social media site. This finding is similar to YouGov's finding that just 13% of all social media users have bought something as a result of reading something on social media sites.

    None of these self-reported data points are very encouraging, but the measured data on social driving purchases is even worse. IBM tracked purchases across 800 retail sites and reported that social media drove just 1% of last year's Black Friday online purchases. Meanwhile, Experian reports that social media sites, despite being the most popular sites on the Web, account for a mere 7.7% of all traffic to retail Websites (and Pinterest drives more traffic than either Facebook or Twitter).
  • The sad tale of organic reach on Facebook,
    as told by Social@Ogilvy
  • Earned media is a growing way to reach consumers. Untrue: Facebook remains by leaps and bounds the place where consumers do most of their socializing (capturing 57% of all social visits according to Experian and consuming more than twice as much time as any other social site per Nielsen), but earned media on Facebook is dying. Social@Ogilvy has found that brands have suffered a 50% decline in reach in the past six months, and Facebook is warning marketers to expect further declines. Ogilvy predicts "the end of organic reach" is coming. Perhaps other social platforms will furnish better reach, but with the marketers pushing large quantities of brand content at consumers with little interest in seeing marketing in their social feeds, the recipe for success does not look encouraging. 

The time has come to start preparing for a marketing reassessment of the value of social media and earned media. While it was acceptable to experiment and make assumptions five years ago when social media was young, it is no longer tolerable (nor is it wise to your career) to believe and repeat the same tired, unfounded and incorrect notions.

Why do so many marketers believe things about social media marketing that are not supported by the data? In part, it is because an entire social media marketing industry has blossomed in the last seven years, and it is far more lucrative for this army of agencies, consultants, authors and speakers to sell marketers on earned media and content strategies than to acknowledge the woeful data or track record. As Upton Sinclair once said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

Also, marketers tend to make the mistake of thinking their own behaviors and that of consumers are alike, but they are not. Exact Target's 2013 study "Marketers from Mars" found that marketers were 50% more likely than consumers to like a brand on Facebook, 400% more likely to follow brands on Twitter, 100% more likely to make a purchase as a result of seeing something on Facebook and 150% more likely to have completed a purchase as a result of a tweet. Marketers have done a better job of selling themselves on the value of social media marketing than they have of selling social media users on the value of their products and services.
Exact Target found that Marketers see substantially more
value in content than do Consumers. 

Not only are marketers' social behaviors vastly different than consumers', they also have much greater confidence in content than do consumers. In the same study, marketers and consumers were asked where their favorite companies should invest more of their marketing time and resources to improve customer loyalty. Marketers were almost 80% more likely to cite content about products and 280% more likely to see content about related topics as a driver of consumer preference.

So, is it time for marketers to dismantle their social teams and abandon their social strategies? I've suggested as much in the past (and I'm hardly alone in this), but I'd like to close this blog post on a (slightly) more positive note. Rather than treating the title of this post--"What if Everything You Know About Social Media Marketing is Wrong?"-- as if it is rhetorical, let's instead answer the question.

The secret to successful social media marketing--and to protecting your job--is not to bury your head in the sand, ignore the data and continue building strategies based on deeply flawed assumptions. Instead, toss out all the faulty suppositions and start from scratch.  The key to success is not to assume that social media is a marketing channel but to assume it isn't. Watch what happens if we take that same list of unsupported beliefs and turn them on their head:

