Five reasons corporations are failing at social media

rocket“It’s not rocket surgery.”

That malapropism became a bit of a mantra at last week’s Inbound Marketing Summit.

Social media isn’t complicated. When you boil it down it’s about listening to your customers, being helpful by offering your knowledge and giving them interesting content to share and thereby advocate for you. The IMS speakers shared several case studies (yes, too many of them mentioned Comcast and Zappos) on how organizations have embraced social media to connect with and built trust and affection among customers. None of the examples required hyper-specialized knowledge or technology for a company to connect with people.

So why is it so difficult for so many companies to successfully integrate social media? I dug through my (30 pages of) notes to try and find some themes in what the speakers shared and came up with a this list of why organizations might be getting hung up.

1. They can’t talk about anything broader than their own products

Chris Brogan shared how Citrix Online created the Workshifting community to address the rise of telecommuting and remote work. Sure, it ties in with Citrix’s GoToMeeting/Webinar/PC product line, but the blog isn’t a commercial for its products. The same holds true for Kodak’s photography blog that Chief Blogger Jenny Cisney talked about. It’s about photography and creativity in general, not about Kodak cameras. Greg Matthews shared how Humana developed the Freewheelin bicycle sharing communities with plenty of online and “real life” components to the program. Bicycles don’t have much to do with health insurance specifically, but they are about being healthy. If a company is only talking online about its specific products and not looking for ways to connect to the bigger picture, it’s pretty difficult for people to be engaged.

2. They listen to customers but don’t take any action

If you’re going to listen to your customers, you’d better be ready to do something about what you hear. Valeria Maltoni noted that if a company creates an online presence that’s open and allows customer feedback, it creates the expectation that the company is going to do something with that feedback. Worse than not being heard is being heard and then ignored. Paula Berg from Southwest Airlines shared how a simple blog post stating the airline was considering assigned seating amassed tons of customer comments showing a lack of support for the idea. This feedback changed the direction of their internal debate and led to a new boarding procedure that maintained the open seating arrangement.

3. They aren’t calibrated internally with the technology

Jason Falls chastised corporate Web sites for being little more than online brochures. Customers expect interaction. Content creation is key to social media success, and every company should have a Web site with a content management system that allows for quick, easy content creation without the IT department needing to recode a Web site. Anyone in the organization should be able to publish via a CMS. And companies can’t expect to have a strong social media presence when social sites are blocked internally to employees.

4. They’re not framing risk accurately

Dharmesh Shah reminded us all that a corporate blog has never been fatal to an organization. NBC cameraman Jim Long said the often a company’s entry into social media is a clumsy, shotgun blast and that there’s an equal chance of looking foolish by having a ham-fisted marketing department launch a social media presence as there is if a rogue employee “goes off” on Twitter. The risk of social media is not abated by not participating. And really, while there have certainly been some hiccups and miscues along the way, social media has yet to be the undoing of any company.

5. Their internal culture isn’t aligned for social media success

In Shiv Singh’s presentation, he discussed how the customer should be at the core of the brand. When policies, procedures, products and processes become more important than the customer, there’s no way social media efforts can be effective. When your employees are more concerned with what’s in or out of their job description than doing the right thing to help the customer, that’s not a culture that’s likely to build trust and advocacy for your brand. Yes, Zappos was cited time and again as a case study, but largely because it has a culture that makes social media work. All of its employees are focused on customer service at the core. The same holds true for Southwest Airlines.

I could go on and on. So many of the speakers at IMS shared great examples of simple, effective social media strategies that have humanized organizations and allowed them to build better relationships with customers. But time and again companies are either rejecting social media or participating in a way that defeats the purpose.

It’s not rocket surgery.

Image via Flickr user StephenHackett

51 thoughts on “Five reasons corporations are failing at social media

  1. Oh, how I love that phrase… “It’s not rocket surgery.” I think it encapsulates the basic failing, which is the assumption that is easy enough that anyone should be able to do it without serious mental energy, and dollars or training.. etc., etc. I do think the core of social media is simple, and I think any company CAN do it… but not successfully unless they have a plan in place and a commitment of appropriate resources (time is a resource, people) to the plan.
    I think your core takeaways are spot-on, Amy. Appreciate you sharing your insights.

