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3 ways brands are still failing at social media

3 ways brands are still failing at social media Adam Broitman

In 2006, Podcamp Boston was a turning point in both my career and my general perception toward media and communications. It was an "unconference" that would spawn hundreds more of its kind. Although 300 people turned out that weekend to discuss the still nascent topic of social media, it would take years for brands to catch up.

Fast forward to 2012. A lot has changed in the world of social media marketing, but brands still have a long way to go when it comes to fully demonstrating understanding of the notion of brands as social objects. Through real world examples, I will outline three areas that continue to stand in the way of brands that are attempting to acclimate to the new social order of communications. All three themes can be boiled down to a common denominator -- lack of integration. The diagram in the next section frames an integrated communications structure that includes the essential elements of social media.

3 ways brands are still failing at social media

Social brand design and communication

This article highlights trends and instances where brand marketers have suffered due to the lack of a unifying, holistic vision. In order to cultivate a holistic strategy, one must first be able to visualize the key elements that make up "the whole." The following graphic is a quantification of each element within the communications ecosystem in which a social brand is developed. The diagram includes elements of communication design both old and new.

The system represented in this image frames social media in the greater context of the media, marketing, and advertising industries. Six years ago this chart may not have incorporated user experience design and content curation. These two disciplines have always been significant, but the maturation of the social web has led to an unmanageably large output of content. This flood of dialogue and expression has made it extremely challenging to navigate the social waters of the web. It has also made it increasingly difficult for brands to create meaningful social engagements equipped with the ability to cut through the clutter. In 2006, the mere presence of a brand in a social environment could have been meaningful. Today, given the crowded nature of networks like Facebook, effective social brand communication is much more challenging.

The difficulties associated with social media marketing lead some brand marketers to overlook the most basic communications principles in lieu of "the big idea." The industry has spent years exploring social media as a marketing vehicle. Still, many initiatives continue to be deployed in a manner akin to a 30-second TV commercial -- a channel where user experience design is of minimal importance, and engagement levels are very low (if not nonexistent). Insufficient forethought and attention to user experience design as strategic planning often strangles respectable ideas, keeping them from becoming great social marketing successes. "Thirty-second vision" and linear thinking can also turn exceptional ideas into detrimental ones. Let's examine three themes that exemplify how many brands are still missing the mark when it comes to social brand design:

  • The "which social platform can we ruin next" edict

  • The "'like' me today, gone tomorrow" model

  • The "let's get everyone to smoke our hashtag" directive

The "which social platform can we ruin next" edict

"If your strategy is terrible, it will be terrible no matter what social network you employ."

Pinterest has become the social network du jour. While Pinterest offers a tremendous amount of value to users, many brands have simply staked claim to their corner of the Pinterverse, without providing any value at all. Some brands have simply snatched up their name to avoid brand-jacking, but others have made actual attempts at engagement -- some good and some uniquely bad.

First, let's pick on Verizon Wireless a little bit (we will do so respectfully). It seemed to jump in headfirst, only to realize the error of its ways. This particular case was not detrimental, as the mistake was caught in time.

(Disclaimer: The information used in this article is public information with no connection to the brand. There is a possibility the communications highlighted are, in fact, cases of brand-jacking. Nonetheless, they serve the purposes of this article.)

At the onset of writing this article, the Verizon Wireless Pinterest account looked like the above image -- a series of brand-focused "pins" and promotional items. This type of presence does not take into account a variety of components outlined in the social brand design and communication framework. Here are some areas where the brand missed:

  • Lack of story

  • Lack of conversation/curation elements

  • No clear user experience design that could create value and potentially lead users to a point of conversion

  • Lack of strategy

A week or so later, the presence looked like this:

Apparently someone at Verizon Wireless realized it needed a reboot.

What could a wireless company possibly do to add value to this community?

History of wireless

  • Historical photos of vintage wireless devices (i.e., the very first mobile phone).

  • This would add a level of storytelling that would be both interesting to Pinties (a made-up term for Pinterest users) and would be a storytelling vehicle for the brand.


  • Classic moments in cinema where a mobile device played a significant role.

  • This could open up an avenue for conversation and curation, allowing users to add their own pins.

Mobile goes mobile

  • A series of quirky images that humanize the mobile phone and show the many places a mobile phone could go, if it had the ability to "go mobile."

  • This example would invite the community to co-create with the brand in a silly, yet fun exercise in absurdity.

You pin, we win

  • A search for Verizon Wireless on Pinterest shows that users have taken it upon themselves to add Verizon-branded content.

  • The sheer acknowledgment of these pinners would be a social win.