  • Consumers DO NOT welcome brands' social media marketing:  My brand must approach customers and prospects with great respect for their time and intelligence. We should stop posting silly "like this if you're glad it's Friday" and "Happy National Bubble Week" posts and instead provide content and functions that are worthy of people's time and attention.
  • Consumers DO NOT find trustworthy the information shared by brands in social media.  We cannot take it as a matter of fact that anything our brand shares will be found credible. Instead of investing so much in content that our brand broadcasts in social media, we should strive to give our customers a greater voice--after all, people believe each other, not brands.
  • Consumers who follow brands ARE NOT interested prospects, and social is a WEAK acquisition channel for brands.  My fans and followers are not prospects but are, for the most part, existing customers. Our strategies should not focus on filling the top of the funnel but on loyalty, repurchase and advocacy.
  • Every fan and follower DOES NOT have value, and merely having fans IS NOT a leading indicator of future success.  Our brand should not try to collect the largest fan or follower base but should target a smaller set of the right people. Rather than attract people interested in contests and sweepstakes, we should strive to engage with customers interested in our company, its mission and its products and services. A smaller fan base of more valuable consumers trumps a large fan base of disinterested people who hide, ignore or do not see our posts.
  • Social Media content DOES NOT increase purchase intent. A funny viral video or clever Vine may accumulate lots of likes, but if it does not drive meaningful consideration or increased purchase intent, then it is worthless marketing. We must stop settling for content that we think keeps our brands "top of mind" and instead work harder to change minds! Even more vital is that we must reconsider our metrics--social media is a relationship medium, not a direct marketing channel. Unless we care to measure results in long-term metrics such as consideration, NPS, preference and the like, we have poor alignment between our marketing investments and objectives.
  • Earned media IS NOT a growing way to reach consumers. In the early days of the social era, we all had high hopes for earned media, but just as consumers avoid and ignore ads in other media, so too are they escaping the reach of organic marketing content in social media. Social media marketing requires an investment in paid media, and that means we have to get much better at knowing what content and interactions deliver value (and are worth putting money behind) and what do not. 
Assume this is the attitude of your social
audience, and you may just succeed.
(photo credit: Alicakes* via photopin cc)
Tossing out all the baseless assumptions makes the job of social media marketing much more difficult, but it also forces us to build stronger, better strategies from the ground up. Too many social media marketers have fallen into ruts, and this has resulted in brands vomiting a useless flow of jokey, unmemorable, indistinct and unpersuasive posts and tweets. We have to stop posting content for content's sake and start developing strategies designed to succeed. 

The investment in social media marketing has risen over the course of years, and so have the expectations. Either we change how we approach social media strategy, or CMOs will soon change the people responsible for those strategies. 

If you assume social media is a marketing channel full of interested consumers hungry for our content and ready to purchase, then any strategy makes sense (and will almost certainly fail.) This is the path to career pain.

Social media is not a marketing channel. If you can build social strategies that are designed to triumph despite that fact, then you are on your way to securing your career in social media marketing.

But take heed: The goal of this difficult process should not merely be to determine what your brand's marketing strategies ought to be in social media but if it should even be trying. By starting with clearheaded and factual knowledge about the difficulties, the investments required and the long-term metrics that are best aligned to social media strategies, it may lead you to determine social media is best left to others in the organization.

Whatever your decision, just make sure it is one supported in facts and not naive myths and false promises. Your brand's future and your career depends on it. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Problem With Social Media Case Studies

We all love a good case study, don't we? Especially in the social media business, where results can be difficult to measure and prove, there is nothing more validating than knowing someone else has succeeded and can show us the way.

Problem is, despite years of experience and thousands of case studies promoted by agencies, consultants and speakers, most companies are still struggling with their social media strategies. How is this possible when there are so many good case studies to be found?

One problem with case studies is the way marketers use them. There has been a tendency to latch onto any successful case study as an archetype for success, but case studies are not best practices. For example, I can present a case study on how dropping out of high school led to success for people like Walt Disney, Sir Richard Branson and David Karp, but that does not make skipping school a good idea. The same is true for many social case studies; social media professionals may love to learn how Coke or Starbucks succeed in social media, but how many brands can leverage the existing marketing spend, reputation and consumer affinity of brands such as those?

Several years ago, a consultant was pitching my team at a financial services company and offered Dell Outlet's Twitter strategy as a relevant case study. I stopped her and asked how Dell's use of Twitter to sell refurbished hardware was pertinent to us in the banking and insurance business. The consultant was unable to answer that, and it made me wonder how many times that case study had caught the attention of marketing professionals who had absolutely no opportunity to use that knowledge within their own business or vertical. Who cares how much money Dell Outlet made on Twitter if your company cannot promote reconditioned product via a Twitter account?

Aside from how they are used, many case studies suffer from one or more problems that limit their value. First, most are produced to promote an organization's or person's products or services. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it should cause us to approach the information with a healthy dose of caution and to question if we are getting the full and complete story.

