10 Reasons Your Social Marketing Initiative Will Fail

The vast majority of marketers say social media is important to their business, so why do so many initiatives fail?

A 2012 study by the Social Media Examiner found that 83% of marketers said social media is important to their businesses. These folks have almost all initiated social marketing initiatives to connect with customers, prospects, and influencers via social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, and LinkedIn. But if these initiatives are so important, why do so many of them fail to bring value to their organizations, while siphoning valuable resources that could be used better elsewhere?

Here are ten main reasons a social initiative falls flat on its face:

  • Poorly-defined (or no) success metrics or goals. The number of followers or "likes" are not marketing goals, particularly when they bring the wrong sort of followers. The goal of social programs need to be built around developing a two-way engagement with the people who can impact your business. The people you want to connect with are engaged customers, recommenders, analysts, press, and others who "care" about what you have to offer…and who can influence others.
  • Hiring a "professional" social community manager to be your company’s voice. Many companies figure they don’t understand social, so they hire a recent college graduate and hope they can spread the word. This fails because real engagement needs to come from people in your company who are passionate about your offering and are natural members of the community you are trying to build/join. Insiders can smell a phony a mile away.
  • Hiring a professional expert to be your company’s voice. Other companies figure they can buy an instant following by hiring someone within the target community to be the company’s voice. But professionals who have built up a reputation in a community are not eager to jeopardize their market cache by appearing to sell out to the highest bidder. The result? You pay big bucks for someone to promote themselves (and occasionally you). Look forward to frustration trying to manage these folks as well as to losing a colossal pile of cash.
  • Lack of executive participation. Very few operational executives participate in social media. Case in point, a 2012 study that found only 10% of Global 250 CIOs have a social footprint. These folks are generally too busy or uninitiated in the ways of social media to get involved. What other critical aspect of your business does not have executive participation? Bingo.
  • Viewing social as a marketing silo. On a related note, leaving social activity to marketers misses the point. Social activists need to be people who are product and service experts or have deep business relationships with your target community. Otherwise, it is hard to develop a meaningful dialogue key members of the community. Traditional marketers’ mindset is "one-to-many," meaning getting the word out to the masses. Social marketing is a much more of a "one-on-one" or a "one-to-few" relationship. Different mindset, different skills.
  • Looking at social as a one-way, "push" messaging model. "Fire and forget" doesn’t work in social. By definition, social implies a relationship with others. So blasting out messages without paying attention to feedback is a losing proposition. When you ignore what others are saying about you (or to you), you anger them….and you lose the opportunity to influence them.
  • Pushing product or service incessantly. Sure, you can get people to "like" or follow your brand if you give them coupons or discounts, but so what? The minute a competitor drops their price, your customers are gone. Plus, too many ads or promotions annoys people. At best, people will ignore you or unsubscribe from your updates. At worst, they will tell their friends how annoying you are. Either way…you lose.
  • Having nothing valuable to say. The flip side of over-pushing product is posting nonsense. How many "stuck in line at the airport" or "another sunny day in Denver" posts will people endure before they drop you? In this case, follow the advice of Abraham Lincoln who said, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, rather than speak out and remove all doubt…"
  • Inconsistent level of activity. Do you know folks who send out 50 tweets a day and then disappear for two weeks? It is hard to build a relationship with someone who is only intermittently engaged. People will gravitate to other, more stable contacts.
  • Implementing a "one size fits none" strategy. Since products and services are unique, each one should have a customized social strategy. For example, consumer goods with a high degree of emotional engagement need a different plan than complex commercial products. Each offering has a unique combination of social values and associated channels. Trying to implement a cookie cutter program of Facebook page, blog, and corporate Twitter account is not enough…or appropriate. You need to connect with people in the places they spend their time online, with the appropriate messages.
A future post will provide some practical solutions for being successful with your social initiatives. In the meantime, share the reasons you feel that companies fail so miserably with social initiatives in the comments, or tweet me at @dlavenda.

Learn how to improve your social media marketing in the Fast Company newsletter.

—Author David Lavenda is a high-tech product strategy and marketing executive. He also does academic research on information overload in organizations and he is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. He tweets from @dlavenda.

[Image: Flickr use Neil Melville-Kenney]

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  • Gadi

    It all comes down to basics. Everyone want to be noticed. That's what made social network spread so fast. As a vendor you need to remember that, and use social media to make your customers and potential customers (audience) be noticed. It can be on the response to a defined need/request of your customer, and can also be a defined need/request you as a vendor send to your audience. Communication is a two way street, so if you listen to your audience,  your audience will listen to you, and the relationship will take roots and have long term substance. As a social marketer you need to monitor that such a process takes place, and nourish it with the right people, and content from your company, and as mentioned, starting from the CEO.

  • Bruno Carre

    and perhaps the biggest reason is: your product or service is crap, and social media acts like a magnifying glass, telling (or letting the customers do it) to 2 billion people. 

  • Duane Urban

    This article makes sense.  I remember going to an interview 6 years ago in which the marketing manager stated the company needed to get on social networking because it was the wave of the future.  I told him that it would [help] if you remember that social implies an interrelationship between 2 or more people.  Spamming peoples walls with ads however will get you deleted.  I have a prediction - now that Facebook is letting advertisers place ads on your wall it's days are numbered.  The one thing that marketing really needs to get in their heads is that people always were fans of entertainers, movies stars and the like going back 100's if not 1000's of years.  Just because now you define them as a brand to people they are not.  They are people.  As much as you like your brand to be personified it's an inanimate object without a personality. 

