The problem with social media marketing - YOU

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy July 26, 2013
Social media marketing seems to have failed, losing importance as a method of reaching new customers. But is it as simple as that? What about the internal organisation of ideas and thought?

In 2009, I wrote:

Like it or not, large enterprises - the big name brands - have to work in structures and hierarchies that most E2.0 mavens ridicule but can't come up with alternatives that make any sort of corporate sense. Therein lies the Big Lie. Enterprise 2.0 pre-supposes that you can upend hierarchies for the benefit of all. Yet none of that thinking has a credible use case you can generalize back to business types - except: knowledge based businesses such as legal, accounting, architects etc. Even then - where are the use cases? I'd like to know. In the meantime, don't be surprised by the 'fail' lists that Mike Krigsman will undoubtedly trot out - that's easy.

As part of that diatribe regarding the social miasma swirling around enterprise under the guise of E2.0, I referred to a 2008 conversation I had with MIT professor Andy McAfee. He is one of E2.0's principle cheerleaders but admitted that the number of case studies which supported the notion of the 'emergent' enterprise were thin on the ground. He wasn't best pleased. After all, what does someone who worked in industry for 20+ years across multiple industries know that cannot be trumped by a tenured academic? Not much it seems.

In 2009, a panel of 'experts, all from the 2.0 Adoption Council,' discussed my original thesis. I was not invited to attend. The 2.0 Adoption Council was appropriated and morphed into the Social Business Council by the Dachis Group. Dachis hasn't published a fresh case study since February 2012.

In 2010 I added:

...the Enterprise 2.0 meme didn't cut it so the IT vendors have moved on to the next thing that sounds good: Social Business. There is a somewhat more complex answer: Enterprise 2.0 has never been comfortable with itself. On the one hand you have people who think it is about collaboration while others portray the topic as an extension to sales and marketing. It could be both but very often you will see the answers co-mingled as though they are one and the same. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I went on to speculate:

'Social anything' is a currency that's out there to be traded and marketers, ably assisted by PR are milking this for all its worth. In the real world, it will continue to fail until it is wrenched away from the marketing hand wavers and put into those of organizational social scientists and HR professionals who are genuinely empowered to help bring change. We are a very long way from achieving that Nirvana.

Fast forward to 2013. Chris Brogan writes:

The state of social media marketing is fairly depressing from my observations. It’s mechanical. A very informal survey of several brand accounts just shows them chirping out blather to elicit responses or likes, but with no follow-up, no next steps, no actual business intent. Just… faux interaction. The number of companies who have outsourced their social media brand voice to an agency or third part of some sort is higher than ever. And I’ve no idea the stats on corporate response rates to efforts, but they can’t be especially interesting.

Chris sees what I saw back in 2009 - it's just taken him four years to reach the inevitable conclusion that was painfully obvious to me but not understood by those flogging the concept of 'social anything.' In fairness, Chris is one of the most genuine people I know. He really believes this stuff and does all he can to help. But even he is struggling to come up with the answer. In comments, one person put into words something I had been warning for years:

The real problem with "social media marketing" are the guys like you that messed it up by delivering fluff for 4 years. Where are your case studies of *your* client successes? All these companies you worked for/with - what did you deliver, how did that impact their bottom line, how did that improve their sales?

Because that's marketing - not some "nerds" and people with zero business acumen growing a bunch of cheerleaders and taking advantage of companies that knew nothing about the space.

So, let's see your success stories - and real ones for your clients, not some fudged ones for your book sales.

Others, equally bitter but more thoughtful, come up with many alternative reasons for failure. None of them hit the spot. Chris tries to take the duscussion forward by declaring:

To me, it's the map of "what next" and the determination to say, "We're committing to this level of human excellence and interaction."

But you're right to point out all this. I think it's the fact that most companies never really settled this new bundle of tech and concepts into their solid core of channel development.

I wish him all the very best but still feel this is the wrong approach. And then the other day 'it' suddenly came into view.  The problem as I see it today is that no-one (other than a tiny few) solved the real problem. We (or rather those with skin in the game) got so enamored with the potential power of social networks, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and the like that 'we' assumed success could be acquired. Even better, success was cheap to acquire. Anyone want a marketer's Christmases all rolled into one? That's it right there.

Big mouths, big losses

To make matters more interesting, those with persuasive voices who jumped on the bandwagon could easily appropriate audiences in a well orchestrated circle jerk that attracted every wannabe market maven on the planet. The social media conferences of 2008-10 were truly the golden age of mass bullshit think among marketers.

If only what they saw was true. It wasn't then and isn't now. In the meantime, companies have thrown many millions at failed projects. The tragedy is that dissenting voices were few and far between and were largely ignored. I was regarded as a curmudgeonly, out of touch goon who could not possibly be right when there was so much goodness staring everyone else in the face. My failure was to hammer home the reality and expand it into the areas where I knew there were problems.

