To Be Successful, Social Media Has to Fail
To Be Successful, Social Media Has to Fail
To Be Successful, Social Media Has to Fail

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
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  • The rise of mobile technology allows advertisers to communicate with potential customers in a unique way personal. Proximity marketing integrates physical and digital domains using mobile devices to reach consumers in the largest point of impact, and the provision of bargain shoppers and increase sales.

  • Ben

    Hi Nichole, Greate Article , I do have a social network site called and i have been trying to promote it but I get shutdown a lot any suggestion what I should do?

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  • Great article, and I whole-heartedly agree that losing is winning (long-term at least). What we have to grasp is that the digital space is growing exponentially and tools change in and out all the time (iPhone 1,2, 3, 4, 4S, 5, 988). Testing out what works and what doesn’t is the most important strategy you can implement, and when you think you’re done testing, you better start retesting and optimizing anew. I’m in charge of implementing social media strategies internally and man, it’s been a school of hard knocks trying to develop a voice on various channels. From a data perspective I’m grateful for any blip in the positive and try to understand that downturns aren’t necessarily my fault, it’s just how the Internet goes. You’re right, we have to see digital as fluid and organic and take our loses as growth experiences instead of beatdowns.

  • you rightly pointed out are critical to using social as a real business driver.

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  • Hi Nichole,

    I think you really nailed the problems with this post. For me, one of the handful of money quotes is:

    “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.”

    The fun, experimental phase of social is still playing out in countless organizations. Especially those that put responsibility for social media in the hands of younger team members because they “get it” and knew some tools and terms. Unfortunately, many of them didn’t or don’t know the deeper levels of strategy that you rightly pointed out are critical to using social as a real business driver.

    The best organizations are using social to do both: have fun and build an engaging brand persona *and* realize the bottom-line impact, whatever their KPIs may be for social. But those organizations are still pretty rare, and it takes time to get there, so hopefully in 2013 we’ll see more of those light bulbs turning on. This post is a great place to start. Thanks for sharing!

    Cheers — Hunter

  • Nichole, its a very good article! I must say that you have done a great job at it. 

    Even I think that the title could have been rephrased a bit. 

    Agreed that Social Media can give benefits in the long-run, provided it is planned and executed really well, and even the fact that Social Media is not just limited to Facebook and Twitter. But the fact is that any general marketing strategy would require this. The difference lies when we talk about the reach and demographics, and the methods used to evaluate the execution and results. 

    Otherwise I really like your article. Very well analyzed and written. Great job!

  • Nichole, I think you misuse the word ‘invest’. In business, an investment is a capital outlay which is intended to be recouped in cash terms with an accompanying revenue return. Some social media expenditure is investment (extra IT hardware and software, desk space etc) but most is a line item cost. You need to measure both but in different ways. The loose use of “return on investment” does little to clarify the situation.

    IMHO you also misuse the term “strategy” (sorry, it’s one of those epistimological days!). This is a big subject but strategy is at an organisational level and it is not merely a “plan”. Social media certainly needs planning and it can influence strategy.
    Finally, social media (and the social business concept) goes way beyond marketing so to imply that it is simply part of the marketing mix is to take a very narrow view of the organisational-wide collaboration it can facilitate, internally and externally.

    • Jeremy – I’m sorry, but I”m going to have to respectfully disagree with you here. You’re using very narrow definitions of words that don’t fit with the business context you refer to. 

      Businesses make a variety of type of “investments”. One of those is a “capital investment” which absolutely refers to a capital outlay are you mention. But they also make “human capital investments” which refers to the money they pay their people who invest their time in one project over another. For every hour their is an opportunity cost for not spending time on something else. Social media comes with a variety of investments, both capital investments and human capital investments. I’m not sure where you see a “loose” use of return on investment. I’ve always been very clear that return on investment is (revenue – cost of investment)/cost of investment and we don’t get to redefine ROI because it doesn’t fit with what we want to measure. I stand pretty firm on that. But it doesn’t mean we can’t supplement ROI with other metrics that are valuable to the organization, provided they align with business objectives.

      Finally, I’m not sure where you are coming from when you say I misuse the term “strategy”. The definition for strategy (which was included in the post) is a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. With that in mind it was used appropriately in the post. Strategies do not have to be at the organizational level. In fact, I would argue that businesses don’t have “strategies”. Businesses have strategic objectives and each department develops strategies that are designed to achieve those objectives, which is just another word for goals. 

      The problem with your premise is that you assume businesses are ready to even entertain the notion of “social business”. There are far more businesses that are still trying to wrap their heads around how to use social media to achieve strategic objectives than there are organizations ready to talk about full immersion of social media in the organization. 

      That’s like taking the invention of the light bulb and saying okay, now we’re ready to run the infrastructure for global electricity. How about we figure out how to use the light bulb to light this room first?

      So, with that, thanks so much for commenting. I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. :-)

      • The Johnson and Scholes definition of strategy is “…the direction and scope of an organisation over the long-term: which achieves advantage for the organisation through its configuration of resources within a challenging environment, to meet the needs of markets and to fulfil stakeholder expectations”.

        I agree that organisations don’t have strategies, they have strategic plans but your definition is populist and misleading.