    • Mandy – too true. Just because something is easy doesn’t mean that it’s not hard work, and too many companies are looking for the “just add water” solution.

      • Mandy and Amy, just weighing in here on the “simplicity” of social media. Generally, I would agree that it’s not rocket surgery or science. However, for many marketers outside of the social media world, this stuff doesn’t come naturally. It’s a big challenge and leap for some to go from a tell and sell approach to a listen and engage mode. I think we’d all agree that we’re getting there. Organizations are learning from their failures. They’re learning from others’ successes.

        Amy, great list!! Thanks for sharing.

  2. A good post but you should have put number 5 as number 1. I truly believe that culture is key to success. Look at Apple. A very closed, secretive culture and they are nowhere on social media. Look at Ford. A very family-run and employee focused culture, which has certainly helped the success of what Scott Monty is doing. The other four items you list aren’t really issues once you can overcome any culture issues. In terms of the first two you list, my own philosophy is that we have a 70/30 rule; meaning that 70% of the content posted on social media is not directly about the exchange (e.g., news stories, blog posts about the economy or what others are saying), and the other 30% is about us (e.g., news, seminars). If people wanted to ready about us they’d go to our web site. I think when companies/brands stop talking about themselves they add credibility to themselves and show that they want to engage in some type of conversation/feedback mechanism.

    • Culture definitely trumps all the other reasons, so yes, it should definitely be first. What’s worse than Apple (which people know and accept to be secretive and closed) are companies that put on the front of being open and engaged via social media (or any other means) but in reality don’t listen to their customers or make any changes.

      Your 70/30 target is a good rule of thumb. It allows an organization to be seen as helpful and knowledgeable and position themselves as an industry leader without broadcasting their product messages constantly. And it opens up the possibility for broad feedback and conversations with customers that can lead to a lot of insight for a company, if they choose to pay attention to it.

      Thanks for stopping by, Allan!

  3. I completely agree with your article. And I believe some companies just get it. They use social media for what the name implies….being social. I especially like #3. The fact that INTERACTION is so vital.

    One issue I’ve had recently is a certain company that uses Facebook and Twitter. The CEO is very social…letting the reader in on product launches, daily musings etc… But, at the same time, refuses to interact with the poor followers. Readers ask questions all the time, or offer congrats on accomplishments made by the company. Not a single response from the company. In my opinion, I think this company is missing the boat.

    Great article Amy!

    • Piper – I’ve also seen companies who rush to create a social media presence but then do nothing more than treat it as another broadcast channel. I’m not sure if companies don’t understand how to participate or are afraid of what they might hear their customers saying. Missing the boat indeed.

  4. I agree with Allan – culture and the brand should be first. I think if people have that mentality, they will be able to do all the other steps with much more ease. A lot of social media is based off of how your community reacts, and when companies are too concerned with pushing their agenda, they tend to fail.

    Great post, A!

    • Unfortunately too many companies have a strong culture that runs counter to the openness of social media. It’s hard to undo a corporate culture, that’s what makes it very difficult for some organizations to embrace social media.

  5. Allan and others make good points about culture, misalignment with corp. goals. Reason six could be that “it’s not rocket surgery” but organizations think and act like it is.

    Too much is put into: what to say, what not say, legal liabilities; wrangling over who in the organization should be directing SM; will it take resources away from other depts; over-thinking IT and the “tech calibration” when there are affordable, easy-to-use tools out there.

    I’m not saying it’s easy; SM takes skill, talent and hard work to make it successful. But some fail because they make it harder than it has to be.

