Seven Things Your Organization Must Do Because Of Social Media

In the mid- to late-90s, many business leaders observed the advent of the Web and asked the wrong question:  “What will the Internet do for us?”  Instead, they should have been asking, “What will the Internet do to us?” 

The difference between these two questions is the difference between a false sense of security and a necessity for action.  It’s the difference between Amazon organizing itself around the online channel in 1994 and Barnes & Noble opening an e-commerce site in 1997—today Amazon is worth $55.7B and Barnes & Noble has a $1.1B market cap.   It’s also the difference between newspapers struggling with a 70% decline in classified advertising over the course of a decade and eBay seeing revenues increase over 1900% in the same period.

Today, many business leaders are again asking the wrong question:  “What will social media do for us?” instead of “What will social media do to us?”  The difference between those two questions will define the business winners and losers of the next decade.  Let’s explore what social media already is doing to business and how organizations must adapt. 

Much has been written about “social media PR crises” such as Nestlé/Greenpeace situation and the “United Breaks Guitars” video, but I’d like to explore these events not from the angle of what the companies did or didn’t do but instead what these incidents tell us about how your brands can prepare for the changes social media is bringing to business communications and operations.  Here is a brief summary of these two high-profile social media examples: 


What can we can learn from the Nestlé and United occurrences?  Here are seven "musts" that smart companies will adopt in the age of social media:      

  • You must be proactive.  Every enterprise has some issues that are ticking time bombs waiting to explode in social media.  Nestlé had been linked to concerns over palm oil and deforestation for years, so some within the organization had to have suspected it was a matter of "when" and not "if" this topic would explode.  And this is not an isolated case;  I’ve worked with brands that refuse to promote their event marketing programs out of fear announcing event dates will furnish advocacy groups with time to organize protests.  You can no longer run and hide from these sorts of issues, but neither do you need to cave to pressures from the minority.  The key is to identify the issues that can explode in the future, engage proactively with a wide range of consumers, educate honestly, listen sincerely, change consumer perception when you can, and change your company when you can’t. 
  • You must improve customer support.  For too long, companies have viewed customer support as a cost to be managed rather than as a strategic imperative that affects brand perception.  Today, consumer frustration over perceived service snafus can result in millions of negative impressions, and those impressions get more attention and are more believable to consumers than brand-sponsored advertising impressions.  Marketers must view their customer service organizations as a key component in brand-building efforts, and service leaders must prioritize advocacy measurements as equally or more important than cost metrics. 
  • You must listen.  Consumer expectations around support are shifting rapidly.  Those who are more engaged (and influential) in social media no longer are opting to pick up the phone and wait on hold to receive the support they expect;  instead, they’re voicing concerns and complaints in open channels like Twitter and expecting companies will respond.  And if a brand fails to do so?  The complaints and negative impressions will only pile deeper.  This trend will accelerate as social media adoption continues to grow, so forward-looking organizations like Comcast and Best Buy have taken the lead in developing proactive service in social channels.  Organizations must implement listening and plan for response or they will suffer the consequences that can come from hundreds of consumers telling thousands (or millions) of people that the company’s products don’t work and service is inferior. 
  • You must participate.  I’ve had some clients ask me if the Nestlé situation reveals a risk of participating in Facebook;  they ask, doesn’t doing so provide a soapbox that may be used by others to criticize or embarrass the company?  While it’s never pleasant to be taken off of message and forced to respond to a negative claim, what exactly is the alternative in our more social world?  Damage is being done to your brand whether consumers complain in your Facebook group or they do so across hundreds of Twitter accounts, blogs and YouTube channels.  And which PR fire would you rather fight—the big one happening in your Facebook group where you have a voice and fans or thousands of little PR blazes scattered across social media where your brand’s participation may not be welcome?  Brands cannot gain control of their brand messaging by failing to participate but instead earn the right to shepherd their brands through presence and engagement in consumers’ favored social channels.
  • You must respond.  In the pre-Internet days, disgruntled consumers and irate advocacy groups could mount letter-writing or PR campaigns, but companies could easily choose to ignore these since acknowledging them would only bring more media attention.  Today, how can you ignore damaging accusations that accumulate within your own Facebook group?  You can’t; inaction breeds frustration, annoyance and distrust.  Responding doesn’t mean immediately doing whatever complainers want you to do;  instead the secret to social media success is to respond positively, discredit those who are simply wrong, migrate fuming consumers in need of support to private communication channels and engage openly on those issues about which consumers care deeply.
  • You must move faster.  Eighteen months ago Johnson & Johnson’s Motrin stumbled into a now infamous PR problem with the release of a video ad on their Web site.  J&J was criticized by some for its slow response, despite the fact they acted just days after the complaints started appearing in social media.  Many of us just got used to “Internet time,” but “social media time” moves even quicker.  In a world where marketers create five-year plans and dedicate months to developing ad campaigns, social media moves in real time.  Marketers who adopt adaptive marketing techniques will create an enormous competitive advantage over those who try to approach social media as “business as usual.”
  • You must realize every employee is a marketer.  My friend Cindi Thomas wrote a thought-provoking blog post in which she argues that Nestlé did more right than wrong on Facebook.  While I am not entirely in agreement with Cindi, she makes an excellent point:  “(Nestlé) trusted their employees to represent their beliefs. They are now dealing with the reaction to their beliefs, not their presence in social media.”  Twenty years ago, had Greenpeace mounted a PR campaign, Nestlé would have taken time to craft a response that was reviewed and approved by several layers of executives before being disseminated through PR channels;  the total time to reach consumers’ eyes and ears would’ve been weeks or months.  But today, Nestlé’s official response was crafted by one employee in the time it took to type Facebook status updates such as, “I suppose I could repeat 'as fast as food safety allows' and then you could repeat your post,” “It's our page, we set the rules, it was ever thus,” and “Oh please .. it's like we're censoring everything to allow only positive comments.”  Your brand messaging will be delivered as much by employee messages in social media as by paid advertisements; marketers must train every employee about his or her vital role in crafting the brand through participation in social media. 


