ellipsis flag icon-blogicon-check icon-comments icon-email icon-error icon-facebook icon-follow-comment icon-googleicon-hamburger icon-imedia-blog icon-imediaicon-instagramicon-left-arrow icon-linked-in icon-linked icon-linkedin icon-multi-page-view icon-person icon-print icon-right-arrow icon-save icon-searchicon-share-arrow icon-single-page-view icon-tag icon-twitter icon-unfollow icon-upload icon-valid icon-video-play icon-views icon-website icon-youtubelogo-imedia-white logo-imedia logo-mediaWhite review-star thumbs_down thumbs_up

10 ways to guarantee a losing social campaign

10 ways to guarantee a losing social campaign Joseph Carrabis

I wrote about successful social marketing strategies in "9 ways to guarantee a winning social campaign," and defined successful social marketing strategies as, "we made more money from social marketing than we spent on social marketing."

Both that article and this one are based on NextStage studying the social efforts of more than 400 companies in the U.S. and Canada from 2009 to 2012. We monitored companies as diverse as Alberto-Culver, Boston Scientific, Gucci America, Pioneer North America, and Walgreens. That study also produced a lot of information on how not to do social marketing.

10 ways to guarantee a losing social campaign

An inflexible business plan is social marketing's worst enemy

That's the big takeaway from this research. Everything in this article comes down to businesses not appreciating the speed and power of consumer voices gone social. Sticking your head in the sand or looking the other way when things go sour is not an option in social marketing. No brand is big enough to tell consumers it's the brand's way or the highway. Inflexible social business plans result in negative SROI, period.

Beyond that, the top failing social strategies -- a mix of business and social, as with the previous "9 ways to guarantee a winning social campaign," -- are documented here, bad to worst, so readers can avoid others' mistakes. All failed social campaigns had at least one and sometimes several of these strategies at work.

Business: 50 percent of network buys failed

The real crapshoot was the social version of traditional network buys. Fifty percent of the businesses that failed did network buys.

Network buys failed because consumers are far smarter than businesses think, especially when they're being fed information they don't want or no longer need.

For example, car shoppers want to see car information where they want to find it, not everywhere they look. There have been lots of studies that revealed carefully placed promotions work much better than identical promotions broadly placed.

The brain will look for what the mind wants but filters kick in quickly -- what's called "inattentional blindness" -- when the brain sees the same thing everywhere. The end result is that things -- even wanted things -- are ignored. It's much like looking for your car keys and not seeing them even when they're right in front of you. People won't even remember, recognize, or acknowledge what's right in front of them when they're staring right at it even if they want it, a phenomenon called "fixate but ignore."

So it was with social marketing network buys. Names and comments are ignored when they show up everywhere, so don't do it -- half the time, anyway. Or as one international brand's marketing director said, "I learned a while ago that media buyers don't care about their success, only that they spent the budget."

Business: 57 percent of cross-platform efforts failed

Fifty-seven percent of failed social strategies involved cross-platform efforts -- using the same social methods on different social sites. The reason is simple; social "here" isn't social "there." Each platform -- Facebook, FourSquare, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, and others -- draw crowds with distinct psychologies (except in certain and very predictable cases).

"Here is there" efforts earned universally poor results. There's psychological overlap in the different social platforms, definitely, and that overlap demonstrates needs unmet "here" being filled "there" and vice-versa. These unmet needs also indicate the same outreach methodology won't work across all platforms. The good news is that the overlap is exploitable for little extra cost and big return.

Business/Social: 60 percent expecting large rewards from large efforts failed

Sixty percent of failures were due to a specific business-based ignorance of social network dynamics; large efforts do not automatically equal large rewards in the social sphere.

This may seem counter-intuitive, and it's not. There's no such thing as a successful large scale effort in social marketing despite any success stories you'll hear; the cost per response never justifies the effort (and I mean final, undeniable, cash-in-the-pocket success, not "we upped our fan-base 60 percent").

Social efforts need to be highly targeted along group and brand identity lines. Large populations have so little in common that large efforts produce low to no results by definition. Acquisition and retention costs are prohibitive, and the most obvious demonstration is politics. No candidate is winning by landslides anymore.

Several small efforts, each targeted to a specific population, can produce much higher results with much lower acquisition and retention costs and cover the entire population spectrum.

Social: 61 percent that controlled the conversation failed

Sixty-one percent of failures occurred when businesses tried to control the conversation.

Controlling the conversation only works short term at best. There are too many consumers talking, and they're talking in too many places for any system to keep up. It doesn't matter what tools you use or what those tools claim -- social sentiment is a moving target and the number of variables involved makes ensemble weather prediction simple by comparison (you've not seen big data until you've seen ensemble weather prediction systems).

Companies that actively attempted to control consumer dialogue where quickly spotted and were equally quickly accused of (remember it?) a lack of transparency.

Business: 69 percent relying on high tech/bleeding edge failed

I wrote in "9 ways to guarantee a winning social campaign" that 80 percent of the companies with successful social marketing strategies didn't waste budget on shiny-object technology. The other side of that is that 69 percent of brands that did rely on high tech and bleeding edge technologies had social campaigns that failed. High tech and related bleeding edge systems caught consumers' eyes for a minute, their attention for 15 to 20 seconds, and then, if the conversation wasn't happening or wasn't worthy, consumers left.

