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

7 things social media can't do


It is easy to be seduced by the power, vitality, and increasingly pervasive influence of social media -- so much so that you begin to believe that it can perform magic. In our heated fervor to capture all the potential and opportunities we can, we must be mindful not only of what social media can do, but perhaps more importantly what it can't.

The reality is that social media can't fix existing business issues, nor is it a sure-fire solution for achieving business or marketing objectives. Social media can be an enabler and an accelerator of existing core capabilities, values, attributes, and plans. It can even be a catalyst for change. But it can't magically create what doesn't exist.

Knowing what social media can't do will help manage your expectations and those of your stakeholders, thereby enabling you to dig beyond the surface hype and get to the hearty matter of what is truly possible.

Let's take a look at the key can'ts.

Social media can't substitute for marketing strategy.

Sad, but true. There are still many companies that think that having a Facebook page, a Twitter account, or a YouTube channel is social media marketing. We all know examples of languishing Twitter accounts, inactive Facebook pages, unengaging YouTube Channels, and so forth. Or what about those who think that a marketing objective is to have a certain number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers? Marketing strategies are overarching across media and channels, whether it is social or not. The means, what can be achieved, and the metrics to measure the results might differ across channel. Understanding the opportunities in the social realm and how your marketing strategy can be activated and executed in social media is what makes it marketing -- not the vehicle itself.

Without a marketing strategy and objectives, we risk falling prey to the "click-through syndrome." It's starting already. Folks are counting up and touting how many fans, friends, and followers they have, with no context relative to their business and, in many cases, no relevance to real marketing results and impact.

Social media monitoring firm Sysomos released a report based on an analysis of 600,000 fan pages on Facebook. What were these pages measuring and what meaning does it have? The analysis showed that the major majority of fan pages had between 10 and 1,000 fans. Only 4 percent have more than 10,000 fans, and less than .05 percent have more than 1 million fans.

While all this is interesting -- and even potentially relevant -- the number of fans, followers, app downloads, or views you have is not a marketing strategy or objective. These data points are reflective of a number of variables, including inherent celebrity or popularity of your brand, active participation, effective implementation of your marketing strategy, promotion of your social assets, as well as the size and reach of your brand.

So, for a Fortune 100 company to have less than 500 fans or followers, you can make a level of assumptions that the marketing strategy or social media program is not engaging its current or potential market in any meaningful way. On the flip side, if you are a small local business or a niche product/service, then these sorts of numbers can be meaningful, particularly given the exponential nature of social media. Building your fan base, just like building your email database, is potentially a viable goal and a metric point -- but it is not a marketing strategy.

The number of followers or fans is a measurable number, just as a click or view indicates some level of interest or engagement. Understanding what the numbers indicate and the relevance to your objectives is what is important.

Just as you need to look beyond the click for true marketing impact and success metrics, you have to look beyond the surface metrics in social media as well. Using your monitoring, tracking, and analysis tools, you need to consider the metrics -- retweets, incoming links, engagement, sentiment, impressions on your other sites, increased searches, engagement, and so forth -- and see how they correlate to your marketing and other business objectives. You can't rely solely on the numbers. It's what the numbers lead to that matters. Is your social media program leading to an increase in website visitors that correlate with more sales and impact your marketing objectives? Is it helping to identify new products and services? Decreasing incoming customer service calls?

Without a marketing strategy and objectives, there can be no real measurement for results that support and advance your business goals.

Social media can't succeed without a genuine focus on your customers.

Social media is about listening, engaging, and responding to your customers. If you are not truly focused on your customer, you will not succeed -- period.

Social media can't be a one-off project.

A successful social media initiative is not a one-and-done deal. From a marketing perspective, you can certainly integrate a promotion to ignite participation, engage more customers, and so forth, but it doesn't end there. The Friday's Woody promotion outlined in a previous iMedia article serves as an example of how a one-off promotion without ongoing participation ultimately will cause your efforts to fail. And while they might have close to a million fans, this is certainly not a reflection of any long-term impactful success.

Social media can't work without organization alignment.

Even if your social media efforts are focused on marketing objectives, you are opening up your brand to the world. Anyone, anywhere can say anything. The purpose and objective strategy and guidelines must be shared across disciplines to respond appropriately to the "what if?" scenario. In addition, regardless of the message platform, it is rare for some customer service issues or questions not to arise, so you need to know and have a process in place to get the information you need in a timely matter to respond appropriately. The same applies if your brand is using social media as a customer service platform or any other purpose; there needs to be an understood process for communication when "stuff" happens, as well as consistency in messaging. HR, legal, PR, marketing, and other areas in the organization must be aligned.

Social media can't change the inherent popularity, appeal, or success of your brand.

Really cool, fun, and even memorable marketing can't save a bad product, service, or something that no one really needs or wants. Anyone remember the Pets.com sock puppet? While this was before social media really emerged, the popularity of this mascot was rampant. More than likely, the sock puppet would be a social media celebrity today. "Old world" realities still apply; Pets.com might have been a bit before its time, so it is hard to speculate whether the business would be a success or not today. But the point is that the sock puppet got great awareness and loads of "fans," but the Pets.com business ultimately failed.

Even if you happen to run a successful campaign or effort that attracts significant numbers of fans, followers, and so forth, this is only going to translate into long term, meaningful success if your brand has value to your customers and you have the substantive goods and means to deliver on the message.

