Your Half-Assed Social Media Strategy Is A Quagmire

mission accomplished

I guess this is pretty much the definition of a craze: It appears that almost half the companies that use social media for advertising, marketing, PR, customer relations, or recruiting have jumped into the arena without first determining what they hope to achieve or the methods they will employ to achieve it. At least, that's the impression I get from the results of a new study of corporate social media usage by Digital Brand Expressions, aptly titled "Social Media Without a Parachute."

According to DBE, which surveyed execs from 100 companies of varying sizes (ranging from under 50 to over 1,000 employees), 78% of respondents said their companies were using social media -- but just 41% said they had a strategic plan. Crunching the numbers, that means that 48% of respondents who are using social media have no strategic plan. In a sadly comical finding, 88% of the group without a social media plan agreed that having a plan was important -- just something on their "to-do" list, I suppose. Moving over to the companies with a social media plan, there was clear agreement that marketing is a natural social media utility, with 100% of respondents agreeing that marketing should be involved in formulating the social media plan.

It's alarming but not terribly surprising that half the companies using social media are basically flying blind. After all, we've seen this before: remember the invasion of Iraq in 2003?

No, seriously -- I'm not trying to be flippant, and obviously the stakes are immeasurably smaller when you're just trying to sell toothpaste to someone -- but there are definite similarities: You rush to get into a space at minimal expense, with no thought for what happens once you're there; you plunge into a large, diverse population you basically know nothing about in the hopes they will receive you with open arms; and your goals are so general (and ludicrously optimistic) as to be meaningless, giving no hint as to how they might actually be achieved: "We will have a successful social media presence" is about as well-though and easily achievable as "Iraq will be a democracy."

And, of course, (acknowledging again that the stakes are not morally equivalent, or even comparable) the Iraq metaphor reveals the danger of this approach, which might be described as "flying by the seat of your bare ass": Above all, what happens when things don't work out? Because you didn't consider multiple contingencies, including less-than-ideal scenarios, you don't have enough personnel deployed when it turns out the population isn't friendly and thrilled to see you -- substituting, say, customer service for neighborhood policing, and critical tweets or Facebook posts for IEDs. The small force you have assigned to the task risks becoming overwhelmed and demoralized by the onslaught and the lack of support from higher-ups. Suddenly, your Mission Accomplished banner looks a bit premature. Maybe you should have given more thought to these issues before you went in?

But it's too late: you can't back out now, having already committed your prestige (brand) to this highly public project. Now comes the long, painful, and very costly process of compensating for negligence in the early stages of the process. With all eyes on your organization (because you succeeded in getting the world's attention, even if it wasn't in the way you hoped) you have to actually understand the sources of negative sentiment so you can address them, for example through large-scale ethnographic surveys and opinion polling. Once you understand the landscape of public opinion, you have to identify potential friends and allies, and convince them to enlist in your cause despite the risks to their own reputation and credibility -- an incredibly difficult task, given your large-scale screw-ups already on record, which will require a 100% sincere and persuasive sales pitch. At the same time, you may forge secret relationships with influential figures (bloggers, religious clerics) who can help shape public opinion in return for a favor or fee -- but you have to be careful, because if these covert recruits are ever exposed, you and they are finished.

Again, just to be clear: I'm not actually saying social media campaigns are in any way "the same" as the war in Iraq, which obviously takes place on an entirely different moral plane. I'm just noting similar dynamics which result when large organizations undertake complex, ambitious projects without sufficient planning.

6 comments about "Your Half-Assed Social Media Strategy Is A Quagmire".
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  1. Fred Sweet from San Diego Model Management, June 22, 2010 at 7:29 p.m.

    Let's be clear: I'm not actually saying this - comparing Facebook posts to IEDs shows a immaturity that we should not be subjected to in a media publication like this.

  2. Sandy Miller from Success Communications, June 23, 2010 at 9:10 a.m.

    Using the Iraq war wasn't the best choice of comparisons....but...I hope that doesn't keep people from reading this and seeing there is some good content.

    I find clients every day doing the same things. They jump in cause everyone else is doing it. Biggest example of peer pressure EVER. Unfortunately they aren't sure what to do once they are there.

    If you don't have clear cut goals and a strategy to get there it will never be a true success. Even if by chance it does work, there is no way to measure or duplicate so it can never be a true win.

  3. John Capone from Whalebone, June 23, 2010 at 11:23 a.m.

    @Fred Thanks for not actually saying our writer "shows a immaturity." I'm not actually saying your comment shows a reactionary disposition.

  4. Tara Coomans from Akamai Marketing, June 23, 2010 at 2 p.m.

    The article was interesting, but what I find even more interesting is that the moderator of the comments actually responds to them. That's REAL social media and I am glad to see a publication finally practicing what it preaches and engaging its readers. Nice work.

  5. Jerry Johnson from Brodeur, June 25, 2010 at 8:01 p.m.

    You have got to be kidding. Really. You can't be serious. Comparing a social media campaign to the Iraq war? Even in jest. The mind reels. There may be a lot of people out ther adrift with their social media strategy (or lack thereof). But is it as serious a quagmire as Iraq? People don't have strategies for their traditional communications. Why should we expect more from newer channels? Mistakes inou world don't result in people dying. Only in wasted time and money.

  6. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., July 1, 2010 at 9:56 p.m.

    The Iraq war is a perfect analogy, and this is a very insightful piece. My only quibble is that you missed also noting that -- again, as with the Iraq war -- the dynamics compelling many companies to engage with social media are, at some level, corrupt, duplicitous, and expressed in doublespeak, e.g., "We want to engage with customers and join the global conversation" is code for "We want to use some online thing that's even cheaper than banner advertising to sell lots and lots of people soap flakes."

    In any case, the end result, as you so aptly noted, is a quagmire. "You broke it, you buy it."

    Great piece.

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