The trough of disillusionment for social media strategies

I’m getting a lot of work lately from PR, media and buying agencies on social media strategy development.  And I love it.  It’s interesting work and I believe in what I am doing.  I’m subject to non-disclosure agreements so I can’t go in to a lot of detail on current projects, but I can say that some of the discussions I’ve had with brands of all shapes and sizes – commercial and non-commercial, large and small businesses – has been both encouraging and intelligent.  But I’m only accepting jobs where there is scope for me to guide my clients appropriately.  I don’t need to control an account; I just need to ensure that my client isn’t going in to their social media strategy with a trio of ingredients for social media fail: unrealistic expectations, poorly conceived tactics for execution and unsuitable performance measurement criteria.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of social media strategies being implemented by firms in 2010 are characterised by all three disastrous social media fail ingredients.

Gartner Hype Cycle

Gartner Hype Cycle: From Wikipedia

This is where the Gartner Hype Cycle’s Trough of Disillusionment comes in. I’m concerned that while spending on social media strategy development is currently booming, we’re about to see a huge downturn in investment as so many social media strategies begin to fail.

Part of the reason why there are so many social media strategy fails is that the marketing press is remarkably poor at reporting on research on social media and there is a tendency among even some commentators to oversimplify the issues associated with developing a social media strategy.  There’s also a great deal of rhetoric in business literature about the economics of social media strategies that is interpreted by business as low-cost development and maintenance.

And then – worst of all – there’s the personnel problem.

I’m very worried that I’m now coming across as ageist, because one of the first things I say to firms is to beware the so-called ‘digital native‘. Just because someone is young and they’ve grown up with social media doesn’t mean they have any clue how to represent a business online or even how to behave in the office.  And while it might be cheaper to hire a young person to maintain a social media presence for a firm, unless that person is doing fairly repetitive research and monitoring, active listening and low-level engagement, they are more likely to be a liability than an asset to a social media strategy.  Understanding how to drive requires more than a history of riding in the back seat of a car.  Understanding how to communicate requires more than an awareness and participation with social networks.  And understanding how to represent a firm, how to facilitate change in corporate practice and yet maintain corporate integrity requires a degree of subtlety and seniority that few people under 25 years of age can ever have earned.

To be blunt – and I excel at that – putting under 25-year-olds in charge of a social media strategy is about as high risk a strategy as you can get.  And frankly, unless your social media specialist is a highly erudite graduate with a double major in psychology and  business strategy, and with a hobbyist interest in programming and technology infrastructure management, I’d be nervous about putting anyone under about 30 in charge of a firm’s social media accounts.

Now of course this does sound appallingly ageist.  And there are exceptions to the rule.  I can think of several astonishingly bright young things who I’d trust with any campaign.  But while it may sound arrogant, unless the networks of social media professionals have actually heard of these bright young things, the likelihood is that they are not going to be capable of delivering on organisational objectives.  And if we have heard of them, they’re going to be asking one heck of a lot more than £40K as an annual salary.  So the rule stands: if you want someone who is going to be useful with social media, don’t imagine you’re economising by getting someone young.

But beyond the personnel issues, there are other concerns I have about the impending trough of disllusionment for social media strategies.  Measurement by visits, by comments, and by votes is not evidence of engagement, nor is social media an avenue to sales necessarily.  Businesses have to completely rethink the relationship they have with the people they serve.  It is not a matter of creating products and selling these online.  And any strategy that is so narrow in its approach is destined to failure.

I’m not about to contribute to oversimplifying commentary by producing a simple method for a successful social media strategy.  That would be self-defeating.  But at the very least, organisations can avoid the cavernous depths of the trough of disillusionment if they recognise that the old notion of consumers as recipients of goods and services is dead.  Businesses must authentically engage citizens if they are going to maintain consumer trust.  It’s no longer enough to keep customers with loyalty plans and specials, gimmicks and CRM-driven direct marketing. Consumers manage business reputation.   And they want to be involved in product development and promotion.  But they don’t want to do what businesses allow them to do.  They want businesses to do as they bid.

As rhetoric, this is scary enough for businesses.  And for some firms, it seems impossible.  Indeed, for niche firms there may well be a business model in rejecting this notion of the completely engaged firm, and specialising in lazy consumption.  But let’s be clear here: that business model is only going to work for FMCGs and very high-end luxury products.  For the vast majority of businesses, consumer engagement isn’t just desirable, it will be demanded by their customers.  And no austerity age or downturn in investment in social media is going to stop that growing demand for consumer control over vendors.  So getting a social media strategy right the first time is about as important a strategic move any firm can make.

And if, as a business, you’re going to avoid the trough of disillusionment, you need to be sure that your social media plans are not mere marketing bootstraps.

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