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5 social media campaign killers

5 social media campaign killers Tom Hespos

There's no fun quite like the period immediately after a new communications medium rises to prominence. While marketers awkwardly experiment with ways to bend the new medium to suit their mass marketing needs, we see a lot of cautious toe-dipping, overambitious power plays, and failed campaigns. It's an exciting time to be in the marketing business.

It's easy to critique a company that tries and fails within social media. It's a popular internet pastime to look at approaches to social campaigns, critique them (often accompanied by heavy sarcasm), and explain how your approach would have been better. But what if you're a marketing professional who has been given the rather challenging task of "figuring out" social media for your organization? It's not so funny without the benefit of 20-20 hindsight.

I can't make recommendations concerning your company's approach to social media without an intimate knowledge of your business and its goals. No one can. However, there are a number of pitfalls -- social media "campaign killers," if you will -- that ought to be avoided at all costs. Falling into any one these traps will result in a "face-palm" as your social media campaign withers and dies. Here they are.

Putting tactics ahead of strategy

It's important to recognize this one immediately and steer clear of it before it makes you do something stupid.

You come to work one morning, and there's a forwarded email newsletter from someone in executive management sitting in your inbox, accompanied by a single question -- "What are we doing on Twitter?"

It doesn't have to be Twitter. It can be any social media vehicle. The problem arises when that simple question causes a major fire drill within marketing to figure out Twitter without the benefit of an overarching social media strategy.

Marketing departments often experience a lot of pressure to operate both reactively and tactically. After all, every moment that you're not on Twitter represents an opportunity for a competitor to figure out how to leverage the channel to steal market share. Additionally, if senior management asks about a specific vehicle, it's usually because they think there's some merit in being there -- why disappoint? Further, many companies have difficulty figuring out who should be in charge of social media within the organization. Someone else from another department (customer service? corporate communications?) could propose a Twitter program before marketing does and end up steering social media programs going forward.

If any of these things are going on within your company, it's tempting to try to figure out the tactic before the strategy is in place. Don't.

An approved social media strategy is a must before any significant programs go live. Without it, companies can't effectively evaluate vehicles, figure out how their contribution to the mix builds the business, or measure their effectiveness. In such a vacuum, tactical programs can at best hope to be dismissed as mere experiments or at worst be deemed dismal failures that didn't produce favorable ROI.

Of course, if you already have a social media strategy in place before the questions come, dealing with them is relatively easy.


The road to social media success is littered on both sides with the bodies of marketers who were fundamentally dishonest in their approach. Wal-Mart, Microsoft, and Sony are all corporate behemoths who fell into this trap and wilted under the public backlash that resulted. Their stories are well-documented and much belabored, so we won't get into them here.

Here's one of the fundamental axioms behind Underscore's playbook when we give social media advice to clients. If the client refuses to adopt it, we stop work:

You will never use [social media] to:

  • Obscure the truth

  • Spread an untruth

  • Propagate rumors with a reckless disregard for the truth

  • It's a strong stance to take against dishonesty, but it's best for everyone in the end. Why, though?

    Putting aside any ethical issues for a second, the internet follows a model where millions of people can contribute their own commentary and fact-checking to any two-way dialogue. In a distributed fashion, skeptics will quickly discover and tear apart any factually incorrect statements or attempts to mislead. If you were to use social media techniques to propagate a statement that your company made $50 million in sales last year when you really made $20 million, know that there's no shortage of internet users who will refer back to publicly available information to refute your claim and call you on the carpet for making it. Continuing to assert an untruth when you should be copping to a mistake will just make it worse.

    Commitment issues

    You usually hear the term "commitment issues" in relationship advice columns, but I use this term to describe a social media campaign killer that can be particularly deadly.

    Most social media vehicles require an indefinite commitment on the part of the marketer. That is, once you turn the mic on, it's difficult to turn it off without experiencing some form of backlash from people who want to interact with a brand or company. Thus, it's absolutely critical that marketers understand the magnitude of their commitment to the social space before they make it.

    Abandoning a Twitter account, even if it's just for a few weeks, can cause speculation about your commitment to followers and fans. Just like you might wonder what happened to a friend who suddenly stopped posting Facebook status updates after months of telling you what he's up to every 15 minutes, people wonder what happened to brands when they suddenly stop contributing.

     What happened to the Burger King?

    The best way to ensure that commitment issues are addressed is to give marketers a very detailed picture of what the commitment to a given social media vehicle will entail. Will opening up the channel require near-constant monitoring? How about the expectation of frequency of posting? What percentage of posts will be expected to be brand news and what percentage will be conversation with brand fans? What's the expectation for brand turnaround if someone asks a question? 24 hours? 24 minutes?

