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 pricing. In 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.

The Complete Facebook Success Formula Every Marketer Should Know

At the f8 Developer Conference in April 2010, two Facebook engineers shared Facebook’s EdgeRank formula, and since then most marketers have misinterpreted how to apply it to their own brand challenges. Simply put, this is Facebook’s equation, not your brand’s. This formula reveals how Facebook determines what will appear in users’ newsfeeds, but it does not tell your brand what is needed to drive business success on Facebook.

What Facebook shared about EdgeRank is important for marketers to understand, but it is merely a portion of the Facebook brand success formula. It is a little like the owner’s manual for your car, which is helpful for learning how to operate the vehicle but does not tell you how to successfully, safely and efficiently get from point A to point B. Marketers must recognize EdgeRank, both for what it is and what it is not.

What is EdgeRank? 

EdgeRank is Facebook’s secret sauce. It is designed to make the site as useful, engaging and sticky as possible. Its purpose is not to enhance marketers’ experiences but users’ (which ultimately benefits Facebook itself with more traffic and ad revenue, of course.)

You are probably aware that when you sign on to Facebook, your newsfeed is not simply a stream of every friend’s and brand’s posts in reverse chronological order. Facebook knows that you would not find a raw stream of posts very interesting–you are fonder of some friends than others, and not everything your friends post is equally appealing– and so Facebook filters your newsfeed. Based on your past interactions on the platform, Facebook knows who and what you find most relevant, and it applies this knowledge to make your newsfeed as interesting as possible. (For the record, I think Facebook’s current EdgeRank formula does a good job, but it has a long way to go before its filtering feels as natural and accurate as it should for users.)

To understand how EdgeRank works, you first must realize that everything that occurs on Facebook is an “edge” in the parlance of Facebook. Which of your friends’ edges you see in your newsfeed and which ones Facebook omits depend on three factors:

Ue:Affinity between user and edge creator: Facebook monitors how much you interact with friends and brands. Those people and brands that earn your engagement–liking, sharing, commenting and so on–are more likely to appear in your newsfeed. The people and brands you tend to ignore eventually disappear because Facebook (correctly) interprets that you simply do not find their content interesting.

Right off the bat, you can see the enormous challenge for brands: How can a brand possibly be as interesting to a user as his or her own friends? You can see this challenge demonstrated within your own personal newsfeed–you are presented with posts made by your friends much more often than from brands you have liked. In fact, many of the brands you have “liked” never appear in your newsfeed. This is not (just) Facebook’s way to encourage brands to use paid sponsored posts to increase visibility; instead, it is the reality of your own Facebook habits. You find the people in your life more interesting than brands, and Facebook recognizes and reflects your authentic affinity.

We:Weight for this edge: Every one of us reacts with different types of content differently–you may love videos, I may enjoy photos and someone else may prefer text. This means each content type has a different “weight” for each user. In addition, as an “edge” gains comments and likes, it gains more “weight;” thus, as others interact with an edge, it increases the likelihood that edge will appear in other people’s newsfeeds. The more your brand posts match topics and content type to users’ interests, the greater the weight of your content and the higher the likelihood your content will appear in fans’ newsfeeds.

De:Time decay factor for this edge: The last of Facebook’s EdgeRank attributes is a simple one: The more recent the post, the more likely you are to see it. You do not often launch Facebook and see something posted a week ago. Facebook knows that we are all real-time junkies–if a band is hot, a TV show is great, a meme is growing or our friends found a great party, we must know now!

Facebook’s EdgeRank is not rocket science–the more affinity an individual has for your brand, the more interest he or she has for the types of content your brand posts, the more others find your content engaging and the more timely your posts, the greater your brand’s chances of being included in a fan’s newsfeed. While this all seems obvious, marketers must take note of several vital things about EdgeRank:

  • Facebook does not exist to give your brand the opportunity for free earned media. Its purpose is to give users a great social experience, which may include the brands that authentically earn their attention.
  • The same rules apply to people as to brands. If your brand posts interesting content that gets people engaging, the content is seen in more users’ newsfeeds. If not…
  • A brand that fails to engage fans can disappear from fans’ newsfeeds. If this happens…
  • Your brand can become invisible on Facebook. Consumers rarely visit brand pages; in fact, Facebook reports that fans are 40 to 150 times more likely to interact with brands on their newsfeeds than going to a brand page. If you disappear from consumers’ newsfeeds, you disappear from Facebook.
  • EdgeRank is Facebook’s formula for keeping users’ newsfeeds as interesting and relevant as possible, but this is far from the entire equation for brand success on Facebook. Two key components for Facebook marketing success are missing, and far too many marketers overlook these.

Missing Facebook Attribute #1: Fans that matter

What is missing? Well the first thing should be evident:  Fans, but not just any fans, the right fans.