As a side note - one lesson that shines through. Bullshit really can baffle science, even in the halls of academia. Onwards.

IF - and I say IF - social media marketing is a viable reality then I suggest that as in so many areas, the emphasis has been in layering something onto something else that wasn't working anyway. That is not a recipe for success. As our own Jon Reed writes with typical eloquence:

My big objection to B2B social media is that it is viewed too often as a blasting channel, unsupported by relevant content. That’s because it’s easier to pour social media syrup on a marketing turd than to transform into a digital publisher. If social media is being used to extend conversations and pull audiences into a content-rich web site with plenty of lead conversion opportunities, my beef with social media for B2B largely goes away.

But even this doesn't quite cut it. In Euan Semple's book: Organisations  Don't Tweet, People Do, the author makes the point that has been missed by so many others: the social web isn't for everybody - at least today. That's a crucial point that has its roots in culture and readiness.

The real problems

I maintain that culture eats everything. It's a topic I come up against time and again in the professional and technical services world. It doesn't matter how willing a management or its people are to hearing about new approaches to marketing, nothing will kill a project faster than the inherent human unwillingness to embrace real change.

Enterprise is complex. Nowhere is this more obvious in areas like procurement. Regulation and compliance topics alone can crush any initiative, often accompanied by those honeyed words: 'I wonder what the SEC will say.' Marketing is not so different. Today, while marketing may be enjoying a degree of autonomy in technology buying, the flip side is that marketing is more accountable. That in turn requires cross-discipline work, a concept with which marketing is unfamiliar.

Back in 2010 I was saying that HR has an important role to play but I didn't expand on what that might mean. Today, managing the workforce is a top priority. The break in the implied 'jobs for life' metaphor with which many of my generation was brought up now means that super valuable talent is much harder to find and keep. Great talent doesn't occupy the same swim lanes as many others. They are the movers and shakers. We consistently hear that the best talent wants much more than a paycheck. They want what Semple terms 'responsibility for their own destiny.'

Alongside this problem, most people I have spoken with on this topic reflexively ask: 'What's in it for me?' In other words, if I am going to share knowledge that's been locked between my ears then where is the benefit to me and my career? The gap between what management says it wants and what employees are prepared to give is frequently misunderstood and under-rated. It comes back to the combination of employment uncertainty combined with the risk/reward perception.

Finally, IT can get in the way. Semple sees IT as the 'biggest block to making social media happen encountered by my clients in large organizations.' I'm not certain I fully agree. I have seen plenty of very poor choices made on the back of 'IT says we have to use X.' One firm I can think of manages a multi-million person forum yet is almost constantly having to post 'scheduled downtime' messages as it continues to fix problems that should not exist. On the other hand, I see plenty of examples where carefully targeted efforts have minimal IT involvement and do well.

The solution

Semple's book points to the necessity for individual responsibility as the starting point for the creation of self directed organisations. He draws upon his years at the BBC, where he held the nominal title of Knowledge Manager but which he used as the power base from which to set staff free to network and exchange ideas. It was a successful strategy where the guiding principle was one of 'hands off' rather than hands on in a culture that was steeped in cultural norms.

My concern is that success in one place doesn't always transmute to another.  There are so many variables in the cultural mix that it is impossible to generalise without a clear understanding in what makes a particular organisation tick. For example, HP was once famous for the 'HP Way' and the myth that 'managing by wandering about' was invented by the founders. Whatever the reality, HP had a very specific culture that worked extraordinarily well for its innovation led business. Somewhere along the way and with a procession of CEOs going through the revolving door, HP lost its way (sic.) Today it is in all sorts of trouble with no real end in sight. What might happen if a perfectly well functioning organism tinkered in the manner Semple suggests?

My starting point therefore is not the 'anarchic' empowerment of organisations professing to want change. Rather it is a pilot in a middling piece of the organisation to test where the cultural blockers exist. I believe HR has a pivotal role to play but even then, HR has to be advanced beyond the administration functions for which it is often characterised. I also see top down management commitment and engagement as critical. Regardless of Semple's promotion of a freewheeling spirit, management's job is to enable and without that endorsement and continued support, nothing of substance will change without massive disruption.

I don't recommend the engagement of consulting teams though I do see external sanity checks as a valuable addition. Why? Anyone who has been through the unpleasant experience of a change management project knows that the emotional disruption alone can wreck departments. Why would you introduce change management people into an area that challenges established principles unless it was essential?

Final words

Semple wrote a book on this topic, I have written extensively on this topic. There is so much more to learn and apply. My hope is that having seen five plus years of failure, the marketers in the cheerleading crowd will see that their time is done. While they may have much to add in terms of understanding content, they should step aside and let others lead, others who understand the complexity of orgnisations and who can navigate the treacherous waters that lay ahead.

More to the point, my hope is that organisations recognize that without internal change, the notion of applying social media to marketing is a recipe for muted success at best and downright failure at worst.

Image credits: and Riverside Innovation Centre

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