  6. HI Amy,
    Fantastic post! I think you hit it on the nail with every single point. I have worked with both corporate clients and nonprofit organizations that fall into these categories. I think that Piper’s comment about the CEO that won’t respond to poor followers speaks exactly to the problem with understanding what social media is about. Related to that, perhaps reason # 6, is that social media fails because CEOs continue to think it is all about driving traffic to the website. Yes, that IS a goal, but what most CEOs fail to realize is that the real relationships fostered on social media sites drives higher quality traffic (higher # of conversions, repeat visitors, etc), and ultimately higher loyalty. For example, the CEO that thinks it is all about website traffic is the same CEO who tweets the blog, spams info about the company and doesn’t RT others on twitter. That’s a “fail whale.”
    Thanks so much for this great blog post – I look forward to even more insights from others’ comments.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post Debra. I wish it were easier to get CEOs and others to understand that the power of social media is less about how many and more about who. If you bring thousands of people to your site but don’t engage them, nothing’s likely to change. But if you bring in a handful of people who are interested, engaged, and will talk to their friends and connections that’s how the strong relationships that DO convert get started. And talking with people is a great way to earn insight into your customers and find out what they really want and need – essentially free research.

  7. This is an excellent article and points out the numerous issues and problems in either going for social media without a plan or with a wrong plan or simply deciding NOT to do social media at all. And that applies to the private, public or not-for-profit sectors in both Canada and the US.

    Many executives or administrators still feel the need to control the message and the medium, they simply don’t trust the process to self-publish AND self-police. And that represents a change culture that can either take minutes or generations.

    Joe Troxler
    Communications and Media Relations Consultant
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

    • Thanks for stopping by, Joe. Giving up control is key to making social media work. Most companies who have tried it have seen good results, but it’s certainly not something companies are accustomed to and the culture change, unfortunately, isn’t swift.

  8. Amy – Fantastic post!
    Your first point (1. They can’t talk about anything broader than their own products) particularly struck a cord with me. Getting companies to understand that social media shouldn’t be a giant billboard for them to push in front of their users has been a struggle. In this case, before they even get started in social media, they’ve already sucked all the value out of their social media strategy. This is where educating the company comes into play and this is never an easy feat. Sadly, sometimes the path of least risk (in the eyes of the decision makers) wins out and the social media strategy becomes over commercialized.

    • The risk-reward dichotomy in social media is something many companies can’t seem to figure out. They’re either so tentative and controlling that they’re not really social or they push out lots of information but treat platforms like billboards, like you said. The over-used cocktail party analogy is apt – companies can’t elbow their way into conversations and just start talking about themselves. But they also shouldn’t opt-out of social media entirely.

  9. Great post, Amy. All points are spot on. Re #2, I just don’t get it that if a company is going to engage in social media how they can be non-responsive to readers whether comments are postive or negative. The whole point of SM is to engage and have a conversation with your public.

    • I’m not sure if it’s fear or resources or what that’s keeping companies from engaging. If you’re devoting the time to creating the content, you should also be devoting the time to the community who’s going to consume that content. If people are interacting and asking your brand for information/response/attention, why would a company ignore that?

      Thanks for visiting the blog, Jane!

  10. I liked your point regarding the “internal culture”. That is really an understated point amongst why corporations are not succeeding at social media. The culture within a company is dependent on the high level execs. If they are rigid and go by the book, then social media will not succeed, but if they realize how social media should be used to interact with customers while giving employees some freedom, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t succeed.

  11. The idea of culture is critical – and it is important that companies aren’t scared of the growth of social media – and the way it has to be treated differently from working traditional media. I think a great case in point is the newspaper industry. I was an editor when the Internet first started taking off. At first, newspapers didn’t have web sites because, frankly, they took as long to update as it took to produce the regular paper. Later it was a fear of losing subscribers, advertisers, etc. I believe this culture that had taken root in newspapers over decades and decades put them in a position to where the debates they are having now – paywalls, monetizing sites, reorganizing newsrooms, and converging digital and print – are conversations that should have taken place 15 years ago. Culture put them behind in the online game – a game they were uniquely positioned to dominate 15-20 years ago. In the PR world I have to keep reminding my clients – or some of them – that social media is a tool. An immensely powerful tool, but like a press release, feature article, b-roll, media contacts, print advertising, etc., it is just a tool. Used right, the benefits can be enormous. Used wrong, it is a waste of time, effort and money. Don’t engage in social media so you can say you have a facebook page, or you tweet. Engage in social media with a purpose in mind – and keep a focus on that key word – engage.

