Social Marketing Hangover

Social Media Marketing HangoverI was recently quoted on making the following prediction:

“Look for marketing’s love affair with social media to give way in 2011 to the sobering reality that a Facebook fan page and Twitter account don’t solve problems of poor products or positioning. Stories of social media failures will become more frequent as practitioners realize that customer conversations are time-consuming to maintain and that peer conversations present as many problems as they do opportunities.”

A few of my more passionate social marketing friends contacted me and asked politely if I had lost my mind or something for issuing such a gloomy and pessimistic forecast at precisely the hour of social media’s triumph. I responded that no slight was intended. On the contrary, I think the hangover stage is necessary and healthy if social media is to achieve its realistic potential for change.

Anyone who’s watched technology for a while is familiar with the lifecycle of innovation. There’s a period of exuberance, followed by the cold reality that the new tool won’t shorten the work week or lead to permanent weight loss.  Gartner famously labeled this blue period the “trough of disillusionment,” which is a perfect term for it.

Some technologies never exit this down cycle (handwriting recognition) and some dwell in purgatory for many years before finding their niche (tablets). Many return to achieve their potential after time and other technology advancements help them along (PCs, the Internet) and a precious few continue rocketing up the adoption curve without any slowdown whatsoever (smart phones).

Social media marketing can never match the hype that has been heaped on it for the last three years, so it must go through a correction stage. The discipline will be better for the experience, but only after a lot of business people realize the ugly reality that this stuff is really difficult.

Blaming the Tools

The souring of marketer attitudes toward social media first became evident to me last spring when I worked on a survey for B-to-B magazine that found that nearly half of 400 marketers surveyed were disappointed with the results they were getting from Twitter. A little further exploration revealed that those expressing the greatest disappointment were using Twitter for business less than once a week. That’s like blaming your lawnmower for making your lawn ugly when you only cut the grass every other month.

I’ve recently noticed that the questions marketers ask me have changed. A year ago, people wanted to know how to start social media campaigns. Now they want to know how to rescue the floundering campaigns they already have. Disillusionment is starting to set in.

As poorly conceived or badly executed social marketing campaigns begin to take their toll, people will naturally blame the tools. That’s an instinctive self-protection reflex. Over the past year marketers have decorated their websites like Christmas trees with Twitter and Facebook logos. Now some of them are wondering why Santa hasn’t appeared. Unfortunately, even Santa requires you to first spend a year being good.

While I don’t believe the popular attitude toward social media marketing is going to turn overwhelmingly sour, we will begin to see marketers pulling in their guns this year for three major reasons:

Lack of executive support. A lot of C-suite types never believed social media was all that big a deal in the first place, so they made half-hearted investments with unrealistic goals. Most of these initiatives will fail. Executives can then say “I told you so” until the market forces their hand.

Lack of patience. Social marketing is unlike traditional marketing in some pretty fundamental ways. Traditional marketing is campaign-oriented: Put a message in the field and then sort through the surge of leads and responses that come in. Social marketing is about building relationships over time. Like a good diet and a good supplement program from, you don’t see much progress in the early going, but you notice big changes a year later. It takes patience to get there. Patience is becoming a pretty precious commodity.

Lack of understanding. I’ve talked to several companies recently that have information-rich community websites that are going nowhere. These companies have got half of the equation right: They’re producing solid content. What they don’t understand is the relationship side of the equation. They’re approaching social marketing like they approach conventional marketing: Blast out a message and hope that people respond. That was hard to do even three years ago and it’s almost impossible today. A much more effective strategy is to reach out to the people who already have the audience’s attention and get them engaged. One-to-one relationship-building is not a traditional marketing strength, but it must become one.

So Now What?

The social media landscape is vastly more crowded today than it was a year or two ago. The time when a clever blogger could amass an audience of 30,000 loyalists in a year has passed. People’s attention spans are shorter than ever and their willingness to find information is giving way to the expectation that information will find them.