Admittedly, these examples are no stroke of genius (if you want genius, you have to pay for it), but they offer some direction. A truly successful initiative would also take into account the overarching user experience and all of the elements in our social brand design and communication framework. We got a bit carried away with idea three -- have a look:

The "'like' me today, gone tomorrow" model

Facebook "likes," Twitter follows, and Tumblr reblogs -- what are they worth, really? They are certainly worth something:

  • They are an acknowledgement that you are doing something your customers value.

  • They are the first step toward meaningful consumer dialogue.

  • They make you look good in front of your client or boss.

OK, so No. 3 is ultimately not meaningful, but let's be honest, none of us are without ego, and while no one is willing to admit it, it feels good to deliver a report with big numbers.

Last year Wendy's launched a pretty creative initiative on Twitter. The campaign was titled "@girlbehindsix" and was deemed a "140 character game show." The mechanic was unique, and the initial response was overwhelmingly successful. The account acquired 33,000 followers in a month and achieved a Klout score of 72.

Giving away money and prizes makes it much easier to achieve the kind of numbers mentioned above, but this was a feat nonetheless. One questionable element in this initiative is the ability to connect this tactic to a larger strategic objective. What exactly does the brand plan to do with these followers? It is understandable that this was an awareness campaign, but on the surface, it seems there were some chips left on the table.

As you can see there are still more than 26,000 followers here and no activity in months. Will "@girlbehindsix" be making a comeback? If so, when? And will the followers still be around? It is admittedly very easy to play Monday morning quarterback, but given the success of this campaign, we feel that holding it to the highest standards is justifiable.

The "let's get everyone to smoke our hashtag" directive

Let's start by making sure everyone realizes Twitter did not invent the hashtag (#). A Twitter user invented the hashtag in order to more easily categorize tweets about a particular event. Since its invention in 2007, brands have gone crazy with the hashtag. Rather than identifying creative new ways to engage consumers on Twitter, many brands have opted to use the almighty hashtag as their core strategic weapon. Hashtags have become "memetic barometers," or ways to track popular topics. Being on the positive end of a meme can be great for a brand, but attempting to fabricate a trend and ensure a positive outcome is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. One cannot fully blame the brand or its agency for attempting such a tactic, as promoted trends are an advertising product created by Twitter. In essence, promoted "trends" are not trends at all.

McDonalds recently learned the downside of promoted trends by trying to get Twitter users to adopt a brand-created hashtag, #McDStories. I am sure the McDonalds marketing team had the best of intentions, but reality set in when undesirable and disparaging tweets began to emerge. Rather than trying to address these tweets head on, McDonalds took the promoted trend down -- but the damage was done. Here are a few takeaways:

  • Twitter is an open forum, and people love to complain on open forums.

  • Twitter users are not your fans, they are Twitter users.

  • Paying for a promoted trend does not make it an actual trend.

  • Proper strategic planning that considers every user scenario could have forecasted the situation McDonalds found itself in.

  • If you are going to try and get people to tell your story, you might want to consider the stories they might have to tell.

Take a look at a safer, more community-centric approach to promoted trends:

In this example, Bing embraces an effective tactic: getting people to tell their own stories in a contextually relevant way. Though one of the tweets employs undesirable language, it is not aimed at or directly associated with the brand -- plus, it lends credibility to the conversation, as it is unencumbered expression (brands need to be OK with this, period). In social brand design, the people who follow your brand are as important as the story the brand puts forth.


Back in 2006 at Podcamp Boston (organized by Chris Brogan and Christopher Penn, with the help of C.C. Chapman, Bryan Person, Steve Garfield, Whitney Hoffman, and others), the digital marketing landscape was different. After a meeting with Dick Costolo and Brent Hill of FeedBurner, they told me that one of their staffers, Eric Olson, was going to the same event (an event my co-workers at the time chuckled at). But the conference -- with the help of Mitch Joel, Jason and Melanie Van Orden, Justin Kownacki, John Havens, Eric Skiff, Julien Smith, Doug Haslam, Scott Monty, Kristen Crusius, and many more in attendance -- marked a turning point in my perception of media and communications.

Today, though the nature of storytelling has changed, human nature has not. Modern communications must take into account both traditional principles of humanity and human behavior in an age of social technology. The social brand design and communication framework is simply meant to be a reminder of all necessary considerations when devising a social marketing initiative. Print it out. Hang it in your office -- it could save you from an unfortunate marketing mishap.

Adam Broitman is chief creative strategist, Something Massive.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Men with thought bubble with social network sign" image via Shutterstock.

Recognized by iMedia’s top 25 Internet Marketing Leaders and Innovators, Broitman is known for devising effective creative strategies that live at the cross section of technology and marketing. As Vice President and Senior Business Leader of...

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