The Web changed everything--recruiting, hiring, consumer expectations, customer support, marketing strategies, IT investments, corporate structure, job responsibilities, workplace skills, employer/employee relations and more.  Social Media is already doing the same, and with consumer adoption continuing and Facebook and Twitter extending their reach with new tools that enable the social web, we are nowhere near the end of the changes social media will bring to the business environment. Social Media will do much for brands, but it is how an organization anticipates and plans for what social media will do to brands that will create competitive advantages in our newly social world. 


Absolutely agree with these "Must-Do's"

Absolutely agreed 10,000%. To me, this is the most crucial must-do on your list: "You must realize every employee is a marketer." In this day and age where every product and service is a commodity, employee advocacy is a competitive advantage. After all, if you can't trust your employees to advocate for your business, then why should your customer?

Michael E. Rubin // 847-370-3421 // twitter: merubin


Thanks Michael. I appreciate the input!

More Unsubstantiated Propaganda

I have to say I'm so disappointed in Forrester's role in pushing social media and going way beyond the data in making pronouncements. Seriously, there's poor logic and bad data that regularly appears via Forrester, and I don't understand it.

FIrst, the comparison between the early web and early social media is absolutely faulty. Indeed the web is/was about what could it do for us, and not what would it do to us. Social media, on the other hand is indeed something that will do things TO business.

Social media is an albatross, not a boon, because it's completely uncontrollable and unmanageable. It is impossible for companies to protect their reputations and brands because of the way platforms like Twitter and Facebook work. The people who see user complaints and criticisms are simply not likely to see the responses from the target company. Take a look at HP as an example. Search for hp customer service on Twitter.

Customer service won't get better, it is getting worse due to social media and for one clear reason. Companies have to cover more customer service channels and they view CS as overhead. Budgets getting spread thinner and thinner. Technologies that do not result in replacing things only add cost.

Finally, sorry, but your 8 things are generic and could apply to almost anything. And, btw I might add that social media goes back to the era of commodore 64's and Apples. It's nothing new. All that is new is hypesters writing silly articles about jumped about things businesses need to do. Bunk.

Appreciate the input


I appreciate the comments.

Brands cannot *completely* control what happens in social media, but that doesn't mean social media is *completely* uncontrollable and unmanageable, either; in fact, that's the primary point of my post. Brands can influence what happens in social media, and failure to listen, participate and response will not avoid problems but create more.

