Why social media strategies fail
There are numerous reasons why a social media strategy might fail. It could have started without any clear goals. It could have chosen the wrong platforms. It may have missed the right tonality. And many more.
But when I look at most of the social media efforts out there that have stumbled in one way or another, the source of the problem almost always comes down to an internal failure in the organization.
I’ve seen companies with the best intentions, which had solid social media strategies fail because of internal politics and unclear processes and structures.
This is the main reason why our social media strategy work with our clients has been shifting constantly into business consulting territory, away from just communications in marketing and PR. All we have learned over the recent years suggests that for social media to be successful for a company in the long term, it has to be deeply integrated in the company’s structures. This takes time and effort, and helping to build these structures takes both a different skill set and a different mandate than the average agency out there might have.
Here are some of the most common hurdles that stand in the way of a social media strategy’s success, and how to overcome them.
Working with internal politics
In my experience, there is no greater threat to the long-term success of social media strategies than the internal politics of a company.
Everything we talked about in this social media strategy framework can be worked out perfectly well. But when it comes to the questions of budgets and positions, the questions of “who owns this?” and finally “who will get more power?”, everything might go up in smoke. Because in the end, all the business objectives and metrics usually take a back seat to the individual interests of the different stakeholders involved. This is deeply engrained in the incentive structures of many large organizations.
As an consultancy, we try to plan for that by first getting to know as much as possible about the internal politics right from the start and then to work them into our strategy, making sure that each stakeholder gets their fair share as long as that doesn’t get in the way of the overall goals. But we also let the client know that this will only work to a certain extent and that they have to put their personal interests behind a common interest if they want their social media strategy to work.
Internal politics are difficult for every business strategy. But social media is still in its infancy and often misunderstood, so getting the buy-in from everyone is tough. It takes a certain amount of vision to grasp the role of social media in the future and that it’s worth putting the whole company’s interests first for this.
Our recommendation for companies working on their social media strategy is to put the politics on the table from the start. The longer they are ignored in the process, the more likely it is that the strategy will backfire in the end.
Fighting silo thinking
Social media has this strange capability to display the internal structure and politics to the outside world. If a company is thinking as one, everybody working together, it will show. But it will also show when a company is riven and torn apart by individual politics of each department: just as social media can amplify your brand message, it also amplifies the visibility of your internal problems1.
Your structure is showing.
Each product manager creating their own Facebook page with content that oftentimes overlaps. Marketing and PR departments fighting for the lead on the social web. Customer service talking to people complaining on the social web, not realizing how that might reflect on the brand. Crowdsourcing contests that obviously haven’t been worked out with the product development team and where the results will never get where they need to go.
The problem with all of this is that it confuses the customer and reflects badly on the brand. Typical examples of this?
- A customer wants to know more about a brand, and instead she finds four different Facebook pages that all have kind of the same content.
- Different Twitter accounts give different information about a product detail.
- A service question on a campaign page doesn’t get answered.
Organizing for social media
The key task in this part of implementing the social media strategy is to create an internal structure that can bring all the involved departments and stakeholders – and that can mean most of the company’s teams – together to speak with one voice on the social web2. It means to find a way to coordinate all the different social media engagements of a company to work with each other.
What this structure could look like is highly individual for every company. But there are a few best practices that can be a starting point.
The Social Media Committee
Social media must not be owned by one department!
To really push the point: social media has to be a joined effort. It must not be owned by one department! This will clash with the usual hierarchical structure of most traditional companies. So we have to find a way to get interdepartmental cooperation, usually with a project group or committee that each department sends a participant to. This committee will steer the social media effort of the whole company. It will help coordinate and synchronize all individual engagements and make sure that the company speaks with one voice.
This committee is responsible for creating, implementing and iterating the social media strategy of the company. The more each participant buys into a shared vision of the company’s social media engagement, the better it will work.
The Social Media Manager
The social media committee appoints a social media manager. Her role is to be the internal expert and manager for everything social media. She knows about all the individual social media efforts and works with each department to help with knowledge and insight. She’s not the one creating content for Facebook pages, etc. But if a department needs some help with that, she will find someone.
