To Be Successful, Social Media Has to Fail

A model for success that can help marketers and executives get on the same page for social media investments.

by Nichole Kelly |

As companies start to invest more heavily into social media, it will quickly bring out the magnifying glass. It’s a big deal. For many companies social media is finally getting its own line in the budget for 2013.  This comes with good and bad news. Executives have been struggling with understanding where social media delivers return since the first time one of their employees came in and begged to test it. Now that it has its own line item in the budget, it’s natural for skeptical executives to approve the budget and pull out their magnifying glass at the same time. Once companies start making real investments in social media, the pressure is on for marketers to quickly demonstrate real ROI. Not those fluffy reports on how many fans and followers were generated.

For all the executives out there, it’s important to take a step back from your magnifying glass for a second because you are about to destroy any chance for social media to be successful in your company. If you know me, you know I’ll never say it’s wrong to measure social media, quite the contrary. I mean, I did write the book How to Measure Social Media.  I truly believe it should be measured and it absolutely should be held accountable as any marketing channel would. But right now, social media is still in its infancy in many companies and there is still a lot of fear holding back big investments. If you measure social media only in pure ROI, you will shut down the program before it has the opportunity to show you where it has the most impact. Marketers are begging you to give social media a chance, but it’s equally important that marketers provide a framework for social media investments that make executives feel comfortable. Here’s a model for success that can help marketers and executives get on the same page for social media investments.

Social Media Requires a Strategy

Social Media Requires a StrategyThe first step in ensuring that social media is on the path to success is to have a strategy. All this talk of “trying things out” and “testing to see what happens” is bullshit. Executives should absolutely call this out if it is happening in your organization. Sorry marketers, but if you say this, you know it’s because you have no idea what you are trying to accomplish and haven’t taken the time to build a plan. You may have a hundred reasons why you haven’t made the investment to do it, but it doesn’t change the fact that social media without a strategy is like giving an employee a corporate credit card without a policy for how it is to be used. That is a surefire way to open the door to unforeseen risks. Understanding where social media has an opportunity to deliver success requires an investment in research and strategy development that is designed to achieve corporate objectives. If you aren’t sure if this is happening in your organization, go ask the marketing team what they are trying to achieve with their Facebook page or any social media channel they have been talking about. If you get the “deer in the headlights” look then it’s time to pull back and take the time to develop a strategy. Executives should have confidence that their marketing team is using social media to drive a business objective. Businesses operate to accomplish one thing: drive more sales while reducing costs to drive a higher profit. Therefore, if your social media strategy can’t be measured in terms of sales volume, revenue or costs, it probably doesn’t align with what the executive team gets paid to do, deliver higher returns. The disconnect between corporate objectives and social media needs to be resolved as soon as possible.

Social Media Requires Calculated Risks

Every strategy should be developed to allow for risk-taking that uncovers where social media delivers the highest impact. The reality is that every strategy evolves once it’s being implemented because marketing is an evolutionary practice. We test, we evaluate, we refine. Innovative companies have learned that failure is a critical part in success and it’s important for your marketing team to understand that you encourage them to fail as much as you encourage them to succeed. This is critical because if you don’t, your marketers will put their “marketing spin” on the data you see. That’s not beneficial for anyone. We need full transparency and your marketing team needs to know that they won’t get the verbal beat down in a meeting if their data doesn’t show a resounding success every time. Testing is a huge part of driving social media success, which means that each social media failure is in fact a success because it is one step closer to figuring out what will work. The challenge is that, in many risk-averse companies, a single failure can kill an entire program.

Let’s start by agreeing that in order to be successful, social media has to fail.

Did that give you heart palpitations? I know it freaks me out a little too. We can’t have marketers out there just throwing caution to the wind and risking our company’s brand and reputation in a very public forum. It’s important to put some framework around how testing will be accomplished in order to preserve the brand. So let’s control the impact of our failures by applying some rules for acceptable risks. Marketers need to be able to explain how they are taking “calculated risks” to executives with an understanding of the business and the potential fallout. Executives need to be able to determine whether the level of risk is acceptable or not before they can fully support a program that will fail before it succeeds. In essence, we want to build a testing environment that supports and even celebrates failure. Think about it as failure with hand rails.

Social Media is a Long-Term Strategy

There are plenty of marketing channels that are like a light switch. We turn them on and see an immediate impact on the business. Most of those marketing channels are in the advertising space and they are very important in the overall marketing mix. But social media isn’t a light switch. To be successful social media requires an engaged audience and an audience takes time to build. There are a lot of things that can be done to help build an audience faster, like integrating some advertising elements for social media content; however at the end of the day you need to give social media a runway. You need to understand that social media is a long-term strategy and the most important thing for your marketing team to understand is that you’ll give it the runway it needs provided there is progress toward the end goal.

Social media ROI will be negative for at least the first year.

I’m going to tell you something that may freak out my marketing counterparts. Social media ROI will be negative for at least the first year. How long will social media ROI be negative? It depends on how closely the strategy is aligned to corporate objectives, how fast the team can test and iterate and how successful the team is at creating killer content and building up the desired audience. This is another one of those calculated risks that can be managed; however, if you think your company is going to dive into social media and you are going to have a flood of cash waiting at the other end within a few months you may be sadly disappointed. And I’ll be the first to say that there are companies that have been able to drive huge sales returns using social media in what appears to be an overnight success. The untold story in those case studies is the time those companies spent before that overnight success testing and iterating before they found something that hit. That isn’t the sexy part of the story so it rarely gets told.

Social Media Isn’t Facebook and Twitter

Finally, it’s important to understand that social media is only one part of the marketing mix. Companies should not be staking their success on social media alone. Social media needs integration with other marketing channels to deliver the highest return. And despite popular belief among executives, social media isn’t Facebook and Twitter. When done well, social media strategies are designed to align corporate objectives with content that is specifically designed to achieve them and the channels where they can reach the largest audience. Many times through the research stage, we find that the majority of conversations that are happening around a company’s industry are happening on blogs and forums. It isn’t sexy. But if 60% of the conversations around your industry are happening on blogs and forums, starting with a Twitter and Facebook strategy is just plain stupid. Social media isn’t about the “cool” social media channels. It’s about being where the conversations that can drive business value are happening. That may be Twitter, it may be Facebook, but more often than not it’s happening where you least expect it. And because companies aren’t starting with a strategy, they are spinning their wheels on social channels that are “nice to haves” instead of those that are “must haves”.

Companies should not be staking their success on social media alone.

With all of this, I highly encourage executives to give social media the room it needs to fail so that it can truly deliver success. But don’t do it without a plan, without managing risk, and without understanding where the conversation is happening. Providing a runway that allows for failure is smart. Providing a runway that has a .50 caliber rifle pointed at isn’t.

Did your organization give social media a budget for 2013? Do you have a social media strategy? Is your organization prepared for social media failures? Join the conversation! Leave a comment and let’s start a healthy debate on whether marketers and executives have aligned expectations for social media in 2013.


About the Author

Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly is the CEO of Social Media Explorer|SME Digital. She is also the author of How to Measure Social Media. Her team helps companies figure out where social media fits and then helps execute the recommended strategy across the “right” mix of social media channels. Do you want to rock the awesome with your digital marketing strategy? Contact Nichole