10 fatal flaws in social media campaigns

A study by NextStage Evolution spanning 2009-2012 shows an array of ways organizations botched their online marketing efforts. Do these sound familiar?

I wrote about successful social media marketing strategies in “9 ways to guarantee a winning social campaign,” and defined successful social media marketing strategies as “we made more money from social marketing than we spent on social marketing.”

Both that article and this one are based on NextStage’s having studied the social media efforts of more than 400 companies in the U.S. and Canada from 2009 to 2012. We monitored companies as diverse as Alberto-Culver, Boston Scientific, Gucci America, Pioneer North America, and Walgreens. That study produced a lot of information on how not to do social media marketing.

An inflexible business plan is social media marketing’s worst enemy.

That’s the big takeaway from this research. Everything in this article comes down to businesses not appreciating the speed and power of consumer voices gone social. Sticking your head in the sand or looking the other way when things go sour is not an option in social media marketing. No brand is big enough to tell consumers that it’s the brand’s way or the highway. Inflexible social media business plans result in negative SROI, period.

Beyond that, the top failing social media strategies—a mix of business savvy and social science knowledge, as with the previous “9 ways to guarantee a winning social campaign“—are documented here, bad to worst, so readers can avoid others’ mistakes. All failed social media campaigns had at least one and sometimes several of these strategies at work.

50 percent of network buys failed.

The real crapshoot was the social media version of traditional network buys. Fifty percent of the businesses that failed did network buys.

Network buys failed because consumers are far smarter than businesses think, especially when they’re being fed information they don’t want or no longer need.

For example, car shoppers want to see car information where they want to find it, not everywhere they look. There have been lots of studies that revealed carefully placed promotions work much better than identical promotions broadly placed.

The brain will look for what the mind wants but filters kick in quickly—what’s called “inattentional blindness”—when the brain sees the same thing everywhere. The end result is that things—even wanted things—are ignored. It’s much like looking for your car keys and not seeing them even when they’re right in front of you. People won’t even remember, recognize, or acknowledge what’s right in front of them when they’re staring right at it even if they want it, a phenomenon called “fixate but ignore.”

So it was with social media marketing network buys. Names and comments are ignored when they show up everywhere, so don’t do it—half the time, anyway. Or as one international brand’s marketing director said, “I learned a while ago that media buyers don’t care about their success, only that they spent the budget.”

57 percent of cross-platform efforts failed.

Fifty-seven percent of failed social media strategies involved cross-platform efforts—using the same social media methods on different social media sites. The reason this strategy failed is simple: Social media “here” isn’t social media “there.” Each platform—Facebook, FourSquare, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, and others—draw crowds with distinct psychologies (except in certain and very predictable cases).

“Here is there” efforts earned universally poor results. There’s psychological overlap in the different social media platforms, definitely, and that overlap demonstrates needs unmet “here” being filled “there” and vice versa. These unmet needs also indicate the same outreach methodology won’t work across all platforms. The good news is that the overlap is exploitable for little extra cost and big return.

60 percent expecting large rewards from large efforts failed.

Sixty percent of failures were due to a specific business-based ignorance of social media network dynamics; large efforts do not automatically equal large rewards in the social media sphere.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s not. There’s no such thing as a successful large-scale effort in social media marketing despite any success stories you’ll hear; the cost per response never justifies the effort. (And I mean final, undeniable, cash-in-the-pocket success, not “we upped our fan-base 60 percent.”)

Social media efforts need to be highly targeted along group and brand identity lines. Large populations have so little in common that large efforts produce low to no results. Acquisition and retention costs are prohibitive, and the most obvious demonstration is politics. No candidate is winning by landslides anymore.

Several small efforts, each targeted to a specific population, can produce much higher results with much lower acquisition and retention costs and cover the entire population spectrum.

61 percent that controlled the conversation failed.

Sixty-one percent of failures occurred when businesses tried to control the conversation.

Controlling the conversation only works short term at best. There are too many consumers talking, and they’re talking in too many places for any system to keep up. It doesn’t matter what tools you use or what those tools claim—social media sentiment is a moving target, and the number of variables involved makes ensemble weather prediction simple by comparison. (You’ve not seen big data until you’ve seen ensemble weather prediction systems.)

Companies that actively attempted to control consumer dialogue were quickly accused of a lack of transparency.

69 percent relying on high-tech/bleeding-edge failed.

I wrote in “9 ways to guarantee a winning social campaign” that 80 percent of the companies with successful social media marketing strategies didn’t waste budget on shiny-object technology. The other side of that is that 69 percent of brands that did rely on high-tech and bleeding-edge technologies had social media campaigns that failed. High-tech and related bleeding-edge systems caught consumers’ eyes for a minute, their attention for 15 to 20 seconds, and then, if the conversation wasn’t happening or wasn’t worthy, consumers left.