This person should be someone who is well connected inside the company and can handle the internal politics properly. Each department might appoint its own social media manager. The company’s social media manager will lead those and coordinate between them.
The Community Manager
While the social media manager is focused inwards, the community manager is the connection to the outside, the communities on the social web3. She deals daily with the communities, the fans, the followers, the customers. She knows who they are, how they think, what makes them happy, what makes them angry etc. She gains tremendous insight about the communities over time and plays a vital role in any social media effort by the company.
She is the direct line between the company and the communities. The communities, in turn, see her as the human face of the company. If they have a problem, a wish, a request, they talk to her. They trust her to have their best interests in mind and to represent them inside the company.
For the company, she’s the spokesperson of the communities. She should be part of every meeting where inside-knowledge about them is needed. She will say things like “No, the community will hate that.” She’s also the direct channel of the company into the communities if there are questions to ask them, or if the company wants to collaborate with the communities.
Depending on the size of the company and other factors, a company can have one or more community managers that can be organized as an individual team or can be connected to different departments or projects.
Collaborating with vendors
Outsource as little as possible!
We strongly believe that a company should keep its social media efforts internal to the extent possible, and only outsource when absolutely necessary.
First off, customers want to talk to the company directly on the social web. That’s the big advantage of the social web: a direct channel into the company. If the company puts an intermediary between itself and the customers, they feel like the company is not really interested in the conversation with them. If this is really the case, it will show.
But the bigger issue is that the ongoing conversation with the customers on the social web creates communities that are based on the company’s relationship with its customers. This relationship is of tremendous value for the company. It delivers insights and feedback from the customers and provides a continuous line of communication directly to the most engaged fans of the brand. Does a brand really want to outsource this relationship to an agency or a vendor? And what happens when the contract expires or the company wants to change the agency? The relationship to the communities and all the knowledge gained about them will be gone with the agency, or the company will be bound to the agency for a long time.
No, this knowledge and this relationship have to be deep-seated inside the company, as they will gain more and more influence on the decision-making process, and will become a long-term investment that has to be cultivated and protected.
The role of agencies and vendors is to give advice and help execute the tactical measures of the social media strategy like campaigns and design. They can provide the technology and the tools to help the company with analytics and managing the conversation. But they shouldn’t be the keyholders to the community.
As this series about our social media strategy framework has shown, we see social media strategy as the gateway to the future of a company. Social media has this amazing power to put on display how ready a company is to move into a future marketplace that is very different from the one we can already see changing now.
All of the factors described in this article that influence the implementation of a company’s social media strategy are part of that company’s culture. The structure, the politics, the collaboration between departments, the interest in the customer, and many more. In relation to social media, these can give a company a pretty good idea of where it stands. Is it embracing the opportunities of the social web to get much closer to its customers, or does it feel driven by the changing world of markets and communications? Where between these two poles does it stand?
This is why we see the development of a social media strategy as a long-term process, something that changes the company over time. First come internal changes, before moving on to engaging in external conversations. Depending on the company culture, results can show more quickly, or take a bit longer.
And you know what, it’s okay to take a bit longer. We really don’t expect companies to change overnight, particularly because of something that still seems to be very fuzzy and prone to change in the future. We’re still at the beginning of how social media will really change communications, and from there on out, the whole company. Right now, the only way to catch a clearer glimpse of that future is to take a leap of faith.
Taking journeys with companies towards a more social future is at the heart of what we enjoy working on at Third Wave. It has its risks and it takes time, but we truly believe that social media can be a catalyst for more humane companies. And if you’re interested in that journey, we would like to help. Let’s have coffee.
I remember pitch situations where I was able to predict not only the internal structure of a company but also who was working with whom and who did their own thing without talking to anyone else just by mapping out everything the company did on the social web. ↩
One voice in this case doesn’t mean that it only has to be one person speaking, or that communication has to sound as if it’s all coming from one person. But it should mean that different people don’t contradict each other and that all the activities are coordinated. ↩
Communities here are understood as all the fans, followers, customers or any other people who are somehow connected to a company on the social web. The people who have liked the company’s Facebook page are a community. As are the followers of a Twitter account, for example. ↩