Remember when everybody had to have a store in SecondLife? Now people don't even know what SecondLife is. Not long ago, big brands were refusing to take part in the Facebook pas-de-deux. Now many brands are rethinking their social spend, period.

Business/Social: 71 percent thinking all social networks are the same failed

Similar to using the same social methods on different social sites, failing to utilize each social platform's unique features accounted for 71 percent of the failures studied. The social devil is in the site's details, and not knowing each site's social value to consumers and how to exploit that value is begging for failure.

Site details involve how different age groups, ethnic and cultural groups, educational and training backgrounds, the genders, and more deal with socially transmitted information. It took NextStage years to convince businesses that they couldn't market to Kansas the same way they marketed to California, and recently a major telecomm learned the hard way that their online social presence had to be location specific to be taken seriously.

Businesses that don't recognize and use each platform's social "uniquenesses" fail, period.

Business/Social: 75 percent failed that bought fans, friends, "likes," mayorships…

Seeding communities -- paying for fans, friends, "likes," mayorships, and most recently pins, etc. -- to demonstrate high levels of interest was costly and, in the end, an obvious manipulation.

The problem with seeding communities is that the demonstrated interest wasn't genuine interest, and it became obvious sooner rather than later. It's like having your best friend tell you they lied about something important 20 years ago. You forgive them, sure, but chances are you never forget and you're left with a nagging doubt about everything else they've done since. Consumers did stick around, but when freebies lagged or were no longer worthy, they fled. And worse, once they knew they were being jammed they often jammed back.

Business/Social: 82 percent contained conversations

Containment is controlling with censorship added in. Controlling attempts to steer conversations, containment attempts to stop conversations, and 82 percent of failed social strategies used containment at some point.

Containment isn't communication. This lesson was learned by many and primarily by executives who were "old school." What amazes me about most old school executives is that they don't learn from their pasts, they simply repeat them and blame somebody else, something originally covered in "Organizations Don't Retain What They Learn."

The past three years have shown the world that stopping conversations works poorly in an online world. It's like Whac-A-Mole; smack one down here and another pops up over there. The worst part -- from a business perspective -- is that the conversations pop up faster and faster, usually with increasing virulence, and eventually all these disconnected moles join forces and stop the business in its tracks. Not good in a highly networked world.

The only time containment works is when the business's audience is small enough that the audience essentially is partnered to the business, meaning it's in the audience's best interest not to spread the message.

Business: 87 percent put anti-social people in charge of social campaigns

The second greatest reason companies' social efforts failed in the past three years was due to put-ting anti- and low-social people in charge of social efforts. You'd be amazed at the number of anthrophobes and sociophobes in social marketing positions.

Ochlophobes (crowd fearers) and agoraphobes (fear of open spaces) are easier to spot, and people tend to think of them as being poor social strategists. The truth is their anxiety makes them unusually keen social observers and strategists. Ochlophobes and agoraphobes like people, just not crowds, and social marketing crowds are ethereal; they're there, you just don't see them so the ochlo- and agora-phobes' anxiety never kicks in.

Anthrophobes and sociophobes don't like people, crowds, social gatherings, social networks, you, me, or the screen you're viewing this on. The business problem is that anthro- and socio-phobes have learned to hide their anxiety to survive and function in business. Fortunately, there are tests that determine someone's best role in a social campaign available.

Business: 95 percent failed to get knowledgeable advice

The majority of companies with failed social campaigns either thought they knew it all and didn't need help or got the cheapest or least experienced help they could find.

To the former, it's great to hire from within but not when the necessary expertise doesn't exist within the company.

To the latter, check credentials. Many companies that failed did get outside help, but from individuals and consulting firms with no background in social cognition, social theory, social anything, and whose social marketing resume included things like "Successfully got my daughter's CD sales more than 1,000 copies."

Are you chuckling? Laughing? Shaking your head in disbelief?

That was one person's only claim to social marketing fame, yet they got jobs teaching social marketing and networking to businesses as documented in "I Can Crack My Knuckles Therefore I Must Be a Chiropractor! (Musings on Expertise)."


There are lots of reasons for businesses' social efforts to fail. Any business falling into one of the above buckets is almost guaranteed to either fail or spend lots of money avoiding failure. As I noted at the start of this article, we interviewed and tracked more than 400 companies to draw our final conclusions. What is listed here is the crème de la crème of social failure, so be "new school" and learn from others' mistakes.

Joseph Carrabis is the founder of and chief research officer for NextStage Evolution.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Vector background of the icons social computer network" and "Vector seamless pattern with dislike signs" images via Shutterstock.

Joseph Carrabis is Founder and CRO of The NextStage Companies, NextStage Global and NextStage Analytics, companies that specialize in helping clients improve their marketing efforts and understand customer behavior. He's also applied neuroscience,...

View full biography


to leave comments.

Commenter: Joseph Carrabis

2013, April 11

Thanks for the nod!
Yes, now some (and not all!) businesses are realizing its a useless metric. But it did take 3+ years to realize that.
Thanks for reading and commenting.

Commenter: Jack Gazdik

2013, April 11

Hi Joseph, great article. I think you made some excellent points, and I'd like to expand further on the idea of buying likes and follows. Not only do people quickly realize what the brand is doing, they're ultimately buying a useless metric. Likes, Fans and Follows mean nothing without real people engaging with the brands content, hopefully creating brand awareness and later purchase intent and brand advocacy.