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

Don’t let the “experts” intimidate you

brainThere’s been much discussion on blogs and Twitter recently about people proclaiming themselves social media experts or gurus or a host of other terms. Is there such a thing? Can anyone already claim to be an expert in such a nascent space? Will shoddy “experts” tarnish the reputations of those who really and truly are adept at using social media to enhance communications strategies? Is it bragging or bravado to call yourself (or allow someone to call you) a social media expert?

The reality is that many people who are actively engaged in social media could be considered an expert at some level– simply by the fact that they’re learning about the tools and using them. When you spend all day on Twitter with people like Todd Defren, Jason Falls, Beth Harte, Amber Naslund and Mack Collier, it’s easy to forget that some 5.99 BILLION people in the world don’t use Twitter and probably have no idea what it is capable of. Or that 5.82 BILLION people do not have Facebook accounts. They have never heard of FriendFeed, Flickr, Delicious, MySpace or Plurk. Heck, I have customers who run businesses and they don’t have an e-mail address! Even if you only know one-tenth-of-one percent as much as the Todds, Jasons, Beths, Ambers and Macks of the world, you are still ahead of the curve.

Now I am not saying that just because you have a Twitter account and a blog that you should christen yourself a social media expert and start selling or representing yourself as such. But you CAN teach people about social media and demonstrate its effectiveness. You CAN share your knowledge with co-workers and customers and suggest ideas for how to incorporate social media into existing communications and outreach efforts. Don’t be afraid to try things out simply because you’re not an “expert” about social media.

Experts are those whom others go to for advice because they are more knowledgeable about a particular topic than the average Joe or Jane. As Scott Hepburn said, “They chop lettuce.” The people I listed above are social media experts to me, and I have a huge amount of respect for their knowledge and skills in this space. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t add any value to people who know less than I do about the topic. I can give my co-workers blogging tutorials and explain social networking to my customers and try to help my parents figure out what it means to subscribe to my blog.

The only way people typically become expert at anything is to try something, fail a few times, learn from mistakes, and try again. No one is born as an expert at anything– expertise only comes as a result of knowledge and experiences.

Remember to keep things in perspective: the vast majority of the world is still in the dark on social media. So don’t let the social media experts intimidate you. Learn from them and then don’t be afraid to let others learn from you.

Image: Flickr user dierk_schaefer