Not all fans are created equal, although you would not know this given some of the relatively desperate methods brands use to accumulate “fans.” EdgeRank tells us that brands must collect signals of affinity as quickly as possible, so the primary goal in your brand’s fan accumulation strategy should not be raw numbers of fans but collecting the right fans–ones that arrive with some level of affinity or immediate potential for affinity.

An interested customer is likely to interact with your brand, which tells Facebook he or she wants to see more from your brand. On the other hand, a disinterested fan fails to interact, resulting in the expulsion of the your brand from the fan’s newsfeed.

I have never understood why brands turn to general-interest sweepstakes and contests to earn “likes,” for this seems to offer no path to Facebook success.  The theory is that a fan acquired through these means will move up the value ladder–he or she may start as a disinterested prospect, but soon this person will become so enamored with the brand’s wonderful content that the individual will rise to prospect, then customer and finally loyal advocate. This is the traditional advertising funnel view of the brand journey, and applying it to Facebook is, in the words of the immortal Joe Biden, “Malarkey!”

Facebook’s EdgeRank prevents disinterested prospects from gaining value. A new fan who was seduced by a contest or sweepstakes will see a few posts from your brand, and if they ignore these posts (and they will), your brand is gone. When this happens, your marketing investment will have incremented a number at the top of your fan page but delivered nothing else, least of all a prospect with an opportunity to see your brand’s content within his or her newsfeed.

Brands are treating Facebook “likes” as if they are email subscription requests, but EdgeRank tells us this is not an effective strategy. Instead, you must find fans with affinity and keep that affinity to remain part of fans’ Facebook experience. The path to greater brand awareness is not to collect disinterested fans and hope your content reaches them, because it won’t; instead, brands achieve awareness on Facebook by collecting fans with existing or immediately available affinity and giving them content and interactions they will share with others (either purposely or inadvertently through Facebook’s platform.)

In my Facebook success equation, I call this “Fans to the power of Affinity.” Affinity does not grow your brand’s Facebook success mathematically but exponentially. A fan with zero affinity stands almost no chance of seeing your content; a fan with modest affinity may or may not interact sufficiently to keep your brand present within his or her newsfeed; but a fan with strong existing affinity or the opportunity to gain it immediately can be a regular receiver, engager and sharer of your content.

To affinity and beyond! (Sorry, the Disney fan in me came out there.)

Missing Facebook Attribute #2: Brand Vector

The second component that we must add to Facebook’s EdgeRank equation is brand vector. This means that your content and interactions must move people closer to the brand.

Engagement for engagement’s sake may get your brand on fans’ newsfeeds, but your brand must drive marketing value and not merely be seen. It is not enough to capture attention; you have to capture hearts and minds. If you collect “eyeballs” but fail to change perception or behavior around your brand, you’ve failed, no matter what your fan count or “talking about this” number says.

Brands have long fallen into the trap of settling for mere likeability and engagement. One of my favorite pre-social-era examples of this is Taco Bell’s Chihuahua. For years, Taco Bell ran ads with the popular pup telling people “Yo Quiero Taco Bell.” The dog abruptly disappeared from airwaves because the Chihuahua was more effective at selling T-shirts and plush animals than he was at selling tacos. In the language of the social era, Taco Bell settled for engagement but lacked brand vector.

For a more recent example, look at Progressive’s recent social media PR event. Angry customers flooded into Progressive’s fan page to protest the company’s handling of a claim. Progressive has the most popular fan page in insurance, at least as measured in simple metrics–4.7 million likes and 30,000 people talking about the brand–but despite those amazing numbers, Progressive saw little to no advocacy in the midst of the company’s negative PR event. It is easy to see why: Flo posts lots of fun and games, but where is the discussion about risk, protecting families, the value of insurance or why Progressive is worth consideration? There is little brand vector evident in the engagement Flo creates, so Flo is just another popular character. That’s great if Progressive produces sitcoms but is of dubious value if Progressive wishes to change awareness, consideration and intent around its financial products.

Here, in its complete form, is the entire Facebook success equation for marketers. Not just Facebook’s EdgeRank formula, but also the inclusion of the right fans and the right messaging. What do you think? Have I missed anything? Your comments are welcome and appreciated.

Social Media Marketing is Broken

“I am going to Germany for seven months,” announced my friend on Facebook, and her confused, concerned and excited friends erupted with a dozen urgent questions. An hour later came the explanation: “It was a cancer awareness meme. Sorry to have put bad info out there.” Well, I feel so much more aware about cancer now, don’t you?

This is just the latest example of how social media marketing has become (or always was) broken–a chase for memes for memes’ sake. Social media marketing is an insular and largely meaningless game where the perceived winner is not the brand that gains awareness, consideration or purchase intent but the one with the most retweets and likes.

The problem rests not with social media but with marketers. I blame marketers for focusing on quick fixes and easy metrics rather than appreciating that–as always–brands gain customers’ trust, usage and loyalty through hard work and not button clicks.

