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4 signs you're a social media failure

4 signs you're a social media failure Denise Zimmerman

"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.

Lesson learned
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?

Lesson learned
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 ...
Mar 19, 2009 ... Arthur Frommer has joined those who are questioning the value of user reviews and user-generated content in the wake of the Royal Caribbean ...
blogs.courant.com/travel_columnists_leblanc/2009/03/frommer-weighs-in-on-royal-car.html - 30k -

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.

And Guy Kawasaki, chief executive of alltop.com, who has more than 113,000 followers on Twitter, acknowledges that his staff tweets for him.

Lesson learned
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.

Lesson learned
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.

Denise Zimmerman is president and chief strategy officer of NetPlus Marketing Inc. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dzimmerman.

Denise is President and Chief Strategy Officer at Netplus, a top 25 iMedia Agency. She and the broader team at Netplus, consistently delight and amaze clients with a partnership approach that delivers jaw dropping results and measurable business...

View full biography


to leave comments.

Commenter: john moorhead

2009, May 12

Great article

Commenter: Daniela Dalbokova

2009, May 12

Thanks! It is just in the topic of my MBA Thesis.
Thanks for the help!

Commenter: Denise Zimmerman

2009, May 08

Oren - you are absolutely right. And brands are engaging with their "fans" in a number of ways such as you point out with Nokia. In fact, if you do not have the resources or bandwidth to actively engage regularly, opting your fans and other influential evangalists is a very viable option.

Thank you for pointing that out. There is however still the challenge of brand confusion when others use your logo and represent themselves as if they are the company. They may be well intentioned however and there could be opportunity there. There are also many brand enthusiasts who actively engage socially around brands but do not represent themselves in a way that could be confusing.

I think we are already writing that article! I will certainly bring this up with the editorial staff.

Thanks for the helpful comments and insight.

Commenter: Oren Levine

2009, May 08

Denise,. I would be interested to see that next article, on the challenge of the "social" part of social media. The activities of your fans and customers does not need to always be a "risk"; I think there's an opportunity for companies and brands to embrace its fans and encourage their independent social media efforts. Nokia (where I work) does this quite successfully, encouraging a wide network of technology bloggers and others to comment and criticize.
More here: http://smartblogs.com/socialmedia/2009/04/24/blogwell-preview-nokias-molly-schonthal/

Commenter: Denise Zimmerman

2009, May 08

Kudos to Lolita for responding to set the record straight. What happened here points more to an issue of brand management.

WeightWatchers is not alone in this and we could find many other brands that are wrestling with potential confusion and the hi-jacking of their brand. For all intents and purposes the Facebook page referenced in this article looked like it was from the company, while there were many pages that were clearly from "fans", this page had their company logo, link to website and so forth. The perception that it was company driven was further enforced by the Twitter page that directed folks to the Facebook page.

So there is another perhaps different lesson to be learned here. When you have thousands of folks who can engage in social media, and you are a well known brand, you are at risk for activity like this. And yes, it is daunting, new and challenging to wrangle it all in. There are a number of ways to prepare and respond to this - and perhaps that is for another article.

Lolita messaged me directly and said that she would keep me updated. All we can do is to prepare, plan and respond as things evolved - and as an industry, support each other as we bloop, bleep and sometimes blunder, whether it is really us - or someone who just "acts" like us.


2009, May 08

Good points made throughout. However, I work at Weight Watchers and wanted to point out that the examples on Facebook and Twitter that you reference as your case studies are not pages that were developed by the company. These 'branded' pages were, like many others out there, developed by fans, consumers, etc. It's fairly common practice for people to develop pages/accounts as a sign of their loyalty to a particular product or brand and while it's fantastic that people are engaging with each other it does also lend to some confusion as seen here by your round up.
We have a great respect for social media and networking and wouldn't abandon or just "throw" anything out there without making sure that our fans would find it of value to them. For a good example of our official presence in this space, please visit www.myspace.com/weightwatchers or the Weight Watchers Supermarket Foods fan page on Facebook. I'll definitely keep you apprised of other online initiatives that Weight Watchers does in the near future.

Commenter: Larry Evans

2009, May 08

I was just writing when my comments disappeared... hope you did not get a truncated comment.
In any event, thank you. As you know I am a novice, but your suggestion on being prepared is a good one and one that is applicable to most goals. Setting measurables, tangible or intangible, associated with those goals, is a no lose situation. It allows you to anticipate and react intelligently.

Commenter: Robin Broitman

2009, May 07

Terrific article and great examples to illustrate each point. I've added this to my "Superlist of What Not To Do In Social Media." http://www.interactiveinsightsgroup.com/blog1/superlist_of_what_not_to_do_in_social_media/

Commenter: Robert Brill

2009, May 06

I sent a tweet to @WeightWatchers_ about this article. Let's see if they respond. My twitter screen name is Digital20s.

Commenter: Mark Palony

2009, May 06

The example of Motrin's knee-jerk reaction is an illustration of not understanding the technology. Ten years ago most of those offended would have had to the USPS or phone to lodge a complaint. Today, with so many social networking sites at our fingertips, it's easy to make a ripple look like a tidal wave. I hope others learn from Motrin's mistake and take the time to understand the market's reaction before cranking up the PR apology machine.

Commenter: Zoe Sands

2009, May 06

Great article and good use of case studies. From my social media experience I think the most important points for me are keeping the social media accounts active and monitoring both the positive and negative points created during the during the dialogue with the end user. All too often marketers setup multiple social media accounts for one off promotional activities and leave the accounts to fester. Social media needs to be part of the overall online marketing mix and not treated as something separate.