If your product is broken, even the greatest social media strategy or program can't fix it. In fact, it will bring these sorts of issues to the forefront. Twitter has the power to change the face of customer service, but without the back-end infrastructure, proper process, and effective communication processes -- real substance -- it will fail.

Social media can't replace experienced digital marketing expertise.

Being an active user of social media does not a marketer make. A successful social media effort integrates social media into the many elements of marketing, including advertising, digital, and PR. Opinion and theory are no match for experience, and the best social media marketers bring real experience to the table. Social media at its best is not planned solely by technologists or inexperienced marketers who just may be savvy with the tools; it requires collaboration across disciplines and proven experience in marketing, particularly digital.

Social media can't be successful without a realistic level of investment.

Social media in some circles has been coined "earned media," which like PR usually carries with it a connotation of being free or "cheap." It is probably fair to say that it can be cost effective --particularly compared to some other forms of marketing -- but a well-developed, integrated, ongoing social media program demands strategic planning. It incorporates a host of tools, technology applications, design, and so forth. Strategy development, socially interactive websites, mobile apps, Facebook pages, monitoring tools, analysis, not to mention the time and effort to maintain these elements on an ongoing basis -- these investments are not "cheap." But more often than not, the return justifies the investment.

Social media marketing can't magically produce positive changes or marketing results for your business. But real magic is not about tricks or smoke and mirrors. The best magic takes a lot of hard work, creativity, experience, and substance so that when you look behind the curtain, there really is something there.

Denise Zimmerman is president and CSO of NetPlus Marketing Inc. 

On Twitter? Follow Denise Zimmerman at @dzimmerman. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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: Mabel Diaz-Joslyn

2010, August 13

Great article. Social media can do a lot of good given the right investment level, but it can't fix the appeal or success of your brand without the right value proposition or marketing strategy behind it.

Commenter: hiren vital

2010, March 06

Dear Ms.Zimmerman,

Quite a view! It was really nice to go through your thoughts on social media.

I do have some perspective, based upon my little social (media) experience.

1] Social media can't substitute for marketing strategy.
Social media {a tool} to use it or not is decided during Strategizing [marketing strategy - a process]. Both are totally different [tool and process] and so there is no question of substitution.

2] Social media can't work without organization alignment.
I don't recall a thing which can work-out without organization alignment. Could you kind enought to let me know of any?.

3] Social media can't change the inherent popularity, appeal, or success of your brand.
Going by the heading, as stated above, social media sure can change popularity [have experience live example: Jet airway(India) pilots declared strike, all flights got canceled and down went its popularity with negative marketing(but still there was high buzz as compared to other airlines). After a week, pilots rejoined & jet airways initiated work with heavy discounts, this time all the negative news/ demarketing helped to get best response of the year. And all these ups n downs were seen on Social Media [facebook/ buzz/ orkut etc]

And about the can & can't, I suppose, its too early to say anything!

Thanks for the encouraging article.


Commenter: Angela Daniello

2010, March 05

Agree with your points. Social Media really is just part of the next version of how we are interacting online, and the reason it's so explosive is because so many more people are interacting online. And just like a company adding a Website didn't change people's businesses over night, neither will Social Media.

Commenter: Peter O''''Neill

2010, March 02

Appreciate this article. I will tweet it to my audience.
As I frequently say, we are a few generations away from digital marketing fully replacing people sitting across the room and talking about something. In fact, one of my theories is that those new companies on the block who focus only on "as-as-service” and cloud will only really become successful and established when they add the more "old fashioned" process to their marketing and sales repertoire.
Peter O'Neill, VP, Forrester Research

Commenter: Lonny Strum

2010, February 25

Good stuff, Denise. Wise & well said.

Commenter: Luke Constantino

2010, February 22

You are totally correct.
Social media cannot do everything for you, you have to do for yourself. Using it as a vehicle to get where you need to go is fine, but you have to be the one to step on the peddle and give it gas.

Commenter: Laurel Tienda

2010, February 22

Totally agree with your comment and the articles. Many believe that if you build a web site or a face book page they will come. The web and social media are wonderful tools but just as too little information is not good so too is too much information.

Commenter: David Ganz

2010, February 22

It's most refreshing and welcomed to read a perspective that doesn't promote one discipline over the other. Denise....get's it!
It's all about engaging in a dialogue with customer whenever and wherever you may meet up with them.

Commenter: Dale Beach

2010, February 22

MAN, I'm tired of lists. I know lists are supposed to sell, but this horse has gone beyond being beaten to death; it has been beaten into dog food.

I no longer read any advice given in list format. I think it has become a crutch.

Commenter: dominique lahaix

2010, February 22

Thanks for this excellent article.

It's important that you stress that social media is not a substitute for marketing.
Marketing, even in social media should start with targeting, value proposition and positioning.
What the social web enables is the ability to target communities i.e people that connect and write about a specific center of interest, whether is be: Moms, Gamers, Green Tech expert, Seniors, Beauty addicts.

Where brand should start is building marketing strategies and programs for these different audience, where it make sense.

As for the #of twitter/facebook fans. It also really depend who these people are.
If you're an High tech vendor selling 6 figures service package, 500 fans with most of them CIO's of Fortune 2000 companies could be a huge success.

Best and thanks again