"Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another stepping stone to greatness." - Oprah Winfrey
Market research firm Gartner projects that more than 75 percent of Fortune 1000 companies with websites will attempt some kind of online social media initiative for marketing or customer relations purposes. Gartner also projects that 50 percent of those efforts will fail.
Recognizing failure and learning from it is the nature of our business, especially for emerging channels such as social media. Repeatedly, it is a brave few who take risks while the rest point fingers and follow. When a company does dare to risk, we are quick to judge and condemn rather than celebrate.
To be realistic, most of us are accountable to multiple stakeholders -- brands, consumers, our own organizations, and colleagues. There are, however, ways to minimize risks, learn from the stumbles, and move forward without leaving a trail of flames.
The dictionary defines failure as "the condition or fact of not achieving the desired end or ends." Perhaps what we really need to do is to redefine success and failure as it pertains to social media.
Here are four common failure scenarios to help you prepare to respond effectively and turn social media mistakes into successes.
"Nothing" happens more often than you might realize. While there is no official count of unused applications, stagnating Facebook pages, or inactive communities, the social media landscape is burdened with dead weight. These types of failures tend to slip away quietly with little fanfare. They don't ignite passion -- they don't really accomplish anything, except perhaps waste time, money, and space.
To illustrate, let's look at social media efforts from Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, competitors in the weight loss category.
Readily identified social media initiatives include forums, blogs, Facebook pages, applications, and so forth. And while there have been clear efforts, minimal activity can be observed across the board. Jenny Craig's blogs featuring its spokespersons have no real interaction between the brand and its customers. Jenny Craig's Facebook page, for the most part, is a health tracker application, which appears to have launched May 2008 with a few members and almost no interaction or posts from the brand. Jenny Craig's Wikipedia page is also not current.
Weight Watchers' Twitter page contains all of three tweets, all posted Feb. 22. It has been silent ever since, although it has 1,167 followers. Rather than interact with these existing followers and build its following, it directs folks to its Facebook page.
This page appears to have recently launched; therefore, it's too early to tell how active it will be or how this launch will potentially reflect lessons learned from its other earlier initiatives or from its customers' initiatives, which include a highly active, populated Facebook page targeted at college students.
Have a clear goal in mind for social media programs, and focus efforts on achieving it. Know your audience. Create something of mutual value. Observe and listen to what your customers are already doing and saying. Recognize that certain aspects of social media require an ongoing commitment. If you discover that you miscalculated your resources or a path you chose was not ideal or suited to your objectives, then regroup to move positively forward. Create your own definition of success against the available opportunities and align your programs, resources, and expectations accordingly.
Backlash is not necessarily a sign of failure. Backlash can be valuable feedback and an opportunity to have a meaningful exchange with key influencers in your market. And sometimes it is best to just ignore it. It is important to consider the source when you experience a backlash, understand the potential ramifications, and have a response plan in place -- before it happens. We must know when and how to communicate. The real failure is not being prepared to respond.
Many may recall the response to Johnson & Johnson's Motrin ad featuring a mom complaining that, while wearing your baby is "in fashion," it can cause back and neck pain. This put Twitter moms into a tizzy. In response to the backlash, the brand pulled the ad, issued an apology, and sent personal apologies to select bloggers. Did you know that according to a Lightspeed Research survey, almost 90 percent of women had never even seen the ad? Of those who did, around 45 percent actually liked it, 41 percent had no feelings about it, and only about 15 percent didn't like it. Most notably, even fewer (8 percent) said it had a negative impact on their feelings about the brand, and 32 percent said it made them like the brand more!
More than likely, the folks at Motrin were not prepared for the backlash they experienced. Sometimes we can't anticipate a backlash no matter how well we think we understand our consumer and no matter how much research or testing we do. The company's failure was that it did not anticipate a potential negative response and prepare for it. It is difficult to second guess, but if the company had a response plan in place up front, would it have reacted differently?
