To Succeed In Social Media, Lower Your Expectations

I've been hopscotching Europe this week, seeing clients and colleagues in London and Istanbul — but my thoughts have been in Los Angeles, where in a couple of weeks I'll be giving a speech called "Taking Social Media From Cool To Critical" at the 2012 Forrester Marketing Leadership Forum.

I chose that topic because it’s a concern I hear almost every day — and sure enough, I heard it from several clients on my travels this week. "We’ve put time and resources into social media marketing, because it seemed like we had to, but . . . it’s just not having much of a business impact." By comparison, four or five years into the era of search marketing, most companies were making a killing from their SEM programs. The same goes for email marketing. But here we are four or five years into the era of social media marketing — and for many companies, social media is still a curiosity, a sideshow that attracts lots of interest but adds little value. It's still cool, but at most firms, it's just not a critical part of the marketing plan.

I think the main reason marketers still struggle to make social pay is simple: They overestimate social media as a marketing tool. Let me be clear: I'm not bashing social's value for marketing; social media can have an enormous impact on the success of your marketing programs, as we’ve seen time and time again. The point I'm making is that it can’t create that success all on its own. You need to use it as merely one tool in your marketing tool kit.

I cringe every time I hear a client ask how they can build a brand with social media or drive sales with social media. Of course, social can ultimately contribute to both goals, but it's simply not very effective at taking the lead when you need to build your brand or acquire new customers. The key to success is figuring out what social can and can’t do — and then leveraging social tools where those tools excel and turning to other channels and platforms in situations where social isn’t as well adapted.

Need to create awareness from scratch? You’ll probably have a hard time doing that with a Twitter account; try reach channels like online sponsorships and offline paid media. Need to convert prospects into buyers? Facebook is going to provide limited value in reaching that objective; search and email are still your best purchase triggers. On the other hand, "owned" social platforms like blogs and communities help marketers add crucial depth to their websites, and public social presences on Facebook and Twitter can offer crucial ongoing engagement with existing customers.

The sooner we start looking at social as a valuable point solution at certain parts of the customer life cycle — rather than as something that should take over our entire marketing ecosystem — the sooner we’ll start seeing real, consistent value from social media marketing.

I’ll be talking about these ideas in much more depth in an upcoming report, in a presentation at our Marketing Leadership Forum on April 19th, and at a full-day workshop in New York on April 24th. I hope to see you at one of the events — and in the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments below.


What social can and can't do


Sorry, but "social" can launch brands - look @ Spotify in the US, or Invisible Children.

And "social" can sell stuff, look @ Pampers on Facebook or the brands teaming with Amex via their new 'synch' program leveraging integrated social with local ecommerce.

Wags like us need to stop reinforcing the naysayers who claim social is just for slow-burn good-feeling-building. It has all the potential for a truly optimizable platform to support both measurable direct response AND brand building.

Rather - we should be pressing brand marketers and their agencies to get busy hooking up the attribution tags and tracking, and start shifting traditional measured media budgets into the social channel --- with all it's attendant hooks into search, mobile and digital content marketing.

I know you know this - but I worry that articles and speeches like this only give marketers more reason to hedge their bets and fail to commit budgets and energy to this channel, and the new marketing rigor it requires and the huge opportunity it promises.

Thanks for listening to the kvetch - and keep up the great evangelical work!

Thom Kennon | @tkennon | +Thom Kennon |

Established Brands

Hey Thom, I do agree that Facebook can help launch brands. You do need a budget for ads to do so or a really clever and interactive product like a game. But I disagree with your examples. Spotify was already established in Europe. They also have a huge Angel Investor budget to help along the way. Invisible Children also already had a pretty strong and loyal following. Neither example was starting from scratch.

I'm a relative newbie to

I'm a relative newbie to "social" but I think it becomes obvious quickly that this medium is not radically different from other channels, such as search and email, that have appeared during my professional life meaning that for some businesses, social can be a huge game changer and the primary channel to focus on. For other businesses, and I think that generally B2B falls into this second category, social is a mandatory but "just" a part of a well-rounded marketing approach.

I have no doubt that social must be included but I think having the right expectations for any facit of marketing activity is essential to avoid disappointment and to ensure the proper allocation of time and resources.

Joe Goldberg | @GoldbergJoe |



I'll read your report when it comes out, but (as we've talked about) I still am not sure that I believe in narrow definitions and rules about what particular channels are "good" for.

The problem I see with using social is farther upstream: a lack of content. Quality content is the lifeblood of social media. Going into Twitter (or whatever) without content is like buying a thirty-second spot without making a commercial.

It's too narrow a view to say you can't build a brand on social media. All it takes is one success to disprove this point. A few have already been offered. But without content to offer, it will definitely be more difficult.

to succeed in social media

i agree with Nate, social media alone cannot do all branding, customer acquisition, customer retention, product line extensions etc. Content is key and the media drives the message. When we expect something to do all it fails in our expectations. Remember the members of social media platforms are individuals as well as "group members" and it is content that drives revealing the individual's personal interests, passions and needs---- they connect with the content that most reflects and affects their individuality and by doing so identify themselves as part of a group

Too much riding on social

I second, Nate. There's just too much riding on social. Some of it is also because of the multi-billion IPO frenzy. It's too early to depend solely on social to build awareness as well as generate business. While, there definitely have been cases where social has either worked in one of the cases or both, there have to distinct elements of virality in the message to hit the nail on its head.

Also even though the amount of time with social has increased (in some cases) over search or email, it is still open to debate whether people are lapping up marketing messages as they have over the fore-mentioned mediums.

I am truly supportive of the

I am truly supportive of the argument that social has to be seen as a segment of the entire marketing picture. Even as most social platforms have increased exponentially, it would be unwise to build a brand solely on those platforms. Give yourself a home base and a means for customers to reach you by continuing with white hat seo and email marketing campaigns. Social makes that process easier, but is not a definitive answer to eliminate those marketing techniques. As well as, what was mentoned earlier develop content and make your business personal, engage your customers socially, and guide them through social, it will pay off.

Day by day

Every day is a new day in social media and digital marketing. I believe the same idea that the author says. You can expect to much on social. You have to have a plan, a marketing, CRM plan where your goals, objectives have to be clear enough so you can see and expect real achievements. Digital came here to stay. It will change day by day, but it won't go away.



Not just social

Totally agree Nate, a lot is often made to rest on social's shoulders alone but I also I think integrated campaigns make sense in digital across the board.
Looking at other solo channels like search they are now optimising by integrating with other areas like social. Marketers should live by the old saying "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."