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4 ways to fail at social media

Jonathan Salem Baskin
4 ways to fail at social media Jonathan Salem Baskin
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Quick, name a social media campaign that failed recently. I bet you can't, and that the best you can do is recollect a social effort that was imperfectly social, or failed to be social enough. When every effort is at its core an experiment, any outcome has value as a teaching moment. So, like the happy grading scheme in most primary schools, social media efforts don't so much fail as they succeed differently.


Even better, since there's no such thing as bad publicity, every measure of awareness, likability, or clicks is good, and can be held up as an overlay to any corporate activity or period of time to prove a benefit. Causality is far less important than concurrency; if they happen at the same time, they're linked. Pepsi's Refresh Project generated endless clicks, which must have supported sales. So did the Old Spice hilarious YouTube video campaign. The Ford Fiesta generated tons of buzz by lending cars to twentysomethings, and there's a statistical probability that the resulting content was somehow linked to car test drives and sales.


But social media advocates don't even have to make such claims. Nike's big social tactic during the recent NBA Finals was to publish real-time stats on tweets for its sponsored players -- tweets about tweets -- proving that even social media about social media is a good thing. It works like magic.


Wait. There's more good news. Social media activities are associated with everything but responsible for nothing, as evidenced by the fact that their most glaring failures... er, I meant different successes... have no real or lasting effect on brands. Nestle outrages environmentalists, Pampers scares moms, and Motrin offends them. Southwest evicts a fat guy from a plane, and United destroys somebody's guitar. In each case, massive social buzz ensures, followed by silence. The businesses go on. Many of them thrive.


There's no real impact even from outright slams or culture jammer social attacks. Barclay's bike sponsorship in London got stickered-over with profanity. Chevron's "We Agree" campaign prompted spoof ads touting dictatorships and pollution. 911 conspiracy theorists jammed live coverage at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Again, nobody cared (or, in the case of the Chevron spots, some people took them seriously and liked them).


How can there be any upside to social media successes if there's no downside to their failures? What are the chances that a particular marketing tactic would always work?


At least with traditional advertising, we could tell when something didn't, since the primary purpose of commercial speech was to sell things. The math was as simple as the cause and effect of the physics. There was always a conversational component -- usually accomplished through the occasional branding TV commercial and customer service telephone hotlines -- but it was an adjunct to the core transactional conversations enabled by paid media. Some brands felt they needed such additional exposure, not to mention believed they could afford it. Those that could did so with the tangible metric of money that came from the rest of their marketing spend.


Perhaps this is why social media still seems like something extra, and struggles to get traction with CMOs to win a larger share of marketing budgets. No amount of complaining about it matters. Calling marketers old-fashioned or calling them out for being foolish Luddites isn't the same as making a convincing argument. Endless "top 10" lists of how to do social media are as useless as they are common. Holding up examples of competitors' social successes -- various permutations of the "everyone's doing it, so buy these magic beans" advocacy that gets passed off for analysis -- gets old after a while. The shift just isn't some inexorable fact of nature.


Maybe it's wrong to be right all the time? Perhaps a bit more honest criticism and introspection would make a better case for brands to invest more in social media.


So let's take five minutes and do an experiment: Could we make the case that the Pepsi Refresh Project, Ford Fiesta Movement, and Old Spice "Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaigns were failures and, if so, what could we learn from them about doing better next time?


The four Ps of social media failure
Making the case for failure is reasonably easy, since the concurrency I noted earlier in this piece is the backbone of the metrics for each campaign (along with the merits of broader awareness, which are priceless, of course.) While it makes holding social programs accountable for failures somewhat slippery, it's easy to point out that all three brands suffered during them. Pepsi fell to third place behind Coke and Diet Coke. Ford's Fiesta sold only as well in 2010 as the fourth place Chevy Aveo (which spent nothing on social media). Old Spice didn't suffer during its campaign, per se, but its sales successes tracked far more closely to its paid media TV commercials and in-store promo coupons.


You can see how the analysis is arbitrary and rigged, can't you? Interpretation of success is no more legitimate than claiming failure. The data supports either case. Therein hide the qualitative shortcomings of the campaigns, which each evidenced the four p's of social media failure.


Promoted creative branding, not products or services
There was nothing authentic, real, or truly ownable about any of the content produced for Pepsi or Ford, and little that could be claimed to be exclusively Old Spice. Really smart agency people came up with really smart ideas, which is what they've been doing for generations: a crowdsourced microgiving contest that any brand could have sponsored, not just Pepsi; a campaign to allow would-be car owners to talk about themselves and not particulars of any car brand, let alone Ford; and a memorable spokesperson who was funny but could have just as easily represented any men's care product instead of Old Spice.


It's funny that it's 2011 and we're still celebrating the creative ideas that agencies shop around until they find willing corporate sponsors. Did GM turn down the Movement idea? Was Coke uninterested in a philanthropy campaign? Could the Old Spice Guy have hawked Axe or Gillette products? Any of the brands competing in those categories could come up with something similar, or something different but similarly unrelated to the substance of their brands. Ultimately, Pepsi, Ford, and Old Spice spent money on social media campaigns to tell consumers that they could expertly hire creative agencies to produce social media campaigns.

Played to consumer diversions, not needs
These campaigns misused social experience because there was no "there" there beyond the aforementioned creative marketing content. Nothing that anybody needed, required, asked for, or affirmed had any subsequent utility. Peer-to-peer communication is the underlying engine of online social experience, and it's the most powerful quality that has changed how people make decisions. Yet Pepsi, Ford, and Old Spice added absolutely nothing useful to this experience; if anything, the content was a diversion from it, or it hijacked the mechanism of sharing and put it to work propagating useless content.


