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Even blue chip businesses get the social media blues

So even big businesses are struggling to make sense of social media. Why am I not surprised? Because way back in November 2007 I predicted only the top 1% of businesses on Earth would realize the full potential of social media…

So even big businesses are struggling to make sense of social media. Why am I not surprised? Because way back in November 2007 I predicted only the top 1% of businesses on Earth would realize the full potential of social media

The root of the problem is lack of knowledge and know-how. There are only so many social media gurus / rock stars / experts that any one person can stand before fleeing in desperation. And in most cases, these self-proclaiming genii are too busy comparing the size of their Twitter followers to really care about educating the very businesses that are stood around, just wondering what the hell social media even means.

Put simply, solving the problem at source is the long-term fix.

So I hate to say I told you so, but .. well, I told you social media was going to be a massive problem for many businesses, and if the thoughts of Tom Smith from Trendstream are anything to go by, even the big brands are struggling to get their collective heads around social media:

“… we still operate in a system defined by the old media world and consequently big brand involvement is still in the main tentative and sporadic.”

Does that sound familiar? It ought to — a lot of businesses are just reluctant to learn new methodologies.

Tony goes on, in typical linkbait style, to highlight 6 reasons why big brands struggle with social media. I’d like you to read those 6 reasons. Consider them as your homework, because the following is going to be an expansion of. So pay attention at the back!

1. Social Media is often viewed as just another marketing channel

We all know that some planning is required when it comes to advertising and long-term marketing efforts. But social media requires a more “hands on” approach, which forces businesses to edge their seats closer to their customers, talking straight, shelving the canned responses, the gimmicks and the platitudes.

Essentially, what we’re talking about is social media forcing businesses to be reactive to their customers’ needs in a very direct and fine-grained way, as well as thinking on their feet.

None of these things are bad things, but they’re things that present unique challenges that some businesses will see as being a needless expenditure of energy for an undefined and unquantifiable return.

2. Social Media does not fit into current structures

Because social media bestrides so many different disciplines — and the larger you go in terms of business size, different departments — it’s a logistical struggle just to get the heads of marketing, PR, communications, content production and web development in the same room at the same time.

For me, this is the reason smaller media-based businesses will always do better; because many of their staff are already familiar with much of what social media encompasses.

My feeling is, some business is going to make the leap and pull their marketing, PR, communications, content production and web development departments under the umbrella of a new business division whose overarching theme is social media. Just don’t ask me when that will happen, or who it migth be. Maybe it’s already happened?

3. Communities and content are global

A client of mine has to be very, very careful / mindful of the political issues related to their marketing efforts within the different regions they occupy within the European Union; what works in Britain might not work in Germany or Italy.

However, if you’re a big business, your first goal is to accept that the very epicenter of that business is your brand and the perception of that brand amongst your customers, as well as your partners, suppliers and even your competitors.

With social media, some things can become unintentional successes which you, as the head or marketing, or PR, or even web development, might have little or no control over. The kind of success that spans those very regions you’ve been told you can’t compete in, for inter-regional political reasons.

Further to this, if you’re in the music industry, you’re subject to many various and truly Byzantine copyright laws of each country.

Do you just go with the flow, or do you try and halt what you didn’t start?

So when the benefits of social media are considered in their broader and more holistic context, they can look like a whole heap of trouble.

4. Social media needs a long term approach

Tom segues nicely between points 3 and 4 in the sense that validates my additions. To build those communities, big businesses need to coordinate their efforts in ways that they probably haven’t before, and on a scale they’ve probably not considered, or thought possible.

Sure, there’s a plan that draws together the efforts of different divisions within those companies. But social media is much, much more detailed, nuanced and subtle, requiring far more real time interaction.

What happens to the long-term plans if you’re reacting to a nebulous customer feedback loop that’s forcing changes to your strategy on a weekly or even a daily basis?

5. No guaranteed results — 6. The metrics are new

I see points 5 and 6 as having a relationship. Could we not make an argument that because the metrics are both new and broad that the results are harder to establish? Furthermore, could we not draw in point 4 and say that those very same results might not begin to show signs of success in the same financial quarter within which their originating strategy was put into motion?


I still firmly believe that the vast majority of businesses will not get penny one from social media for a long, long time — the way that many businesses operate simply precludes social media from doing anything of any value, regardless of the merits and benefits.

Over here in Britain, many businesses are simply ignoring social media all together. Further compounding matters is the recent economic downturn which will force many businesses to concentrate on known channels, rather that the unknown of social media.