The problem isn’t only in social media, of course. Too many marketers have been lazy, focusing more on saying different things about the brand in paid media rather than helping the brand to be different in meaningful ways. These marketers continue to invest in lookalike ads, hoping the right headline or creative imagery will catapult the brand forward, ignoring the preponderance of evidence that validates people are drawn to brands for deeper reasons.

For example, the 30 companies featured in the book “Firms of Endearment,” selected because they are driven by purpose rather than quarterly earnings, grew their stock by 21.06% annually compared to 3.3% for the S&P. These “firms of endearment” advertise, but not like everyone else. Take Patagonia–while other retailers were using Cyber Monday ads and emails to pump discounts, Patagonia used the same channels to tell its customers “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” Patagonia won not by telling customers “Pick me! Pick me! I’ve got the best discounts!” but by encouraging customers to “buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.”

IKEA, another “firm of endearment,” is again demonstrating why it belongs on the list. IKEA could’ve had a sweepstakes for a Fado lamp or given away a virtual Klobo loveseat for Farmville farmers; instead, the company listened to the people who launched their own fan page entitled, “I wanna have a sleepover in IKEA.” Voilà, a perfect combination of PR, social media and fan-building loyalty program with a 100-person sleepover in an IKEA store.

In social media, marketers suffer from the classic problem of failing to understand cause and effect: “Starbucks is a social media success with 26 million fans on Facebook, so all I need to do is gain fans by giving things away in Cityville and I’ll be a success, too!” I am not suggesting Starbucks hasn’t done some savvy marketing in social media (more on this later), but Starbucks does not succeed because they have Facebook fans, they have Facebook fans because they succeed at providing a product and experience with which people connect.

Seek social media marketing case studies and you will find a typical assortment of tired marketing promotion tricks ported into the social media era–brands that gained new “fans” by giving away a freebie or offering a sweepstakes. These tactics have been around for decades, so why is it we see them featured in so many social media case studies but so few brand marketing case studies? Because experienced marketers know these tactics do not (for the most part) work.

Freebies and sweepstakes accomplish very specific things–they help launch a new product, promote a new product feature, penetrate a new market or secure display space on retailers’ shelves. They may raise trial and awareness, but they do not deliver repeat usage, loyalty and advocacy, the very building blocks of social media success.

If most freebies and sweepstakes are a mismatch for social media, why do social media marketers use them so much? The argument seems to be that providing an incentive to Facebook users to try your fan page is a first step toward building Facebook relationships, but that sort of thinking ignores how Facebook works. Thanks to Facebook’s Edgerank, adding a bunch of disinterested “fans” who hide or ignore your posts does not help but rather hurts your brand’s chances for success on Facebook. Running a real-world sweepstakes so that 3% of the participants become customers may or may not be a smart marketing investment, but running a Facebook sweepstakes so that 3% of the participants become engaged members of your fan page is a brand-killing play every time.

Is it possible to succeed with a freebie or sweepstakes in social media? Yes, if you focus on two things–the thing you offer has to encourage people to engage with the brand in a meaningful way and the audience on which you focus must be not the largest but the right audience. For most brands, offering an in-game freebie to Cityville’s 43 million users makes as much sense as offering a new chess piece that devastates opponents’ pieces in an entire rank of the board. Chess players of the world will take it; they will use it to enhance their chess game; but does it make them consider or buy your insurance or peanut butter brand? No, because it fails to provide meaningful brand engagement to the right audience.

I mentioned Starbucks earlier, so let’s explore how this “firm of endearment” succeeds with freebies, ads and sweepstakes. It gives away free Wi-Fi in stores and offers free content for customers–meaningful brand interactions to the right customers. Starbucks used Promoted Tweets to serve ads to people who search for “coffee” and “Starbucks” to let them know about the free drinks available for those who use reusable cups–meaningful brand interactions to the right customers. And Starbucks has given away samples of a new coffee available in the aisles of grocery stores, not just to anyone but only to Twitterers who influence others and who tweet frequently about coffee–meaningful brand interactions to the right customers.

If I see one more headline about a brand that adds 100,000 new fans in a day because of a sweepstakes or freebie, I am going to throw my laptop out a window. I’m just tired of it. Not only is it frustrating to see so much attention lavished on poor social media marketing, it also is time consuming to constantly explain to others why there is no easy (and truly beneficial) way to add hundreds of thousands of fans to our own fan page, despite evidence to the contrary.

It is time social media marketers abandon the easy metrics and focus on the ones that matter. It’s the NFL postseason and I’m a Packer fan, so I cannot resist the analogy: In the 2010 season, six quarterbacks threw for more yards than Aaron Rodgers did. Nine completed more passes than Aaron Rodgers did. Five threw for more touchdowns than Aaron Rodgers did. Seven even won more games. But Aaron Rodgers led his team to a Super Bowl victory.

Stop counting yards and start focusing on how your brand truly wins in social media. If most social media marketers shifted their attention to metrics and strategies that matter more, social media marketing would matter more.

Powered by Blogger.