With the Olympics recently behind us, an American presidential election nearly upon us, active protest movements, and celebrity news galore, it seems you can't really open your favorite social channel without confronting an angry mob kissing each other in front of a Chick-Fil-A store, griping about tape-delayed coverage from NBC, or holding signs that say "Team Katie."
And of course, with all of these memes comes the follow-on discussion about what the "appropriate" view should be of social media and the ease by which we share content. Is social sharing really a predictive reflection of us that represents the common zeitgeist at any moment in time? Or is it, rather, a fueled fire that is only deemed important by people after influential media covers it?
This latter point is one that is made by Nobel Prize-winning scholar Daniel Kahneman. In his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow," he explains that "people tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory -- and this is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media."
So, with that mind, if a brand has a "social media accident" -- like what recently happened with McDonald's and its #McDStories campaign -- is it truly a mistake we can learn from? Or, are these simply unavoidable accidents that will happen to every brand that dares to scale a social strategy? In short, was the McDonald's campaign really a failure -- or is it only one because so many people said it was? And, beyond the accidents, what are the true "abuses" made by a brand on any social network?
Let's first consider the current social landscape for brands.
Be careful what you ask for
So, as much as the social web is touted as an equal "two-way-street" or a "conversation" between brand and consumer, it's quite simply not. Consumers are allowed -- really almost expected -- to vent, abuse, and in every way "misuse" social content.
As consumers, we might sigh in frustration when our sister-in-law posts the 285th picture of her new cat on Facebook. But we most likely won't share that frustration with the world. We might be annoyed and surprised at the vitriolic politics or the annoying FarmVille requests of all of our "friends." But other than "block" those post, we certainly won't @reply with a complaint about their behavior. And, if Dad mistakenly posts a picture of himself in his underwear, we certainly won't be blogging about this with the title "Family Social Media #Fail."
Brands, on the other hand, have to be much more careful. Marketers are the nerdy freshman at the cool kids' senior party. Say the wrong thing -- or say it in the wrong way -- and risk getting ridiculed and bounced out. Come with a case of beer and some great conversation, and you just might be a hit. But even then, you are only one mistake away from a viral case of #Fail. Your mistake could become the fodder for endless blog posts of how it "shouldn't be done."
As marketers, we've got to be creative and bold enough to rise above the noise being generated and to engage our respective audiences. At the same time, we need to capitalize on any rising trends as they happen (a la David Meerman Scott's "Newsjacking").
But make no mistake, this is challenging -- and it's not an even playing field. It used to be that marketers could simply avoid being "salesy" on their social channels, and the world would be OK. As long as we were spreading fun, informative, educational, and (most importantly) content that didn't smell like marketing, the brand would be alright. But as social marketing becomes increasingly business driven -- and content strategies converge in the paid, owned, and earned (POE) models -- simply using social channels to engage and entertain is no longer quite as simple. In short, it's no longer good enough to want to show up to the party with a case of beer. Now, you've got to find a way to pay for it as well.
Based on my experience working with both larger enterprises and startups, and in collaboration with some wonderful experts in social strategy, I've assembled some of the biggest clear "abuses" that today's brands are making with their social channels -- and some suggestions on how to avoid some of the bigger mistakes.
Because no article short of an entire book (and it would be a good one) would be able to cover the thousands of social web channels we might include, we're only covering some of the more popular networks -- Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. However, you can generally extrapolate many of these "abuses" into other networks as well.
Let's begin with Facebook.
Despite Facebook's recent tumble on the public markets, it's still the biggest honkin' social network on the planet. According to its recent filings, Facebook now has almost 17 percent of the total U.S. online display advertising market.
Successful marketing stories on Facebook are certainly easy to find, but ironically most of them are content and engagement related rather than paid advertising. For example, despite the recent headline-grabbing news earlier this spring that General Motors would be "abandoning" Facebook, the company is actually only discontinuing its advertising spend. It's still going to spend approximately $30 million on Facebook content and engagement. As Joel Ewanick, GM's marketing chief, told the Wall Street Journal, the company is "definitely reassessing our advertising on Facebook, although the content is effective and important."
But where there's content, there's room for abuse. Many marketers are still "abusing" the channel with branded content that doesn't really engage. When I asked social media expert Jason Falls his thoughts on the biggest abuses of social networks by brands, he pointed squarely at "crappy content." Specifically, he recently did a review of the top 20 or so consumer brands that are thought to be good at social media (i.e., the top ones ranked in Dachis Group's Social Business Index). "After looking at their Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ feeds, the majority of them were just me-me-me-me-me content," Falls said. "So the brands that are supposed to 'get it' still stink at it. The content has got to be focused on the consumer and their needs. Why is this so hard?"
Additionally, because of how fast Facebook has been moving, there are a number of other things that many marketers just simply don't know. For example, did you know that it's actually against Facebook's terms of service to have a contest where you use "likes" or "comments" as a voting measure? Yup. Until I started researching this article, I didn't either.