        Nearly all organisations I am working with understand clearly what social business is and are making plans to get there. 

        Yes, we will have to disagree about “return on investment”. Funds for social media come from various sources and capital investment and direct and indirect costs are clearly distinguished. And we measure returns on each source.

  • Charlie Collins

    Social media is no different to another form of networking / marketing;
    most traditional networks would  say that it takes 6 – 12 months to
    build up relationships that are stronger enough to generate referrals. 
    Up until 2008 I used to do a lot of off line networking and it took at
    least a year to actually start generating any returns, but boy, when it
    did it it, really did!

    I pulled away from off line marketing at the beginning of 2009 – just as everything went south – because a lot of small businesses started focusing on survival and ceased to be a productive use of my time.  I started increasing my use of on line networking / social media to stay in contact with the people I had already connected with over the previous 5 years and it worked well as it enabled me to keep in touch and drip feed information to advocates and associates I had met, whilst actively engaging with them.

    Social media is just another channel, executives shouldn’t be afraid of it, but they need to be aware of the usual suspects / mistakes (see below).

    Classic case recently, order tickets from Vue cinemas and there payment gateway collapsed; payment was taken twice. After failing to get through to them I put something on twitter – see conversation – and was staggered when they said “we’re not a customer services channel so can’t help with these matters”. It later transpired that Vue have out sourced their twitter account to one marketing company and their FaceBook to another! This is bonkers, as how can two different marketing companies present a consistent message / brand and miss the point of social media so badly!

    Social media is not just about marketing, its about engagement, just as off line marketing is!

    Jason, completely agree with comment :-)

    • Charlie – I totally agree. We have to create a strategy, but also recognize that our customers and prospects aren’t going to do what we “want” them to do. Our audience isn’t in on the “strategy” that’s why it’s always important to re-evaluate and adjust based on reality. If our audience need customer service they are going to reach out where they want and we have to be prepared to respond to their needs.

      The Vue case is a classic case of an implementation plan that no one tried to poke holes into before it was put into place. You and I probably saw that coming from a mile away, but I’ve seen a lot of organizations get tunnel vision on their goals and have a hard time taking a step back to understand the bigger picture.

      Thanks for commenting!

    • “Social media is just another channel”. Buddy, have you got this wrong big time!

  • Charlie Collins

     Social media is no different to another form of networking / marketing; most traditional networks would  say that it takes 6 – 12 months to build up relationships that are stronger enough to generate referrals.  Up until 2008 I used to do a lot of off line networking and it took at least a year to actually start generating any returns, but boy, when it did it it, really did!

    I pulled away from off line marketing

  • Great post! I really enjoyed how you explained what social media is and how to set your expectations accordingly. I work with many clients on a daily basis that don’t fully understand this and it’s so crucial. 

    • Galen – I’m so glad you found the post useful. Thanks for commenting!

  • I know the title is catchy, but I think that it undersells what is a very good post. I think it could be better phrased as “You have to take a loss in the first year for social media to gain” or something of that nature. I know a big part of content marketing is phrasing titles to spark conflict and interest, but in this case, there is something that just doesn’t come off as genuine in the title. 

    (Sorry for the micro-rant – I just like the post and wish the title more directly reflected the argument)

    • Jason – I’m so glad you liked the post and sorry the title didn’t strike your fancy. The premise of the post is that you have to give room for marketers to test and fail in order to deliver social media success. And then I tried to add a framework for how to allow that freedom while making both marketers and executives comfortable. So I thought it fit, but we all get it wrong every now and then. ;-)

  • Lacey W

    I learned a lot from reading this.  I do have two questions:
    You mentioned several times the importance of a business conducting research in order to develop the most effective strategy–what are some things you suggest they do?
    What about businesses who want to use social media accounts as a way to build brand recognition and to create a positive atmosphere or mindset about their business?  Does that change the way they do things?

    • Lacey – The first thing I think we need to understand before creating a strategy is where conversations are even happening before we dive into a social platform. We use Netbase to conduct research on industry, brand, competitive brands, and topic areas to understand the conversation before we dive into to creating a strategy. 

      Even if you want to use your accounts to build brand awareness, you still need to understand the conversation first. If you don’t the content you produce may be completely irrelevant to the conversation that is already happening that you could leverage to increase exposure.

      And I’ve said it before and admit that I’ve worked with very bottom-line driven executives, but it is very rare to find an executive team that wants to throw money at a “brand awareness” strategy. They are more interested in the bottom-line. Sure they’ll let their marketers “dabble” with brand awareness strategies, but unless you are a consumer product or something of that nature it will never be viewed as mission critical. So we try to find an angle for assisting the sales process and/or providing customer service with the side benefit of generating awareness.

      Does that help? Thanks so much for joining in the conversation. ;-) 

      • Lacey W

        It does! Just out of curiosity, do you see value in developing brand awareness, or do you think the push should be the bottom line as well?

        • I think brand awareness is an activity that is high in the sales funnel, but it is in the sales funnel. I think a lot of executives don’t see it as a contributor to the funnel. When we generate brand awareness we put more people in the top of the funnel and therefore more sales should result, all things equal. I think brand awareness is very important, but I think executives have a hard time understanding where it fits. The funnel analogy has helped me to explain it in the past. 


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