Marketing was never about entertainment but rather information (David Ogilvy spoke eloquently on this point a half century ago), yet we've convinced ourselves that brands have to outsource the substance of social campaigns to people and subjects outside of any commercial conversation. The best defense for this approach is that consumers don't want to hear from brands anymore, and that they don't trust them when they do. So we celebrate campaigns that deliver empty branding calories, turning a blind eye to the fact that a large percentage of what consumers repeat back to themselves and one another originated with brands. We get what we ask for, and in these instances the brands asked for nothing other than the opportunity to waste consumers' time, albeit pleasantly.


Purported to be social when they weren't
All three campaigns could be classified as "sponsored conversations," in that they didn't arise organically and, as such, had no life beyond the time and space that brand sponsorship allowed. There was nothing really social about them other than what the brands designed and facilitated; it might have appeared that consumers had some autonomy to act on their own, but their actions were really reactions prompted by the campaigns. It was marketing, not conversation -- well, marketing without any marketing to it.


"Form follows function" is a saying in architecture and industrial design, and it suggests that things should be constructed to enable specific purposes. Pepsi, Ford, and Old Spice turned this truism on its head, forming campaigns that were driven by the functions of consumption and sharing. The goals of those "conversations" weren't to reach any conclusions, better understanding, or agreements -- which are arguably among the key purposes for real conversations -- but instead to maximize the mechanics of conversation. When you try to do that with content devoid of any validity for such purposes, you end up with function following form without purpose and, as soon as the sponsorship money dries up, the functions cease and the faux conversations stop. Nobody was really "talking" in the first place.


Pissed away attention for short-term awareness, not relationships
This is perhaps the most damning shortcoming of these campaigns, since they all evidenced half-lives of a nanosecond or less; not only does their impact, however happily measured or claimed, dissipate once the marketing sponsorship money ends, but all of those consumer interactions -- if you can call beaming entertainment content at them engagement at all -- also gets flushed down the toilet. I'm not aware that Pepsi, Ford, or Old Spice have gotten participants in their social campaigns to sign-up for anything even approximating an ongoing relationship with the businesses behind the brand marketing


I wonder how many times a brand gets to ask for consumers' attention. My guess is that there's no explicit limit, but that the efficacy of the next attempt gets harder and more expensive if the last request wasn't worth it, and that it's more work to keep them engaged time after time. Our old-fashioned ideas about breaking through clutter and entertaining consumers allows marketers to avoid this ugly reality, but it's in that same reality that commercial transactions must be accomplished in order to pay for award-winning social media campaigns. It's more than likely that Pepsi, Ford, and Old Spice will have to get more creative (and louder) to pull off their next actions, instead of being able to quietly and substantively build on the communities they pulled together the last time. That's because they weren't really communities, but rather audiences who were bought and paid for.


Conclusion
I'm sure the media tracking software at Pepsi, Ford, and Old Spice started pinging with the first mention of their brands at the beginning of this essay, and I'm sure that there are detailed PowerPoints and quotable factoids ready to challenge every one of my Ps. We'll likely see some agitated responses in the comments below. But making an argument isn't the same thing as reporting the truth, and I wish folks worked as hard trying to disprove their most fond hopes and beliefs as they did ensuring that they could prove them no matter what.


I know conversation matters, and I know that the paradigm of communication has inexorably shifted away from the control of businesses and into the hands of consumers. It's just strange that the best we marketers can do is to put nonsense entertainment into that mix. Providing truthful, meaningful, and useful information that makes consumers smarter, better, and happier doesn't mean we have to be boring and dry; in fact, the real challenge isn't making up nonsense excuses to get their attention, but making the stuff that matters attention-worthy.


Perhaps we work so hard to prove that we're right that we continue to pursue somewhat wrong approaches? It could be why mainstream brands continue to be slow to embrace social. Maybe it's not that they're dumb Luddites, but that we're too smart for our own good?


Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist and author of "Histories of Social Media."


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Comments

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Commenter: Diane Bisgeier

2011, June 21

Can you cite some social campaigns *do* embody meaningful, brand-building conversations you advocate?

Commenter: Jonathan Tavss

2011, June 21

Nicely done! Simply, the strongest part to me is the challenge to all marketers to go beyond the campaign (or mechanic) and think strategically about how the communication will continue with those who enter the fray. That is sometimes the tricky part as too many businesses are about the present quarter and not holding to the 5 and 10 year plans that used to be more prevalent over a decade ago. It all comes back to the quest for splash while not always considering substance. Its too bad that many miss that simple element in building a long-lasting relationship...

Commenter: Alex Romanovich

2011, June 21

Well, I agree and disagree. Indeed, Social Media efforts need to be grounded in a result (bottom sales or conversions would be nice), however, Social Media by its definition is designed to facilitate social exchange and communications. We tend to drive everything towards the bottom line and results and I am a big proponent of that, but social media, unlike any other channel, is also designed for experimentation and test marketing. So, yes, results would be nice, and defining it precisely would be nice too (clicks, sales, conversions, etc.), but how do you monetize conversations? So, if Social Media is the tool for sales, for example, indeed, the goals are very clear, but then the tactics are very different as well. Social Media is still very fragile and pegging it into one particular category would be very subjective and perhaps wrong at time. We are witnessing a wonderful development and I can't wait to see what will happen in 2,3,5 years, when Social Media 2.0 and 3.0 will emerge. I have no idea what it will be, but I can't wait to find out.

Commenter: dan renyi

2011, June 21

Wow. Great insight, thanks a lot. Really liked the architecture parallel "form follows function". My FB takeaway for this article goes something like: "Figure out what you need to give to your audience and find a cool way to deliver that via social media. Forget the 'we need to do something awesome on FB' attitude."