Overposting is another "abuse" that many brands fall into under the heading of "more equals better." Facebook itself suggests one or two posts per week until the brand feels out what its audience really likes. You read that right -- one or two posts per week. I've known some brands to start out posting once or twice per hour. Unless you're Justin Bieber or your fans are just never tired of hearing from you, that's almost certainly too much. And let's be honest: Does any marketer really have 20 excellent things to post per day?
Twitter remains an enigma for many marketers -- especially at large brands -- as it seems to be just as ripe for a giant fail as it is for success. The aforementioned McDonald's story is a perfect example of this with its recent success/horror story.
When McDonald's launched a new campaign with the hashtag of #MeetTheFarmers, everything was going great. The company received engagement, click-throughs to the videos it was promoting, and comments back. But then, it moved the stories under a new hashtag -- #McDStories -- and things turned sour. People began posting their complaints about the brand under the hashtag. It instantly became one of those stories that people who cover such things immediately labeled a big fat #fail. But was it?
The full story is definitely more nuanced. As Rick Wion, the director of social media for McDonald's, pointed out in a recent New York Times article, the #McDStories hashtag "wasn't even in the top 10 things that were talked about that day for the brand. People on Twitter wrote about the Egg McMuffin "four to five times as much" as they complained about the company using the #McDStories."
So was the #McDStories hashtag campaign a failure because it was a failure -- or only because so many people talked about it being a failure?
So, what are some of the actual abuses on Twitter that marketers need to be aware of? Well, renowned social media strategist Jay Baer points to hashtags themselves as one of the biggest Twitter abuses by brands. He says that "senseless hashtag proliferation" has become a problem. "With very few exceptions, there is no point in sending a tweet with more than one hashtag," Baer said. "You have to ask yourself if your missive is so sublime and all-encompassing that it merits the inclusion of five hashtags. Please. It's only 140 characters worth of content, so surely you can determine what one category defines it."
Other common Twitter abuses include using Twitter as a simple press release RSS Feed -- and then expecting some engagement out of it. Likewise, another one common among larger organizations is assuming that all content has to be poured through on one singular Twitter account. Mixing customer service engagement, complaint handling, and discounts and deals on the same Twitter channel is rarely a good idea.
Since it launched almost 10 years ago, LinkedIn has been quietly growing into a huge social network with more than 175 million registered users. And, with its recent acquisition of SlideShare, LinkedIn could, indeed, become an even bigger part of the B2B marketer's toolbox.
But there seems to be a simultaneous love-hate relationship with LinkedIn. Many sales and marketing professionals like the network as a user (for finding employees or targeting accounts), but they find the idea of using at as a marketing or engagement platform more challenging. And, while a recent interface redesign might begin to change some of this, more than 50 percent of LinkedIn's revenue still comes from HR employment solutions.
Creating too much noise is the biggest abuse that most brands commit on LinkedIn. "Many brands don't pay much attention to LinkedIn," according to a marketing agency VP of strategy who I spoke with. "So, they simply just 'cc' every posting or status update to the platform as well. They don't realize that they shouldn't treat LinkedIn like Twitter or Facebook. People don't look at the LinkedIn content feed in the same way -- and if a brand or person is too noisy, it can actually do more harm than good."
Of course, we couldn't just let the hottest new social network get away without at least mentioning it. Brands have jumped quickly onto the Pinterest bandwagon, and, like Facebook, it seems that the ease with which images are pinned is the source of some of the abuses the network is seeing. Expert SEO consultant Arnie Kuenn, president of Vertical Measures, summed this up well when I asked him about it. He said that he "sees a lot of abuse of social media more generally for search engine optimization benefits." He continued, "The latest example is the overuse of Pinterest. Brands are finding any way they can to get images posted to and shared on Pinterest. Indiscriminate pinning is not a good idea. Even something as simple as Pinterest requires a well-thought-out approach. You have to view it as another marketing channel and treat it as such."
There is a wonderful quote that I love that says, "Accidents are not accidents -- but precise arrivals at the wrong time." This is true of the social web and marketing as well. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that we are new at this. No one on the planet has more than about half a dozen years' experience with the social web. So, even what we might label as an "abuse" might end up simply being our collective reaction to an accident.
And this is the real key: The true art of avoiding the abuse of social networks is to simply be cognizant of who we are talking with and the rules of engagement for that particular network. The next generation of digital social strategy for the enterprise is going to be how to scale cohesive and productive content and conversation across any social channel that arises. Our biggest mistake will be to not treat each of these channels according to the unique personality each has. We must continue to explore the unique stories we want to tell through them.
If we approach social media with a mass media publishing mindset, that will be the biggest abuse of all. And we certainly deserve to be kicked out of the party for that.
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