Earlier this week I made a post about why companies need to add a social media strategy budget to their 2010 marketing plans. The first reason on my list was the ability social media gives a company to listen to their customers.
Listening to the unfiltered thoughts, complaints and praises of customers via social media carries a huge benefit for the companies who know how to leverage it. That said, it's also one of the most terrifying aspects of social media for many brands. Fear of what will be said is still one of the biggest reasons companies are afraid to dip their toes into the social media waters.
Zane hit the nail on the head when he titled his response "Shooting the Social Media Messenger" He wrote:
The most interesting part of the paragraph warning readers of the perils in that bottle of elixir titled social media was its encouragement to shoot the social media messenger. Don't like the message being shared about your brand on twitter, facebook, blogs, etal? Shoot 'em. Shoot the social media tools.
Zane offers some great insight (so make sure you go read his post) and it got me to thinking a little more deeply about the root of corporate social media fear.
On some level, companies seem to have this idea that if they keep their heads low and stay quiet, they can pass, unnoticed through the era of social media and go about their business. Unfortunately, the likelihood of ignoring social media and staying a successful company is becoming about as likely as ignoring the Internet and staying a successful company. It can be done, but it's unlikely. There's a mistaken idea that the collective voice of social media and NOT the company itself will be the source of negative commentary.
From Business Week:
...with one misstep, one clumsy entrée, companies can quickly find themselves victims of the forces they were trying to master. Thousands of bloggers attacked Motrin last year because of an advertisement from the Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) brand they found demeaning to mothers.
Ok...back up a minute here.
Thousands of bloggers attacked Motrin because of something Motrin DID, not because they COULD...and there's a big difference there.
There was a time where companies could launch an ill-fated or poorly targeted or even a downright offensive campaign to the world and remain mostly protected from backlash. There might be a slight dip in sales or even a few angry letters and phone calls, but unless some angry consumer had a mainstream media connection, things mostly got ignored. These days, a stay-at-home-mom can have an online network of millions she can access with a few keystrokes. The voices and opinions haven't changed, they've just been given reach.
That's a hard pill for some companies to swallow. It's far easier to "blame" social media and the "angry mobs" that form than it is to admit the angry mob never would have formed in the first place if the company hadn't done something dumb.
But That's Not the Point I Want to Make
The commentary I've seen on this article so far pretty much stopped there. It points out the fear companies have of engaging with consumers because consumers might react poorly to their ideas. There's a bit of irony to be had here when you realize some social media types are jumping on the article because of it's shoot the messenger mentality. Why? Because the article goes on to make some very good points that really need to be addressed by our community.
The problem, according to a growing chorus of critics, is that many would-be guides are leading clients astray. Consultants often use buzz as their dominant currency, and success is defined more often by numbers of Twitter followers, blog mentions, or YouTube (GOOG) hits than by traditional measures, such as return on investment. This approach could sour companies on social media and the rich opportunities it represents.
Let's read that last sentence again...
This approach could sour companies on social media and the rich opportunities it represents.
And THEREIN lies the problem...
While I'm a social media strategist for small businesses, my background is in organic search engine optimization. In other words, I come from the "original" snake oil of online marketing. Social media, for all it's hype and loyalists STILL hasn't broken through the mainstream marketing barrier. It's where SEO was half a dozen or more years ago. It's fighting to define itself, to justify itself and to legitimize itself.
It's not going to be an easy battle.
We're Going to Have a Big Mess to Clean Up
Sure, we can point out how many companies are devoting dollars to it. We can give case study after case study of companies both large and small who have seen glorious success with social media. Guess what? We could do the same thing with SEO, to some degree we could demonstrate success more concretely.
It's still a new industry with undefined rules and a million and one consultants out there blazing new trails. The sad reality is, more companies will be burned by social media "experts" than will be helped by them this year.
To this day, I still talk to companies who have been burned time and time again by search engine marketers. Small businesses who have invested thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars into search engine optimization strategies that were outdated, ineffective and totally untargeted.
And THAT is what will happen with social media as well.
Social media is evolving at an ever increasing pace. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Digg, FriendFeed, Flickr, MySpace, Yelp, Google Maps, LinkedIn, Blinklist, del.icio.us, Furl, Reddit, Mixx, LiveJournal, tumblr, I could go on and on and on and on. (Heavens knows the list of social media sites does...)
Right now, there are boatloads of social media consultants who promote and measure success by getting a company signed up with a million accounts and building up a million followers.
Social media isn't a one size fits all solution. Every company will need a completely different strategy for success and guess what? Not all of them need Twitter, or Facebook or even a blog. Finding (or being) a social media strategist isn't about knowing how to build a presence or set up an account, it's about knowing how to set goals, establish a way to track those goals and then having the marketing knowledge needed to leverage conversation to reach those goals.
There are lots of great and effective social media strategists out there who can do this. Unfortunately they are severely outnumbered by the ones who can't. And THAT is what will make the next few years challenging for this industry. The social media strategists who "get it" are going to need to do a lot of educating and expectation setting with clients. They'll be doing a lot of clean-up as they come in to business relationships with companies who've been sold a bill of "get a lot of Twitter followers" goods. They'll have to work harder to change minds and prove themselves than they would have if they'd gotten there first.
I still see my friends in the world of search doing this. More and more often, they're the second (or third, or fifth) search agency a client has come into contact with and they have a lot of reeducating and reassuring to do before they land the contract. I fully expect those of us in the social media space are going to quickly find ourselves in the same position.
Social media may be on the rise, but it's popularity will attract those who are in it just to make a quick buck. That's going to leave the rest of us playing clean-up. On the bright side, it's also going to make it easier for the ones who build true and trackable strategies to differentiate themselves and rise to the top.
Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.
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