What's Wrong With Social Media Marketing Strategy

I'm not a social media strategist--I'm a researcher. I actually don't know very many social media strategists. That's not a knock on the growing number of social media marketing consultants out there--it's more a recognition of the limits of their practice. For example, last week I watched a panel at the Inbound Marketing Summit (IMS09) discuss getting past the "social media hype." The panelists (Brian Solis, Chris Brogan, Jason Falls, Paul Gillin and CC Chapman) were all asked to give a closing thought for companies seeking to adopt or enhance a social media presence. For the most part, the responses were fairly tactical in nature--not wrong, mind you, just tactical. "Be Human." "Be Helpful." "Engage in conversations." People dealing with people at the sharp end of the stick. Hard to dispute any of that--but that's all the how. The why is a deeper strategic issue, and one that transcends the marketing department. More on that in a bit.

In any business venture or investment, you get what you measure. While some of the panelists seemed knowledgeable about potential measures of success, others were a bit laissez-faire about things like ROI. "Forget about ROI," claimed one, "just do it!" Companies can forget about ROI, I suppose, when they have unlimited resources--but as long as there is an opportunity cost to pursuing social media initiatives, there needs to be a way to justify that cost. Another panelist claimed that other forms of advertising (like airport displays) didn't have metrics either--but that's patently untrue (I know this because we actually measure airport display effectiveness at Edison.) There are clear measures like Willingness to Consider and the Net Promoter metrics that are as applicable to social media as they are to any kind of sponsorship, out-of-home media or interactive display. I do a lot of work for Public Radio, and there is an enormous effort within public media to measure the "halo" effect that sponsorships have for the companies that sponsor programming. I suspect there are clear analogues from measuring how people feel about companies that support public media, to how people feel about companies that engage in social media. I'm talking about clear measures: metrics that equal dollars by quantifying the value of loyalty and engagement.

The metrics are there--it's simply a matter of doing pre/post measures on the ones that matter and off you go. The smartest people I know in social media know this--but there continues to be this prevailing received wisdom amongst social media enthusiasts which insists that, because social media engagement is the right thing to do (I don't dispute that) that we should screw metrics (which I clearly differ with.) Metrics justify investment, which raises the profile of social media within the company, which in turn attracts the notice of the functions within the company that truly need to understand the transformative power of social networks. And I'm not talking about the marketing department.

This brings me to the second problematic issue with social media "strategy." I firmly believe that there is a strategic component to social media, and that it absolutely has the power to transform the way we do business. The problem that a lot of social media marketing consultants have, however, is that ultimately they are going through the wrong door. If an employee has an interaction with a disgruntled customer on Twitter, that interaction may fall under the aegis of the marketing department, and the successful resolution of that interaction probably will involve any and all of the tips espoused by the experts on the IMS09 panel. When Southwest Airlines resolves a baggage issue on the social web, or Ford engages online with potential Fiesta drivers, those are marketing initiatives, without doubt. Each successful interaction is a tactical interaction--person to person (with an audience, of course!) The "playbook" that a marketing employee follows in such an interaction may indeed originate from the marketing department. But the actual ability for a rank-and-file employee to be a real human, to stop the assembly line (like a Toyota factory employee can) and communicate transparently with customers and prospects, goes above the marketing department's pay grade. At the very least, it is a Human Resources issue, and ideally a CEO-level intervention. Telling an internal social media marketing specialist to "be human" might come from the marketing department, but only a company that has been engineered from the ground up to support a culture of human business has the ability to empower that employee to actually be human.

I think Chris Brogan gets this--he articulated it today in an article entitled What Human Business and the Social Web Are About. Brogan notes that engaging in social media "is not a new marketing channel [or a] new technology...it's more. This isn't the battle of who "gets it" and who doesn't." I think he's right. Yet you read through the comments to this post and you still see a lot of language around people "getting it" or "not getting it." I don't think anyone "gets it" (myself included) because we don't know where this is going. Telling a marketing department to be "helpful and human" on the social web is a tactical message. Reengineering the company so that its employees can actually be helpful and human may require an enormous overhaul of the very theory of the firm.

What I think Brogan is recognizing is that it's time for Act Two for social media. We've heard all the admonitions from social media gurus and enthusiasts about how we are meant to act and behave on Twitter. But going through the marketing door is only going to get you so far--in that sense, social media helps the rich get richer, but does little to help companies that aren't structured to actually be transparent and helpful where the rubber meets the road. Social media's next act has to be through the corporate HR director's door, and ultimately the CEO's door. To get there, however, social media has to prove itself by more readily embracing effectiveness metrics (not just statistics) to raise its profile in the organization. Give the CEO the numbers to justify continued social media engagement, and that engagement will continue--and ultimately be the trojan horse for what human business can become.