Effective social marketing campaigns require commitment, patience and constant innovation. They also must be backed by an organizational commitment to creating delightful customer experiences. In many cases, the best group to run social campaigns is the customer service organization because they already understand one-to-one relationships. However, marketing usually carries the ball and turf wars prevent them from working cooperatively with other groups.

Social marketing is hard. It requires treating an audience as a collection of individuals rather than a demographic clump. Building relationships takes time and a tolerance for frustration. There are many blind alleys and few big scores. Success comes from building community one brick at a time.

Avaya’s Paul Dunay (left) said it best in a recent webcast. “We treat every customer as if he or she could bring down our company.” The key word in that sentence is “we.” Social marketing requires everyone in the company to embrace the idea of customers as individuals. Not everyone is up to the task just yet.

11 thoughts on “Social Marketing Hangover

  1. Just brilliant…I willl never say what goes around comes around but the tech cycle you mentioned has occurred so much over the last 15 years I am thankful it has not dampenned the creator’s enthusiasm…however as you mentioned great product and great service still drives any business…you did say that didn’t you?
    Thanks for this cool, clear overview.

  2. Absolutely. It’s more difficult than ever to get by without great products and services today because customers discuss your value amongst themselves. Good marketing springs from delighted customers. Never lose sight of that.

  3. Agreed!! I think it is absolutely amazing in your mention that the marketing people were only using twitter ounce per week. The amount of work and time that goes into building the social network alone makes it worth using more than ounce a week. I’m glad social has evolved to serve and benefit a much greater audience.

  4. Common sense and clear thinking – as usual – great stuff Paul.

    I question whether Marketing should even ‘own’ the social channel – the companies that seem to be having the most success with social seem more focused on Customer Support than Marketing. Which makes sense because it’s where the true ‘one-to-one’ conversations actually take place.

  5. Great point, Chris. I think there is a clash coming between the marketing department, which has been handed responsibility for SM in most companies, and the customer service function, which better understands relationship management. It would be nice to think those two functions could word productively together, but I doubt that will be the case in most situations.

  6. Hi Paul – I just discovered your blog and really appreciate the great writing. I like both you and Chris’ points about the customer service departments being more suited to social media. Your mention of executives who aren’t social media proponents is important in my opinion – to those executives I’d ask, “What do you think of a company like Zappos?” The CEO of Zappos is a social media fiend and they seem to be doing just fine 🙂

    Just some thoughts I had – keep up the great writing!

  7. Top marks to Paul Gillin once again. For me the best individual voice of reason in the otherwise hysterical Social Media Marketing world.
    As I survey the vista of 2011 laid before me in anticipatory glory, I feel a little depressed. Torn as usual between giving my clients what is best for them and balancing that with what they ‘think’ is best for them. And this year that will be Facebook and for those who think that they are really smart LinkedIN and those who simply cannot be educated, because they are ignorant beyond recourse – Twitter*.
    NOT for the reasons of one who has had their decision making acuity skewed by conventional Media re the ‘Panacea’ of Social Networking may think, but rather as one who perceives exactly that Social networking can enable small businesses, professionals and those with any cause, to promote and engage a willing audience with – Its TRUE potential.
    All good things come to those who wait, but those who wait should know specifically what they are waiting for? Otherwise they are once more doomed this 2011 year to the stampede of unwanted guests.
    [this ridiculous delusion that massing followers/friends correlates with success]

  8. There are several great points here. I think some marketers have become so fixated on using social media this way or that way, that they have forgotten to stop and think about what is best for their business/company/clients. Many people just want to duplicate the campaigns they’ve read about on Mashable and AdAge, and they lose sight of the importance of customer service. They tend to forget that you can (and should) use social media to enhance and follow-up on the in-store experience. That being said, I still think marketing has a place within social. I just think it varies by company/client.

  9. Pingback: B2B Web Strategy » Is social media about to undergo a correction?

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