4 lessons from a social media disaster

This communicator learned some tough lessons when he took charge of a company’s social media strategy. His advice: Books and blogs can’t teach you everything.

In the past 20 months, I’ve learned a lot about social media and social business.

When I moved to Belgium, I needed a new job and had just one requirement: The job needed to have a social media element.

I was—and still am—the go-to social media guy for my friends and family, and thought I knew it all a lot. With that attitude, I went on a job interview in Brussels. Lo and behold, I got a job.

It was time to put my money where my mouth was.

The strategy

I started with a social media strategy, because that’s what you do, right?

My strategy did not have much to do with content creation, however. I figured out where I wanted to end up and what my personal, ideal view on the use of social media was based on books and blog posts I had read.

It was a bit too ambitious.

The company I worked for supplied local customers in the Brussels region, had 200 employees and had an old-school, command-and-control culture.

There were other issues:

  • All departments happily existed within silos.
  • Quite a few employees were permanently stationed at a remote client location.
  • I was a stranger from another country who did not know the language well. (If you want to know, the language in Brussels is French. Although Brussels is supposed to be bilingual, it really isn’t.)

I realized I did not have a strategy issue. I faced a culture issue.

Lesson No. 1: As a social media professional, you depend on other people and departments to get things done.

My first step in the strategy, updating the corporate website, was almost completely out of my control. Add to this a reduced budget, decentralized content management, in-house Web developers (who did not want to give up any control) and a priority for client websites, and change becomes an arduous process.

It took me more than a year to feel like the company was implementing some changes.

Lesson No. 2: A green light from management does not equal success.

Active management sponsorship is crucial for a social media strategy’s success—or the success of any business strategy, for that matter.

I argued and pleaded and tried to persuade employees to participate, but to no avail. The most involvement I got was two ghost-written blog posts. These were, in effect, of no consequence. They did not relate to the company or solve any problem a client might have.

There was no executive leadership, so there was no trickle-down-participation.

Lesson No. 3: Creating great content is hard work.

It’s tough enough for a personal blog, but it is significantly more challenging for a multi-author corporate blog—especially when you are the only one pushing things along.

I learned that creating an editorial calendar is no guarantee you will meet deadlines. Even though our seven “regular” bloggers knew their topics and deadlines (I put these in their calendars), everybody always waited until the last possible moment.

More often than not I received an email the day before the deadline that said, “Sorry, but I can’t make it. I don’t have time.”

I ended up writing a bunch of posts to fill in the gaps. Oh well. I suppose this was good practice for me.

Lesson No. 4: Although social media is not about hardware and computers, you won’t get anywhere without IT support.

To make progress, I needed a blog—something more than a Twitter account and company Facebook page.

I tried to get a blog on our corporate website, but this turned out to be too much of technological challenge. I argued that it wasn’t (Google was my supportive friend here), but I hit a wall of IT obstinacy.

In the end, I set up a WordPress blog on my own.

By the time I left the company we had about 80 posts and a reasonable amount of visitors, but not much more than that. There was no measurable return on investment or business benefit.

I’m to blame

It may look like I’m pointing a finger at management, IT and everyone else who was supposed to support me. It’s true that they could have gotten behind the program a bit more, but the truth is my strategy was doomed from the beginning.

I created something based on what I read on the Web—not on reality.

I ticked off the list of things other people told me I would need. I did not take the company culture into account. I did not secure executive sponsorship. I did not look at realistic, measurable goals based on the company’s capabilities. I did not create a compelling story for what I was trying to accomplish, nor did I use the company business plan as a guide.

I just started.

I won’t make that mistake again.

I know now that:

  1. A strategy without executive sponsorship is meaningless.
  2. The corporate culture dictates social media capabilities and competencies—not my will.
  3. There is no cookie-cutter approach that you can learn from books and blog posts.
  4. I’ll never get the support I need without active management understanding and participation.
  5. I need to make a case for social media based on a business plan written in the language of the company.

What about you? Is there a mistake you made that others can learn from?

Find Rogier Noort on Twitter, LinkedIn or his blog, where he writes about social business in Western Europe. A version of this article originally appeared on {Mark Schaefer’s grow}.

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