While I agree with you that not everyone who sees user complaints will also see the company response, the goal isn't to touch every single person who sees a complaint but to create enough authentic groundswell advocacy that being exposed to isolated user complaints won't matter. The best brands have detractors--they just have more advocates. The reason to listen and respond isn't to prevent complaints--which are not, of course, avoidable for any brand--but to prevent those complaints from building into something more.

Finally, I think there are several good examples of companies who don't view customer service as merely overhead and have improved their service and reputation through service in Social Media. Comcast had a horrible reputation but has seen sentiment improve thanks to their proactive outreach in social media. Zappos has differentiated themselves in a vertical many thought was merely about lowest price, and they did so through service--they see themselves as a "service company that happens to sell products" and not a "product company that happens to offer service."

I appreciate you reading the blog post and sharing your feedback.

By the way...

...I completely agree with you that social media isn't new. What drew me to the Internet originally was that it was an inherently social channel. Like you, I was being "social" using my Atari 1040 computer and a 28.8 modem. In fact, I'd trace social media back much further than Commodore 64s--cave drawings were social media, after all! Today's social media is evolutionary, not revolutionary--but it's a pretty profound evolution.

In this age of social media

In this age of social media and social media marketing what must do is
1. Use the platforms or channels where your customers are hanging out. So if you want to connect with Gen Y YouTube and Facebook is appropriate.
2. You also need inform and educate and not try to sell.


Thanks for the input, Jeff. I appreciate you adding your thoughts!

Great point, but does it matter

Thanks for the observations, Roger. It's a great point--people sometimes will be motivated by their own desire for attention rather than the need to resolve a real customer service problem. But in the end, does it matter? To prevent Social PR problems (which can become traditional PR problems), a company needs to reduce the opportunities for negative exposure. To your point, had United settled the claim, it wouldn't have mattered what motivated Dave Carroll--the problem wouldn't have occurred.

BTW, I think Dave Carroll was very savvy about expressing his anger at United while also helping to increase his own profile, but there's no question in my mind his primary motivation was frustration at United. I've seen reports that he spent many months trying to resolve the problem with United. He didn't see a broken guitar and immediately recognize it as an opportunity to promote himself. I think he truly wanted a resolution, didn't get it, and fought back in the only way he knew how--through music. The fact he's since been on The View, is selling CDs and has an endorsement deal with a guitar case company are a happy outcome for Dave but were not, I don't believe, his goal.

This is a great list and an

This is a great list and an excellent way to benchmark your activities. Thanks for sharing. I actually just posted it to our networks and asked for feedback on how we are doing against this list. One thing I think could be added is that it must fit into your overall business strategy/brand. I think one of the mistakes marketers have made is that they treat social media like a silver bullet. At the exchange we've been using and experimenting with social media since mid 2007, but from day one it was never a "one off" tactic.
CME Group/@CMEGroup

Very true!


Great, great, great point (and shame on me for omitting it from my blog post.) You're right--social media must reflect your brand. In fact, I believe great social media efforts begin with a great brand and a great corporate culture (and not merely with a great social strategy.)

Thanks for the input and for sharing the blog post.

My favorite Greenpeace Social story

is the story of Mister Splashy Pants - a naming exercise by Greenpeace that changed how the Government of Japan's attitude toward Hump Back whales

Great link

Thanks for the link. Great story! Long live Mr. Splashy Pants!

Effect of Social Media on Business and Analyst Groups

I agree with many of your comments but as an AR professional wonder how Social Media will transform the current way of doing business for the leading analyst groups--Forrester included. One of the many outcomes of social media is moving business to be open and share information. What is your opinion on how this will affect the current business model of selling information and insight that Analyst groups have?

Great, thought-provoking question


I'm not ignoring you! You asked a terrific question (and sensitive one), and I want to give this the thought it is due. Just wanted you to know I'm giving it some thought and appreciate you suggesting such a great topic.

I've given it some thought...

Nancy, thanks for the great, though-provoking question. I don't have any easy answer, but I think several different analyst models can develop and succeed. The subscription model can continue to be profitable--even in a more open and social world--provided what analyst firms provide is highly valued, differentiated and actionable. One way analyst firms can thrive in with the syndicated content model is to back it up with data, which is (of course) the Forrester model. By combining great data with great analysis and great ideas, there will be demand for paid services.

Of course, more open research models can succeed too, but the revenue and business model is completely different. Open research firms give away their research which elevates awareness of their services and thinking which allows the firm to earn revenue on consulting.