    These are all critical questions if a marketer is to adequately understand what commitments are necessary to adequately leverage a particular vehicle. They need to be asked up front, and just as importantly, they need to be part of a cost-benefit analysis so that marketers can ensure individual vehicles don't become money pits that gobble up needed resources faster than anticipated.

    It's also key for marketers to understand what could happen if they suddenly do need to turn the microphone off for legal or for other business-critical reasons (a change in control of the company, perhaps).

    Failure to do so could result in mismatched expectations between the brand and the brand's fans.

    Excessive adspeak

    You know corporate happy-talk when you see it. So does everybody else.

    If you doubt the ability of the average Joe to spot adspeak and immediately filter it out, just load a web page on your favorite ad-supported site and make note of how quickly your brain figures out which page elements are editorial and which are advertising. Or maybe look to your email inbox and think about how intuitive it is to the human brain what is signal and what is channel noise.

    People use the internet to communicate with human beings, not ad copy. That's why the most successful campaigns in the social media space are built around the personalities of people who work at the company, not the company mascot, a ghostwriter, or some other surrogate for the real thing.

    No offense to the copywriters reading iMedia Connection, but when our brands speak in the social media sphere with scripted ad copy, they do two things:

    1. They set off our advertising early warning systems, which blunts the message severely and turns people off, and

    2. They send a secondary message that the brand views social media as a one-way medium in which the consumer's voice isn't heard.

    When we don't speak in authentic voices, it can be counterproductive to a brand. People who seek to connect through social networks do want to align with brands that they like, but this doesn't mean the right approach is to slap up a brand page filled with adspeak.

    I wonder if more would be going on here if Chrysler got rid of the corporate happy talk...

    Remember that social media is all about conversation, not polished, one-way ad messages.

    Trusting automation over human beings

    This is a tough one for marketers. When dealing with the sometimes overwhelming volume of conversation, our tendency is to want to automate things rather than expend human resources on looking at all the bits and pieces. In many cases, this can be a pitfall.

    Don't get me wrong -- in many instances, automation can be good. For example, the use of listening platforms like Radian6 or Cymfony to find relevant brand conversations is a good thing. But we can't automate everything.

    Look what happened to Skittles, for example. The brand launched a multi-faceted social media campaign in which people who tweeted about Skittles could find their tweets featured on the Skittles homepage. Before I proceed with my critique, I should say that the Skittles people had their hearts in the right place. Featuring naked conversations about a brand on its own homepage is a step in the right direction with respect to transparency and authenticity.

    Which road was it that was paved with good intentions?

    Rather than focusing on having an authentic conversation about the brand, enthusiasts and detractors alike found more value in trying to get their mention of the brand on the Skittles homepage. Once they figured out that the technology being used simply posted mentions of the brand to the homepage without prior restraint, the floodgates opened and the emphasis shifted toward using the Skittles homepage as a bullhorn.

    Your brand fans know when you're automating things. And it can be a message to them that they're not worth conversing with. It's a neat idea to, for instance, auto-retweet any mention of your brand via your company's Twitter feed, but people quickly figure out this is going on, and the griefers and brand detractors will quickly exploit this.

    The rule of thumb is this: If you're considering using automation as a substitute for conversation, don't.

    There's a common thread running through all of these campaign killers. They can all be avoided by having a comprehensive social media strategy in place before considering any specific vehicles. If that strategy is aligned with the basic tenets of the social media sphere -- transparency, authenticity, and dedication to conversation, it's comparatively easy to steer clear of the pitfalls.

    Tom Hespos is the president of Underscore Marketing and blogs at Hespos.com.

    On Twitter? Follow Tom at @THespos1 or @_MarketingLLC. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

    Tom Hespos is President of New York agency Underscore Marketing. He is a frequent contributor to industry trade publications and has been writing a regular column about online marketing and advertising since March of 1998. His clients include Wyeth...

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    to leave comments.

    Commenter: caroline palmer

    2009, August 09

    great post Tom!

    Commenter: Zoe Sands

    2009, August 05

    Great article with some interesting examples. I totally agree that you should have a comprehensive social media strategy before starting any conversations via this channel, it is also really important to have a contingency strategy in case the dialogue needs to be switched off for legal reasons. I would hazard a guess that most marketers haven't even thought about "how to manage a social media exit strategy”. I'll be adding this as a contingency to my new plans for this fiscal year.