Remember when everybody had to have a store in SecondLife? Now people don’t even know what SecondLife is. Not long ago, big brands were refusing to take part in the Facebook pas-de-deux. Now many brands are rethinking their social media spend, period.

71 percent thinking all social media networks are the same failed.

Similar to using the same social media methods on different social media sites, failing to utilize each social media platform’s unique features accounted for 71 percent of the failures studied. The social media devil is in a given site’s details, and not knowing each site’s social media value to consumers and how to exploit that value is begging for failure.

Site details involve how different age groups, ethnic and cultural groups, educational and training backgrounds, the genders, and more deal with socially transmitted information. It took NextStage years to convince businesses that they couldn’t market to Kansas the same way they marketed to California, and recently a major telecomm company learned the hard way that its online social media presence had to be location-specific to be taken seriously.

Businesses that don’t recognize and use each platform’s social media “uniquenesses” will fail, period.

75 percent failed that bought fans, friends, ‘likes,’ mayorships…

Seeding communities—paying for fans, friends, “likes,” mayorships, and, most recently, pins, etc.—to demonstrate high levels of interest was costly and, in the end, an obvious manipulation.

The problem with seeding communities is that the demonstrated interest wasn’t genuine interest, and it became obvious sooner rather than later. It’s like having your best friend tell you they lied about something important 20 years ago. You forgive them, sure, but chances are you never forget and you’re left with a nagging doubt about everything else they’ve done since. Consumers did stick around, but when freebies lagged or were no longer worthy, they fled. What’s worse, once they knew they were being jammed they often jammed back.

82 percent contained conversations.

Containment is controlling with censorship added in. Controlling attempts to steer conversations, containment attempts to stop conversations, and 82 percent of failed social media strategies used containment at some point.

Containment isn’t communication. This lesson was learned by many and primarily by executives who were “old school.” What amazes me about most old-school executives is that they don’t learn from their pasts, they simply repeat them and blame somebody else, something originally covered in “Organizations Don’t Retain What They Learn.”

The past three years have shown the world that stopping conversations works poorly in an online world. It’s like Whack-A-Mole; smack one down here and another pops up over there. The worst part—from a business perspective—is that the conversations pop up faster and faster, usually with increasing virulence, and eventually all these disconnected moles join forces and stop the business in its tracks. Not good in a highly networked world.

The only time containment works is when the business’s audience is small enough that the audience essentially is partnered to the business, meaning it’s in the audience’s best interest not to spread the message.

87 percent put anti-social people in charge of social media campaigns.

The second greatest reason companies’ social media efforts failed in the past three years was due to putting anti- and low-social people in charge of social media efforts. You’d be amazed at the number of anthrophobes and sociophobes in social media marketing positions.

Ochlophobes (crowd fearers) and agoraphobes (fear of open spaces) are easier to spot, and people tend to think of them as being poor social media strategists. The truth is their anxiety makes them unusually keen social media observers and strategists. Ochlophobes and agoraphobes like people, just not crowds, and social media marketing crowds are ethereal; they’re there, you just don’t see them so the ochlophobes’ and agoraphobes’ anxiety never kicks in.

Anthrophobes and sociophobes don’t like people, crowds, social gatherings, social networks, you, me, or the screen you’re viewing this on. The business problem is that anthrophobes and sociophobes have learned to hide their anxiety to survive and function in business. Fortunately, there are tests that determine someone’s best role in a social media campaign.

95 percent failed to get knowledgeable advice.

The majority of companies with failed social media campaigns either thought they knew it all and didn’t need help or got the cheapest or least experienced help they could find.

To the former, it’s great to hire from within but not when the necessary expertise doesn’t exist within the company.

To the latter, check credentials. Many companies that failed did get outside help, but from individuals and consulting firms with no background in sciences such as social cognition, social systems theory or social anthropology, for example, and whose social media marketing resume included things such as, “Successfully got my daughter’s CD sales more than 1,000 copies.”

Are you chuckling? Laughing? Shaking your head in disbelief?

That was one person’s only claim to social media marketing fame, yet they got jobs teaching social media marketing and networking to businesses as documented in “I Can Crack My Knuckles Therefore I Must Be a Chiropractor! (Musings on Expertise).”


There are lots of reasons for businesses’ social media efforts to fail. Any business falling into one of the above buckets is almost guaranteed to either fail or spend lots of money avoiding failure.

As I noted at the start of this article, we interviewed and tracked more than 400 companies to draw our final conclusions. What is listed here is the crème de la crème of social media failure, so be “new school” and learn from others’ mistakes.

Joseph Carrabis is the founder of and chief research officer for NextStage Evolution. A version of this article first appeared on iMediaConnection.


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