Social media success starts with asking the right question

For the last five years, I’ve done a lot of work with brands and clients in social media. From podcasts to blogs, Facebook to Foursquare, social platforms have been – and continue to be – the hot topic for brands across the globe.

About two years ago, many brands entered what I would call the test period – they took a small percentage of a campaign budget – say 5-10% – and asked their agency, media company or PR group to brainstorm a few ‘extension ideas’ to ‘bring the campaign to life’ on a site like Facebook. The agency thought a bit about it, pitched some ideas (usually a FB page and a few ads, an application and definitely a promotion) and for a moment – a few months – progressive brands were heralded as the ones who tried something new. The ones who connected with their target via these ‘new’ mediums and – we were told by countless social experts at the 200 conferences they attend every year – the results were amazing, fantastic and mind blowing!!!

So more brands entered the space. More brand pages were launched. More promotions that involved voting for something, uploading a photo or sharing with your friends. And for awhile, everyone was pretty happy. (if I had to put a year on it, I’d say this was during the back-half of 2008 in North America).

But then the test period ended. The results came in and beyond the number of fans, amount of photo’s uploaded, page views and general metrics, few people really knew how to make sense of social. Was it working? Did it actually help the brand attributes? Did it move sales? There are plenty examples of brands that do this and each platform highlights a ton of them in their sales presentations (which, for some reason, tend to highlight Hollywood movie releases in almost every one, Adidias, Nike, Starbucks or Apple). Yet most clients (and to be honest, agencies) still felt that the whole picture wasn’t there.

And most of us still feel this way.

That’s where the questions start. Unlike in 2008 when the question was, ‘should we be using a bit of our budget to test social?‘ the question is now ‘who should be managing social among our agency partners?’

This – inevitably – leads to a more fundamental question that some (but not all) brands are asking themselves: ‘Who should be managing social within my company?’

For brands that have a couple hundred people, are concentrated within one country or region and sell a specific set of products, this answer can come a bit easier. But for the ones with a global presence, ones with thousands of brand managers across multiple regions, languages and locations, it’s a lot harder. This effort is made tougher by the fact that some brand managers may have embraced social during the ‘test phase’ but others are just getting started. Some have already seen success and failure while others are still asking what a ‘ReTweet’ is.

To often, it seems that brands look outward for the solution. Give social to the PR group because they manage our brand reputation. Or give it to the digital agency because they do our sites. Or give it to the media group because they buy media and have a ‘social expert’ who seemed smart.

But the real question starts from inside. And, in some organisations, simply asking it can lead to trouble.

The product team, marketing group, customer services, tech and everyone else within the organisation wants (and needs) a say. But they are mostly isolated form one another except for the Christmas parties and all-staff meetings. They’ve got their own objectives, bonus schemes and priorities. Success for one group in social means nothing to another.

And that’s the challenge. Unlike the early days of the web where organisations could slice up digital based on their pre-existing structure (marketing makes the banners and campaign sites, customer services has a ‘live web chat’ on our corporate site, PR sends the press releases out over the web, and we all keep doing what we’re doing), social is more ubiquitous and forces these groups to come together – even if they don’t want to.

The brands that have internally come together and had conversations about structuring, social metrics that they all align towards and have set the goals that they want to use the space for are the ones who are succeeding. They can then look at their agency roster and divvy up the priorities to their specialists and set sub-targets based on their individual objectives and priorities.

But the brands who haven’t continue to be fragmented. They might have a social hit but they have many failures and their social strategy doesn’t go much further than ‘we should run an ad on Facebook for that’. The result is hundreds of tests but few long term platforms. Dozens of community pages but no engagement strategies.

Before you think about which agency should ‘run’ social and the millions of different social tools and campaigns that you want to launch, ask the question about how your organization is structured for social success. If it’s not, get help. There are groups, brands and (of course) agencies who can help educate your organisation on what structures they have seen currently working vs. the ones that don’t.

The help is there. But in order to get it, you’ve got to ask the right question.

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