Making the Leap: Why Companies Struggle with Social Media

How many people at your company are trained, equipped and empowered to talk to customers?  If your organization is large, chances are the percentage of customer-facing people is smaller.  How many customers does your company have?  How about potential customers?  No doubt the numbers stack up in a heavy ratio against people inside the company that are trained to engage them.  Traditional advertising and marketing provides a cushion, putting out messaging to the large customer population to influence their purchase behavior.  It didn’t require making a leap to engage customers in conversation or to deeply understand how they make a purchase decision.  The approach was always one-sided, and the feedback loop could be carefully and slowly measured with focus groups and research.  Social media provides opportunities for two-way and multi-way conversation, which requires discipline, research, scale and transparency.  Simply put, one way is easier, two-way (and multi-way) is hard.

An Analogy

When I was a freshman in college, a couple friends and I drove to a local quarry that had been shut down.  The quarry was flooded and it provided a great location for cliff-diving.  Was it safe? Probably not, but it was fun.  Deciding to take that last step to a more than fifty foot drop was a daunting task, but the sense of personal accomplishment and fun was rewarding afterwards.  The general sense was, “that wasn’t so bad” and “exhilarating” at the same time.

Three Industry Examples

Making the leap to engage customers through leveraging social media tools can be a similar experience to leaping off that cliff.  (Well, the decision to leap anyway – the benefits can be much more reqarding.)  I’ve worked with clients in different industries, and they all viewed that leap in different ways.  The retailer already tried the leap – they started with the prototypical Facebook page, a couple of Twitter accounts, some user generated content contests.  But they didn’t start with understanding customer preferences, needs, attitudes and behaviors, and they also didn’t use any social media monitoring.  To me that’s like making the leap without knowing how high the cliff is or how deep the water is.  The good news: no one got hurt so far and now they can be more strategic in their approach.

The financial services and banking client is conservative and hugely risk averse.  Regulatory concerns abound.  A strategy was developed and plans were made, but the company wasn’t aligned as an organization on when and how to jump in.  They’ve spent several months examining, evaluating, listening, watching competitors but not yet making that leap to converse and engage.  They have a great brand promise around community and customer service, and when they do make the leap they will be unbelievably prepared.  What’s holding them back? Scale, empowerment, fear of the unknown and fear of failure.  When they do start it will be methodical, and they will see the benefits, but their journey to the leap needs to be vetted as a company first.

The third is a consumer goods company.  They have an “old school” brand that has been around for ages, and have deep roots in the traditional marketing days where the advertising industry boomed.  Their leap decision is more about changing their ways, bringing the consumer to be the focus rather than just the product, and moving away from “broadcasting” on more channels to “engaging.”  Making the leap was inevitable, but they needed to change their mindset in order to understand customers better, why they make a brand purchase decision and how they can participate in conversation without outright selling.

Let’s Hear From You

Every company is different – the culture, the brand promise, the beliefs, the success, the level of focus on consumer insights, and the ability to apply tools and technologies that are new to mutually benefit company and client.  Why do you think companies struggle with social media?  For companies that are succeeding, what do you think got them there – what it brand affinity they could tap into or did they have to work harder to create engagement?

Photo credit: clickflashphotos via Flickr

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  • Jefferson

    All good points here, and I think the industry examples are spot on. I’m wondering if there is a fourth example, that might apply to a variety of industries. A major hurdle for companies, especially companies of size, is that there may be a substantial financial investment to maintain their social media presence.

    While I don’t think companies are adverse to spending in the social channel I think many of them are still struggling with the somewhat murky measurements for ROI. As social experts, such as yourself, continue to refine and provide real-world examples of benefits vs. cost the height of the “cliff” will shrink significantly.

  • To help answer your questions:
    Why do you think companies struggle with social media? For companies that are succeeding, what do you think got them there – what it brand affinity they could tap into or did they have to work harder to create engagement?

    Get “The Power of Pull” by John Hagel III

    A lot of reasonings surround how org.’s are traditionally set up for push marketing and their abilities (or inabilities) to get comfortable “working the edges” of information flow. Really interesting read, I’ll let you and your readers learn more your selves.

  • Thanks Mike – that book is on my reading list. Great suggestion. I’ve seen John speak and he’s very compelling.

  • Great point Jefferson. The investment is a key factor – not just in terms of maintenance/internal resources, but also typically big social media initiatives are paired with paid media to drive awareness.

    Grateful for the “social media expert” nod, but I’m just a consultant trying to help businesses make the most of their customer touchpoints… The whole “expert” topic is one for another blog post 😉 I agree ROI is murky, but it’s got to be a lot less murky than a billboard or a print ad, and could have more directly measured and beneficial results short and long term. I also like the analogy of shrinking the cliff – more to ponder for another post. Thanks!

  • Thanks for this real life data.

    It shows that social media marketing is not a one size fits all and that setting goal upfront is critial, even if the goal is “just to test”.

    What I think is also critical is that people target the communities that matter for them. “Social Media” is just too broad and make it very difficult to be specific and relevant to the different audience that a company/brand has to talk to.

    Adding a few examples to your list:
    – one of our client (Luxuory, top brand) is very concerned about information security and is using our solution to both protect its brand and also secure and encrypt the access from his marketing dept to the open social media.
    – we’ve another client in high tech who’s looking at productivity in the way he and his agency connect, grow and engage its key target communities of developers.
    -a third client in beauty is looking at boomers and beauty community to get deep insights for market research purposes
    – a last one in gaming is interested in analysing the fitness mom community map and how these women show preferences for such or such gaming platform.

    In all cases, the objective is very measurable in terms of share of voice, number of influential supporters, cost saving in building a community or a focus group and tied to broader marketing goals.


  • I think there’s a barrier related to mysticism, a skepticism of the intangible. In a kind of logic, it’s absurd to think that A) some Joe would care enough about his brand experience to comment about it where Google could hear (and why would Joe care to tell anyone, anyway?) B) you can do a few whiz-bang things on your laptop and read everything Joe – and his friends – said about that experience. And how does some Joe scenario scale enough to make any real impact on the business?

    Companies are run by humans, and humans can be simultaneously mesmerized by new things while also a bit fearful of how the new might affect them. It can take time, encouragement from others and exposure to the wealth of possibilities (real-life stories) before some can take the risk.

  • I see another reason that’s related to all three above. It’s the combination of fear, ignorance, and lack of insight. The biggest problem with that is that social media is still not valued enough and the likely advocates – if they’re are any – have their hands tied, or tie their own hands to prevent things from moving forward.

    A lot of companies do the triple whammy against themselves: minimize it’s importance and thus put in little resources (financial or personnel) in it to make it work, become so fearful that it paralyzes ingenuity, and then they turn to traditional service providers who will then go out and apply simple tactics that do very little.

    There are several paradoxes here. Despite their seemingly disregarding of its importance, they actually fear it. Despite their fear, they choose to turn to people who are less schooled in the methodologies. And despite their automatically handing it off to traditional types, they often don’t know how to set it up internally.

    This happens ever before the concept of having a strategy kicks in. If it kicks in at all.

    • Really well put Jonathan, especially regarding the paradoxes – thanks for adding.

  • Might the problem also lie in the term “social media” itself?

  • Companies struggle with social media for a number of reasons. Social media is new and unknown to many and the fear of the unknown can turn many off. Another thing that might cause fear in companies is the fear that there aren’t social media guidelines, as to what is proper social media conduct for a company, a strategy and guidelines for social media behavior. As we all know, social media is huge right now, and all companies need to dive in and get going with social media campaigns!