Both approaches have benefits and risks. If firms offering syndicated analysis fail to be highly differentiated and valuable, they will lose business to firms giving away their research. Conversely, if open research firms do not strike the right balance between their non-revenue-generating research and their revenue-producing consulting, the danger can be either a loss of relevance or a loss of profitability.

Every analyst firm will become more transparent. Here at Forrester, for example, we’re launching client communities and encouraging more blogging. But different firms will follow different models with different levels of transparency.

Nancy, what do you think?

Twitter Tone

Great synopsis of what companies must focus on to be successful while using social media. In addition to the 'seven musts', I would also suggest that organizations must choose the right tone when communicating with Facebook, Twitter, etc.

As a result of the ash cloud, I had a week of flight disruptions in Europe. I found the airlines' updates on Twitter very useful to help determine what was going with flight cancellations, etc., but soon afterwards I noticed a distinct difference between the way that Virgin Atlantic and British Airways were communicating with me. Short version - BA left me feeling that they were saying "get over it" to my complaints, but Virgin's tone was much friendlier. (Details here:

Of course finding the right tone in an email to someone you know can be tricky; choosing one to use on Twitter is much more difficult. However, organizations need to think through their choices and options so they are not unintentionally sending the wrong message.

Great point


Great point. I'm sure we could brainstorm another dozen (or hundred) "musts," and you make a great point about tone. Thanks for offering the thoughts.

The Success Mythology

You know, for every story of huge success of a "little guy" winning over a corporation, there are a thousand, or 10 thousand people who failed. It's no accident that we hear about the same 10-30 success stories everywhere, because the reality is there just aren't that many.

We need to put aside the fascination with the technology, and the myth that we need to go where the people gather. Customer don't care how you fix their problems or get them information. They just want it done fast. Social media adds extra layers, not less. Brand management is dead in many ways now.

Social media IS changing things but there are not a lot of opportunities as hyped. In fact the winners will be companies that can say to their customers: We'll solve your problem if you do {whatever} and we'll do it in 24 hours or less. The do [whatever] is irrelevant to the customer, provided it's convenient and no bs.

As for companies needing to be more transparent? Sorry, but that's just more hype and hope. When companies get "caught" they'll try to look transparent, as it's always been. Otherwise it's a pipe dream and an illusion.



You may hear the same 10 or 30 success stories of the little guy winning over the big company, but I hear (literally) hundreds in my job. They don't always get the headlines for good reasons--good companies are listening and responding rather than waiting until an embarrassing YouTube video amasses 8 million views (and becomes another one of your 10 to 30 "little guy" success stories.)

Just this week, Nestle announced changes in their environmental commitments thanks (in part) to the actions of individuals in their Facebook page. And Pampers is dealing with the negative repercussions that came from parents concerned that a change in the product is causing severe diaper rash. And Facebook is facing a growing privacy backlash being organized (ironically enough) in social media that could (eventually) change company policies, lawmaker actions, consumer privacy settings, and the competive landscape. (In the interest of full disclosure, I'll add that the Facebook situation is more heat than light right now, but it is causing the company to think differently about how it manages consumer perceptions around privacy.) In these cases, small groups of people are taking brands off message, requiring time and investment to manage perceptions, and (in the case of Nestle and likely Facebook) affecting change within the organization.

I suppose we'll just have to agree to disagree, but just in the last two weeks I can point to more examples of companies who are finding "the little guy" (or enough "little guys") are hard to ignore.

How true

Augie, this advice applies to any organization big or small, for profit or nonprofit. Thanks, I'll share it with my readers.

Thanks, Elaine

I appreciate the positive feedback.

Social media

I remember, back in the eighties, how Mercury communications used the media of the time (advertising) to exploit the newly privatised BT who were slow to react to the customer offers in the press and how Virgin did the same to BA.

Social media is now so fast moving that 'blink and you miss it'. It is great not just for national stories but for highlighting local issues and getting younger people involved: They may not write and object to a planning application but will sign a facebook page and a petition.

Now social media is moving into recruitmen if you look at the campaign from simple to find two people to promote its products and, in a media-obsessed age I think it has a good chance of working judging by the number of entrants ( Is this the shape of things to come in recruitment? For jobs involving image I would say a definte 'yes'.