Second, most case studies, particularly in social media, do not close the loop in terms of both costs and benefits. It is rare to see case studies with dollar signs--either for investments or returns--and this means most case studies are less business examples than they are entertaining stories. After six years dedicated to social business, I cannot stand to see one more case study measured in new fans or retweets. (And neither should you!)

My greatest concern with case studies, however, is that most simply do not hold up to any sort of scrutiny. Hungry for evidence of social media success, marketers have been far too eager to drink the social media Kool-Aid.

Take, for example, Dell, which everyone widely recognizes as an organization that has transformed itself into a model social business. The brand famously initiated social listening and customer care in response to the firestorm created by Jeff Jarvis's June 2005 blog post "Dell Lies. Dell Sucks." Since then, the organization has been a model of social innovation--Dell made millions with its @DellOutlet Twitter handle; it launched Dell Ideastorm to co-innovate with consumers; it deployed a social listening command center; and it used social listening to recognize and immediately resolve concerns with XPS 13 pricingIn 2011 when Forrester went looking for the most socially mature "Empowered" companies, Dell was an obvious choice for the short list.

Just one question: Where is the evidence of Dell's success? Since June 2005 when Jarvis posted his criticism of Dell until October 2013 when Dell went private, the company's stock dropped 66%. Over the same period, other tech stocks performed much better: Hewlett Packard stock was even, Cisco was up 17%, IBM up 138% and Apple (one of the least social businesses around) was up 1249%. What, exactly, makes Dell such a worthwhile and repeatable example of social success (other than really, really good PR)?

Many other well-known case studies collapse pretty easily when you dig a little deeper. I was quite critical of Esurance's Super Bowl sweepstakes a few months ago because so many bloggers and journalists went gaga for the big numbers reported by the brand. (Why is it when accountants see suspiciously high numbers, they question them, but when marketers do, they immediately tweet, share and blog about them?) I questioned the business and brand value of the tweets made to enter a social sweepstakes, but some people criticized my analysis by pointing out Esurance boosted its follower count from 10,000 to more than 260,000.

It's worthwhile to look at how the brand is doing almost two months later: The account has since lost half its new followers. Even more damning is this: Esurance started promoting its upcoming sweepstakes via its Twitter account on January 27. In the prior seven days, with just 10,000 followers, the company tweeted 12 times and received an average of 14 replies, 9 retweets and 71 favorites. In the last seven days, despite having 1300% more followers than before their sweepstakes, the account has tweeted 25 times and received an average of 4 replies, 3 retweets and 3 favorites. Following the brand's $5 million program, the Esurance account is getting less engagement. Why? Because those new followers are not prospects, advocates or customers; they were nothing but random people who wanted to win an easy $1.5 million!

It isn't just positive case studies that suffer from problems; some of the most well-known negative case studies do not stand up to evaluation, either. As I have written in the past, some of the most famous "social media crises" left no signs of adverse business impact. United Breaks Guitars has been cited thousands of times as proof of how a social media PR crisis can damage a brand, but if it did, there is little evidence to be found; in the six months following the release of the "United Breaks Guitars" video, the company's stock outperformed competitors Delta and US Airways by more than 150%.

How about the backlash that Chick-fil-A faced after people objected to comments from its CEO about the biblical definition of the family unit?  Consumer use of the chain was up 2.2 percent in the quarter following his comments, market share rose 0.6 percent, and total ad awareness was up 6.5 percent.

Or what about the Bank Transfer Day backlash against Bank of America's debit card fee? While credit unions reported picking up $4.5 billion in new deposits, Bank of America saw average deposit balances rise 500% more--an increase of nearly $25 billion in the same fiscal quarter as Bank Transfer Day. As for BoA's stock, in the six months following Bank of America's disastrous fee announcement, shares rose 51% while the Dow Jones increased just 22%.

United Breaks Guitars, Chick-fil-A and Bank Transfer Day are oft-cited examples of social media crises that damaged companies, but as case studies, they are pretty toothless. When in the midst of a social PR problem, it is easy for bloggers and journalists to attract clicks, make unsubstantiated conclusions and declare the situations to be cautionary case studies for others, but how many of these same authors go back months later and look for the short- or long-term impact?

Good case studies are woven from reality and facts and do not disintegrate the moment you pick at one thread. Demand and question more, and we can begin to separate the wheat from the chaff.