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Why organizations fail when using social media

Updated: Feb 11, 2019

Whether your organization is small or large, public, private, or nonprofit, by now it has probably had at least some experience with social media. In the early days, many organizations dismissed Facebook and Twitter as trivial or passing trends, but today everyone from the corner bakery to the State Department maintains a social media presence. Every organization has different needs, and they all come to social media with different levels of understanding and different expectations for what it's supposed to do. Social media does not obey the same principle as traditional marketing and advertising. On the surface, this seems obvious. Social media is a completely different animal from print, tv, and radio, the staples of the traditional world of advertising. I would argue that despite this being obvious it continues to be treated as if it were the same.

Most organizations do not handle marketing and advertising in-house. What marketing and advertising they do is usually contracted out to an advertising or marketing firm and the local established marketing and advertising firms in most places are most expert at traditional advertising platforms. They make more money big media buys, so their economic incentive is to sell them. They also have longstanding relationships they want to maintain with print shops, radio and tv stations, billboard companies and all the associated businesses. In my experience, ad firms tend to treat social media accounts as web pages...which in turn they treat like digital be set up for a fee and then ignored or at best contracted to maintained by a low-level agency employee or subcontractor who will make a certain number of specified posts per week.

The very nature of social media favors an ongoing, dynamic, and engaging conversation with a brand. Having someone who isn't embedded in the organization, doesn't know the brand, doesn't know the culture, and probably isn't invested about the organization's success to make a specified number of bland, sanitized, if perhaps slickly produced posts per week misses the mark by a mile. It also tends to be absurdly priced because the leadership of most organizations don't really know what's involved, how much it should cost, they just know they've been told they should be doing it so they hire an ad or marketing firm like they've always done. Inevitably, this flawed strategy doesn't produce the "results" they think they should have from their investment and often sours them on investing any further in social media. Which probably doesn't bother the ad firms much, because once it fails they can redirect their client back to much more expensive and profitable print, tv, and radio.

Perhaps it is the term "social media" that led to much confusion. It seems only natural that as a new form of media, like other media, it should be handled by the experts in media...advertising firms. Traditional media is top-down and one-way. The person sending the message broadcasts it and the audience watches and listens. Social media has a flattened hierarchy, organizations are no longer at the top of a pyramid broadcasting down; they are another node in the network.

In the past, control of the mechanisms of communication was limited to only those who could afford the massive investment necessary to produce such media, printing presses, billboards, tv transmitters, miles and miles of newsprint. While the structure of various sites may still give priority to certain "official" sources, peers are able to communicate with each other throughout the network and able to respond and engage with organizations attempting to broadcast a message.

The term "social media" has been used to describe websites with certain shared characteristics. Individual features, style, and culture not withstanding, there isn't really that much that distinguishes Facebook from earlier forms of internet community like America Online. Maybe because it had the word "media" in it, the management of social media accounts was handed off to the organizations that traditionally dealt with "media," advertising agencies...who in turn treated it like all the other media they were accustomed to managing.

I would argue that Facebook or Twitter are more analogous to a generation of communications tool beyond e-mail than to tv or radio. An e-mail was an electronic analog of the traditional snail-mail letter, and social media takes that one step further by potentially opening the chain of communication up to an audience.

A Facebook wall post on your organization's page from an unhappy customer differs from an angry email primarily because other users can see the message and comment on it. It is that publicly mediated interaction that is probably most important for any organization to note. If an organization responds to an angry email and the customer is not satisfied by the response the worst that can happen is the customer can continue to complain in further emails. However, if this happens in a Facebook review of a business, the resulting chain of commentary back and forth between the organization and the customer, along with the additional commentary from the peanut gallery, can make the unpleasant interaction highly visible to other users. Indeed, Facebook's algorithms are tuned to to highlight such dramatic exchanges in the feeds of the angry customer's friends.

There is almost no similarity between this process and the skills necessary to manage it and the process and skills necessary to plan and execute a tv ad campaign. Organizations can use social media as an advertising platform for paid promotions. There are similarities between such promotions and traditional advertising, but the day to day process of monitoring social media, engaging with the audience, responding to complaints and inquiries, etc., is much more analogous to working a customer relations desk. As such, social media management should not be viewed as an advertisement with an expected return on investment (ROI), but as a necessary cost of doing business.

Much like the receptionist in your office, the person managing your organization's social media must be expert in handling interactions with the public, but also must do so in a sophisticated and technologically mediated medium, with a written and public transcript of the interaction visible to the entire world. In my experience, organizations who don't subcontract social media to an advertising or marketing firm often foist it off on an intern or even a volunteer...which given the grave responsibility of managing your entire institutions public image is absurd. A college student intern may be at home Snapchatting with their friends or posting their lunch on Instagram, but their comfort as casual users does not necessarily prepare them to represent an institution under such circumstances. It is for these reasons that I recommend that daily management of an organization's social media accounts be handled by a designated social media manager with the expertise necessary to speak on behalf of the organization in a public setting. For larger organizations, this might be your marketing manager or PR officer, for smaller ones simply someone of sufficient authority to speak for the organization, as you wouldn't send an intern to handle questions from a tv reporter. If it isn't possible to handle internally, a contract for social media management should be to a firm that grasps these concepts and the direct control of the account should be given only to an agency employee of equivalent expertise.

Agencies that specialize in traditional media will often push video as a solution for everything online, including social media. When a traditional ad firm suggests that video is the best use of your budget for social media, they're playing to their strengths. It enables them to utilize the same resources that they use to produce tv commercials. By using statistics about the popularity of online video content to sell you expensive video production, ad agencies are playing to the delusion that the video is a lottery ticket that can launch your organization, or it's executives, to internet fame and stardom. While there are countless stories of internet content going viral and making individuals or companies world famous this is quite frequently because of spectacular and catastrophic failures and should not be viewed as the objective of a social media marketing plan. Video content is one form of a content marketing strategy that should be considered but is not a substitute for social media management.

The persistent delusion that social media is a gateway to celebrity is an extremely dangerous and seductive one. Is it possible that a single Tweet from your business might be retweeted by a celebrity and make your business world famous? Yes. Should you make that your goal? Absolutely not. I call this phenomena the "internet celebrity delusion." Individual leaders or staff members may be so taken with the idea of fame gaining personal fame that they take dangerous risks with the budget and public image of your organization.

Social media has become a key component in the daily operations for any organization of any type and size. It is appropriate to hire a qualified expert to help your organization set-up your social media and to train your designated staff how to manage it. If you must hire an outside agency to manage your social media because your staff is unable to handle the task or are too busy with other responsibilities make sure you select a firm that is willing and able to learn precisely how to represent your brand. For an organization of under one hundred employees, depending on the nature of your mission as an organization, you can expect a single staff member to have a staff member spending 20-40 hours per week managing your social media. For much larger organizations, this could be an entire team. Depending on your geographic market, pay rates for social media manager range between $20-30/hr, and you can expect to pay at least double that to contract an outside agency.

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