However, over the longer term, social media will come into its own, as:

  1. the benefits become incontrovertible;
  2. social media tools have a deeper penetration amongst customers and the public in general, and;
  3. the tools and ways of capturing the metrics become simpler, easier to integrate within the business and more cost effective to pursue.

That time is not now. But the signs are good, given Twitter’s recent entry into everyday parlance.

Are you a business considering social media for the first time? Why not join the hundreds from all over the world who’ve download my FREE ebook: The Beginner’s Guide to Social Media.

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

5 replies on “Even blue chip businesses get the social media blues”

There is another copyright issue that I came up against recently. A corporate client of my agency recently found the issue of rights to be a show-stopper in their social media efforts.

In a nutshell:

* They have a long history of producing funny TV commercials that the public have loved

* They wanted to make a YouTube channel of their historical content, new ads and other video content going forward. I was very excited about this – it would have been brilliant

* The content was *already* on YouTube having been submitted by members of the public, getting millions of views and great feedback.

HOWEVER because the rights to that content was held by an advertising agency, who would have demanded a considerable sum of money to license it for that kind of use, the idea had to be shelved.

I find more and more that the best opportunities of social media are for small companies who are trying to build a brand and can produce their own content and manage relationships. It’s more problematic for bigger brands.

The unwillingness of marketers to *truly* engage is often a problem. Many just want to send a message out there and dread getting even a single email from a customer in response.

Less savvy marketers are often scared by the measurable nature of the web. It can show you in cold hard numbers that your banner campaign or your silly little Flash game was a failure and you’ve just wasted your money. They’d rather take out a press ad and stick their head in the sand.


Some nice points.

I think that businesses will end up adapting to social media in the long run rather than social media adapting to business, and this will come primarily as the recession continues to whittle away at marketing and PR functions within large organizations. Big, centralized companies really do not benefit from the distributed, networked approach that most social media takes, in great part because it is almost impossible to completely control the message in that space without obviously appearing “corporate”.

For instance, I cannot see a company such as Coca-Cola being seen as anything but a billboard in Facebook or an annoyance in the Twitter stream. Now, if someone were tweeting about the trials and travails of being a Coke delivery man, that may be effective (indeed, I’d say it’d be a brilliant ad’ campaign in the medium) but I honestly do not see it being approved by higher authority within the organization.

Part of the long term reshaping of the corporate landscape, I suspect.

Guys, thanks for the excellent observations.

Alex, it’s easy to see how copyright can really put the breaks on things, which is a real shame. You’d think the other party would be more than happy to see their adverts given a new lease of life, especially if those brands (if not the particular campaigns) are still active.

Kurt, your “Mohamed and the mountain” styled analogy is worth an article in its own right. The whole social media thing is a learning curve for everyone, but even more so bigger businesses, because there’s more people involved and more decisions to be made.

Hi Wayne,
A very educational article. I wish and hope for organisations to move quicker in adopting social media as well.

In point 2, do you mean that a company’s entire marketing arm should have a social media focus, so that it perhaps still spends time and resources on traditional means of marketing itself, whilst focusing slightly more heavily its efforts within social media? Like it might start out as 75% of the old ways, 25% focusing resources on social media. Then gradually reversing those numbers, steadily increasing support given to the social media arm of the marketing department. It seems great to have one single, total, self-supporting communication strategy, where the flyers, TV and radio advertisements all support each other and support what is found in social media. Slogans like “as seen on TV” on the net, could be reversed I guess to say “join the heated debate online by logging into…” on the TV show.

I keep thinking, it’s best to keep utilising some of the old traditional means of advertising, adding social media to the mix and capitilise on it more whilst it is hot. And of course as I think you said, to look to smaller more agile businesses for trends and how to adapt to trends. I wonder what comes after social media and how marketing departments will need to evolve then.

Krister, hi!

In point 2, do you mean that a company’s entire marketing arm should have a social media focus […] ?

Yes, I think businesses should think carefully about how they plan their marketing efforts and how best to repurpose those efforts for the social web.

Slogans like “as seen on TV” on the net, could be reversed I guess to say “join the heated debate online by logging into…” on the TV show.

I think that’s a brilliant idea. Over here, the BBC have a service called BBCi (BBC Interactive), which they use for certain programs, like football, rugby or snooker coverage, so fans can share their thoughts, as well as current affairs shows like Newsnight, so the public can air their concerns and have them mentioned on the show live.

Some still think social media is just a passing, transient activity. I don’t. But even if it was, it’s of such a size now, it’s worth spending the time and effort making the most of it right now…

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