Understand your audience before engaging with it. Anticipate any and all potential backlash. Experienced PR folks know this all too well. Have a response plan in place. Avoid a knee-jerk reaction. Even if the plan you have ready doesn't fit the specific situation, having gone through the thinking will make you better prepared to act quickly and effectively, and to adjust as needed.
"Cruise Critic is owned by Expedia, the giant, billion-dollar airfare search engine. Expedia also owns Trip Advisor. Did you know that? So Cruise Critic and Trip Advisor, far from being small entities run by idealistic travel commentators, are both parts of an immense, faceless, profit-making corporate entity... "
This was written by legendary travel writer Arthur Frommer in response to a social media effort by Royal Caribbean. Royal Caribbean sought out and rewarded people who posted positive comments about its cruises on boards like Cruise Critic, a move that was met with public outcry.
In addition to the negative buzz, searches on Royal Caribbean returned results such as these:
|Public Relations: Royal Caribbean Caught Infiltrating Review Sites ...|
Mar 8, 2009 ... Meet the "Royal Caribbean Champions," a group of fifty prolific posters to popular online communities that Royal Caribbean rewards with ...
consumerist.com/5166291/royal-caribbean-caught-infiltrating-review-sites-with-viral-marketing-team - Similar pages
Frommer Weighs In On Royal Caribbean Champions - Jeanne Leblanc ...
Recently we have also seen "ghost bloggers," those who blog or tweet on behalf of others, outed as well. This happens more with regard to celebrities than brands.
The Britney Spears Twitter stream has actually become a model of transparency. At one time, it appeared that the tweets were all written by Britney personally. However, more recently it has been made clear that others are tweeting. Some are signed Britney, but others by her manager or her social media director.
In this case, believe what you read. Transparency is crucial to social media success and establishing trust and credibility. If you are going to reward, incite, invite, and schmooze bloggers, be upfront about it -- and ask the bloggers to be transparent as well. If you are blogging or tweeting on behalf of someone else, be upfront about that as well.
Brands develop social media platforms to establish dialogue and connect with consumers, but it can sometimes end up as a platform for abuse or negativity. While it may be painful to see negative feedback about your brand, it can also be highly instructional, informative, and valuable. However, if negativity encroaches outside of the brand, it can deflect from the objectives of the effort and project negatively on your brand.
Skittles recently launched a site integrating multiple social applications including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia, in a gesture to allow consumers to define the brand. Users started posting racial slurs, profanity, and other inappropriate comments. Skittles apparently decided to allow the community to manage itself (or not) as illustrated in the comment below from "Summerstar1227."
I think people are blowing this out of proportion. Skittles is a candy… usually marketed towards kids. Why do adults feel the need to go on a website mostly directed towards children and swear and say rude things? Grow up already! More like freedom of ignorance, not speech.
Nevertheless, many pundits were quick to condemn it as a social media "failure." Skittles' seeming decision not to filter or respond directly is not necessarily a failure, but it does illustrate to brands the importance of monitoring these platforms and being prepared to respond in a way that aligns with a brand's image and objectives.
What one might consider a failure may be a success to someone else, depending on the desired outcome. Decisions about how to respond (or not), filter, participate, or moderate should be made based on consideration of how each approach would reflect the brand persona and objectives of the effort.
The degrees of success or failure will also differ as viewed by distinctly different stakeholders and constituents. It is impossible to determine failure without clearly defined criteria for success. The failure occurs when you don't know your options, consider your constituents, and plan upfront accordingly.
In social media, particularly if you are a big brand or make a bold move, everyone is watching. Opinions -- good and bad -- will be held and expressed, but in the end, your success will depend on how well you have prepared and how well you have established your unique set of success standards.
There are plenty of highly visible, epic so-called "failures" that folks are quick to point out in social media -- and many more small, quiet ones. However, in most cases there are elements of success that can be launch pads for future successes and lessons learned.
Thanks are due to the aforementioned brands for being among those that took a risk to benefit all of us. These examples may well be a snapshot in time and not fully representative of their current and future successes -- or that of any other brand.
The overall lesson here? Plan for success, prepare for failure.