Last October, Gartner unveiled a study that stated that by 2010, 60 percent of the Fortune 1000 companies with a web site will be involved in some form of online community that is utilized for customer relationship purposes. What the research also goes on to state is that 50 percent of those that set out and establish or become involved in these communities will fail in their efforts. That's about 300 Fortune 1000 companies that will fail at social media: a striking number, especially in light of recent economic pitfalls.
If half of these Fortune 1000 companies -- with all of their resources -- will fail, does that give any hope to the smaller businesses who venture into the social media realm? To be fair, smaller companies tend to have some advantages, such as being able to act faster in their social media efforts due to the fact of less "red tape" to deal with. However, in this area of online marketing, what it basically comes down to for any size company is understanding what is really involved in launching a social media strategy.
A lot of companies hear the buzz word "social media" and think "oh I've got to have some of that," or they see that their competitor is doing something in social media, so they think they need to match that without fully understanding what they want to do. These are recipes for failure in social media.
Success in social media requires some advance planning on your part, as well as some fundamental shifts in marketers' attitudes toward online marketing. By following a few simple steps, you can avoid the fate of those 300 Fortune 1000 companies that will fail at social media over the next couple of years.
1. Identify Your Audience
Before you set off down the road of social media, it's best to take the time and do some research into where your audience is holding conversations about you, your brand, or your industry. Your audience may be busy discussing your industry through a photo group on Flickr, and if you spend your time trying to get articles ranking on Digg because you read a cool article on a blog about Digg's power to drive traffic, you're really just wasting your resources.
By taking the time to identify where your audience is active in the social media sphere, you can save yourself a lot in both time and aggravation. Going to where the conversation is being held is one of the fundamental elements to social media success. If you don't do the research to find out where your audience is engaged, you have no chance of connecting with them.
2. Define Your Success Measurements
How will you decide whether your social media efforts are truly successful? Unlike PPC (pay per click) and SEO (search engine optimization), the majority of social media efforts do not have a direct ROI measurement through traditional analytics. So how do companies determine if their efforts are worth the return?
The area of social media you are focusing on will determine the types of metrics you'll need to look at. Let's take an example of looking at video sharing. Most video sharing sites do not allow direct linking from the actual video into your site, they usually allow that in the description of the video, so how do you measure success if you can't correlate links to clicks and purchases while viewers are watching a video? Companies have to step back from gauging success of social media with the amount of traffic generated or products bought in this case.
With video sharing you must look at other key factors such as the number of views, number of comments, how many links to the video are generated and even how many times the video has been favorited or how many stars it gets in ratings. There's also the matter of how many subscribers to the channel the video generates to factor in as well. In essence, all of these factors are measuring the success of brand/product/company exposure, which are elements that can be measured.
3. Plan a Strategy that Includes All Stakeholders
Launching a big offline marketing campaign requires a strategy that involves marketing, sales, and other departments within an organization, and likely some outside vendors. Why should social media be any different? A social media strategy helps you plan for both the expected and unexpected. A social media strategy also helps to get all the key players on the same page, it brings all of your resources together and helps to make sure they are working with each other, rather than operating as separate silos.
Without an overall social media strategy, the potential for failure rises even higher. If one department is responsible for the social media efforts and they are just operating on the directions of "get us out there in the community," failure is right around the corner. Anyone engaging customers in any medium needs to understand the company's overall marketing goals, messaging, and customer service strategies.
In addition, if different stakeholders in your company are not communicating, you will eventually run into trouble when your social media efforts bear fruit. For example, if your strategy involves Digg and you manage to hit the front page, but you didn't have IT involved, it's possible that the onslaught of traffic Digg will send you will crash your site. If your Public Relations department promotes a special event for online participants and your SEO team wasn't involved, your efforts may not rank well in the search engines.
Without a cohesive strategy, major blunders like these are more likely to happen, and the risk of your social media efforts failing increases tenfold.
4. Be Transparent
One of the quickest ways to fail in social media is to not be transparent about who you are and why you are "here." Social media is really about building relationships in communities and the conversations you have. Relationships are built upon trust, and if that trust is broken in any way, your efforts are wasted.
When you become involved in a community, make sure from the start to share who you are, your relationship to the company, and your contact information. This tells the community you are "for real" and that you aren't there to pull the wool over anyone's eyes.
If you plan on masquerading as a customer who uses your products and just loves them, you might want to think twice before employing this tactic. If you are found out to be an employee of the company by a community member, all trust is lost and your reputation within the community is destroyed. It usually goes downhill from there, with the possibility of a bigger PR nightmare once the mainstream media becomes involved.
5. Recognize that It's Not About You
Companies can be very egotistical when it comes to marketing. For years, it's been all about getting your message out there so the customer will buy your product or service. With social media, this kind of thinking will get you ignored, or could even cause a backlash against your company.
Social media is about building relationships, and it's about conversations. Conversations involve more than just you pushing your carefully crafted message onto the consumer. Social media is about a community sharing experiences, and companies listening to that.
The old adage "God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason" speaks volumes for social media. Companies should be out there listening to end users, asking questions, looking for feedback, embracing new ways end users are utilizing their products and services. Forcing your prefabricated marketing message upon a social media community will only generate resentment and ultimately failure in social media.
Perhaps if companies take the time to work on some of these elements with their efforts in social media, fewer failures will be seen in 2010 than what Gartner has predicted. Social media can be a very effective way to get instant feedback that's more "true" than even a focus group could give. Social media can also be a very effective and successful marketing tool, but only if companies take the time to strategically plan for it and not just rush into it head on.