  12. Amy, great article. One I was happy to re-tweet and share with my network. Although I technically work in online marketing and social media, the places i have worked for have just been so resistant. One place, for instance, was solely into email marketing and paid ad campaigns…they did not even understand the whole value of organic search, let alone how the social media space played into all of that. And this was a company who was considered a bit more cutting edge….on the inside however, very behind and VERY resistant.

    Thanks again for the great post!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Victoria. A lot of companies seem to be overwhelmed with how it all fits together – marketing, PR, social media, SEO, e-mail campaigns. It’s certainly a lot to try and integrate but the companies that have been most successful seem to be the ones who have focused less on the tools and more on the principles of reaching out to customers, listening, sharing and being helpful. Hopefully the resistance will continue to ebb.

  13. Good post and some good comments about the culture point.

    Another problem with the culture is not just adoption of social media use but the fact that the communication is no longer the realm of the marketing dept. The management of a company’s website has usually been policed by marketing who can control the message. All of a sudden sales, marketing, support and customer service have all got to collaborate on a new communication channel e.g. Twitter account. So it’s not just what’s in the job description but a degree of self-protectionism and needing to think in new ways that becomes a major barrier to adoption.

    • Breaking down silos was another theme that a lot of #ims09 speakers hit on. Like you said, collaboration across functions is critical for social media success. I think it will take some time for organizations to change their cultures to allow for greater interaction across disciplines to make social media work. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Alex!

  14. Also love the ‘it’s not rocket surgery’ line :-)

    The real problem large corps have adapting to social media is the enormous operational shift it takes to incorporate it. Most companies are toying with social media for marketing (they aren’t allocating enough budget to it, IMHO, but I run a social media agency, so I would say that), the more savvy have cottoned on to its use for research into their market (but as Amy points out, they’re listening, but not necessarily reacting).

    But most companies are still creating these silos for social media rather than looking at how it traverses all areas. As Alex say, this is because they don’t know how – they’re not used to everyone in their organisation having an outward voice… companies allocate resource to business change in other areas, but seem adverse to do so for social media.

  15. I would love to add this blog as a guest article on my blog site. I have just written an article on “Social Marketing” and how organizations can be successful in using social networking. Your blog is very much aligned with my thinking.

  16. Pingback: Five reasons corporations are failing at social media — Mengel Musings by Amy Mengel - Ortwins Blog

  17. Great post Amy. I’m not able to attend IMS myself and have been following it through blogs and tweets. Your list is very useful and I will be referring to these reasons when educating my own clients.

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  20. I like these rules we have own ones for making social media work for us (see above link to our blog) and how we get employees to make use of it:

    Social media works perfectly okay but as Mandy Vavrinak above indicated it takes a lot of effort to get it right like making a cabinet or preparing a wonderful dinner…. of course experience does not hurt either… (Yes Virginia … )

    Thanks for this post


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  22. Very good post, Amy.
    If you don’t mind I’ll turn it into one of my short videos (crediting, of course) – see an example partly echoing your points here.

    I disagree with people saying (not sure if here or on SMT) companies lack resources to do SM properly; I found we succeed in getting SM budgets whenever we speak also the language of marketing (and not only of communications); true, less money goes around, but a lot of money is changing buckets.

    • Hi Gianni. I’m glad you like the post – I’ll be interested to see how your video turns out. I think you’re absolutely right in that in order to “sell” social media investment to executives you must speak their language. You have to be able to articulate why social media participation is valuable.

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  29. I’d be curious to hear your perspective on how organizations that can not easily change their structure, such as government, can still be effective in this space.

  30. In response to Cara Keithley, I would point her to an article that appears in the October 5, 2009 edition of Information Week, entitled “The Customer Web.” In the article the authors talk about Government 2.0 and specifically focus on inititatives undertaken by public-facing websites sponsored by the US federal government. these include,,, wihtehouse,gove, and The public response to becoming partners of change within government through the use of social networking can only be described as amazing. I highly recommend you read this article because even a large organization with a grinding bureaucracy such as government can be altered by the implementation of innovative social media strategies.

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