  • dlavenda

    Like many fads in marketing, social will find its place in the pantheon of tools that marketers use. It won't be the panacea that so many predicted. I too worked in an organization where the directive was to 'get something social up' because everybody else was talking about social. We did Facebook ads and a lot of other 'stuff.' Eventually, it was clear that it took at lot more to be successful with these tools than just SPAM people with product offers and messages.

  • Mark Weyland

    I think this is all completely true. The most important point being that every company should manage their own Social Media accounts and not hire third party members to manage them on  their behalf. It is a way of making the audience feel important by addressing issues personally and on a one-to-one basis. 

    Moreover, Social Media should not be treated as a medium of sales. It is a medium of marketing and post-sales-relationship-building. It is best to use these platforms for the ways they are useful and productive. 

  • dlavenda

    Mark, the difference between sales and marketing is becoming blurry; there is a continuum today rather than a clean break.  I see a role for social media in the later stages of the sales cycle as well, but that is much more geared towards creating a conversation with a small number of 'intimate' contacts rather than spraying Twitter messages to the masses. I will try to cover this in a future post.

  • Eaharewood

    I guess social media is only as good as it is used with the correct intent and the right kinds of support. But then, this is a new tool that still needs to be properly tried for the right kinds of conclusions to be drawn. Maybe more research in this are is needed, because what works for one, many not work for another give the vast cultural differences that exist. 

  • dlavenda

    One of the great things about 'social' is the ability to measure what works and what doesn't. If you do Facebook,  blog posts, or tweets to drive people to take an action or go to your website, you can measure how effective each channel is, down to the click and conversion rates.  I think that in addition to research, companies need to measure what matters to them. I get the chills when someone tells me 'we measure everything' because that is neither wise nor a good use of people's time. You need to measure what counts and react accordingly. The research that will work for your organization is to measure success (as you define it) and to continuously tweak and test what you are doing to incrementally improve your performance.

  • klmartin98

    I definitely agree that far too many companies insist on using social media for pushing out messages and never commit to becoming part of the actual community and engaging the audience that they have been granted access into. The focus is completely on the sales piece and not enough on the engagement piece.

  • Matthew Wos-Lavoie

    I very much agree with the points made in this article. Social Media is about engagement and trying to know your consumer. If you cannot connect with your consumers, then it is almost pointless having social media. Without getting engaged, you will simply be using your social media tools as a very basic and cheap way of advertising. Using them as cheap advertising tools is not a bad thing truly, but the tools found in social media enable us marketers the ability to truly meet the needs of our consumers, instead of just pushing products into their faces constantly. 


    Thanks writing this post!

  • Guest

    I am not convinced that social marketing ever contributes more than a blip to the bottom line. Maybe for some hipster stuff bit not for the mainstream everyday. Who wants to have a relationship with Anusol?

  • dlavenda

    Here is a real example of where it can work. Somebody tweets about your product - something like - "I couldn't get this to work." You reach out them and make a connection. You help them get the product working and have an opportunity to not only show you are listening, but you help them solve their problem. I have seen this happen many times and people are grateful for the attention and the service. You gain an advocate. But it is done one at a time. Again, it's all about engagement, not blasting messages.

  • Guest

    Fraid I just see that as good customer service. Different medium maybe but not necessarily an effective one in terms of time or money.

  • Steve Joseph

    I would politely disagree. I know a few WP Theme authors and app developers that respond to every user who has a concern. What has this gotten them?

    a. A legion of followers followed through by increased purchases of their product or/and services. Bottom line? The bottom line is without engagement you're better off sinking money into traditional media and losing it quickly while watching your competition that "get's it" extend their brand culture and message.

    b. Trust in their brand by the community that they're not going to sell us some one time deal and make off to the Bahamas for an extended vacation. Do you know what trust does in a brand to consumer relationship? How many more people will keep buying from a brand they trust vs ones that get a rep for selling you junk then never being heard from again?

    My list could go on but there's nothing like having a one on one chat with the guy whose app you just downloaded and he seems genuinely willing to engage with me the customer.

    While I used WP authors and app developers as an example this could apply to any and all business models but what I constantly see are brands that are unwilling to engage with the customer and then 10mths later blame the marketing agency.

    If I had a $1 for every client meeting I've been in where they swore they would engage with their customers and that they understood social media was a relationship not a podium I'd be rich. Better than being rich I wish they had truly understood the medium so we could have both accomplished the goals we outlined together.

  • Theresa J Trevor

    David.  This is an excellent, absolutely spot-on list.  Social media and marketing evolves and changes SO QUICKLY that sometimes we tend to forget that there are certain imperatives that remain intact regardless of these advancements.  It is refreshing to read about what brands (and software/tech/social marketing companies) actually CAN do (or in the case of your article, should NOT do) to stay in the game.  I'll be sure to share this timely article.  Thanks for writing. -Theresa Trevor, Amplifinity Marketing Director @amplifinity

  • SeveralTitsUp

    This is embarrassing as an article positioned to provide professional insight and information.  

  • dlavenda

    Absolutely, the main point is that social is about engagement, not blasting messages. There is no practical way to have meaningful engagements with thousands of people at the same time. So if someone reaches out and raises their hand, definitely respond. Good point.

  • Lauren Welles

    In order to keep your social media pages successful, keep them interactive.  If someone writes a comment, question, or piece of feedback (negative or positive), respond to it.  The more you interact with your followers, the more they will trust you.