Social Business, Social Media Measurement, Social Media Strategy, Social Media ROI, Social Media Staffing and Operations

Do You Have the Guts to Expect Social Media Failure

The fastest way to get your company to be on the social media sidelines is to get your company involved in social media. There’s a huge gap between the perception of social media as an instant, free, can’t miss marketing opportunity and the reality of social media as a long-term, time-intensive customer loyalty and brand advocacy opportunity.

This has happened before online. Swept up in a frenzy created by mainstream and business media, companies rush to adopt the hot new thing, to ensure that the competition doesn’t have some sort of secret weapon. Proposals are written. Resources deployed. Stuff gets built. And then……………………………..


The graveyard of digital marketing is littered with the bones and business cards of those that dove in head-first with high expectations, no strategy, and no plan for testing and optimization of results.

These types of half-cocked efforts almost invariably fail, and then those companies use those initial failures as a rationale for non-participation – sometimes for years.

Early in my online career I did a lot of website strategy and online advertising. There was a period (from about 1995-1998) where you almost literally couldn’t give away online ads. What I’d hear over and over again from companies that had bought online ads in the early days was “We tried that once. It didn’t work.” They simply could not be convinced that perhaps the way they tried it was inadequate. Or that they gave it insufficient time to succeed. Or that the strategy was wrong – or absent. Or that a lot more people were now online.

Decisions by Anecdote

It continues to amaze me how large marketing decisions are often made with almost no data or track record, by people who should know better. “We tried that once. It didn’t work.” Well, if you tried a slot machine 80 times and it didn’t work, and then you won $1500, you’d feel great about slot machines. If you sent 200 pieces of direct mail, and got 6 orders you’d feel great about direct mail.

The bottom line is that you need to EXPECT to fail in social media. You don’t have all the answers. You don’t know what’s going to work. Neither do I. And anyone who tells you they absolutely know what will work for your company definitely does not understand this business.

That’s what’s so admirable about companies that have clearly screwed up in social media, yet continue to change their approach until they find the right formula. Wal-Mart and Pepsi come immediately to mind.

By not telling your company executives the truth at the outset – that you are likely to fail before you succeed – you run the risk of giving them a handy excuse to pull the plug and say “We tried that once. It didn’t work.” And they can keep saying that until about 2013. Are you going to want to wait around that long?

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  1. says

    Very nice Jay and definitely true. Maybe something we can all work on (those that support social media in organizations – both employees and consultants) is a general way to present the truth of social media (and what’s truly needed to start) in the beginning so that the execs will support it, but not expect a “silver bullet.” Any thoughts?

    Also, may I ask, how have you handled this sort of a response for a client that you have consulted with?

  2. says

    Very nice Jay and definitely true. Maybe something we can all work on (those that support social media in organizations – both employees and consultants) is a general way to present the truth of social media (and what’s truly needed to start) in the beginning so that the execs will support it, but not expect a “silver bullet.” Any thoughts?

    Also, may I ask, how have you handled this sort of a response for a client that you have consulted with?

  3. says

    The first line caught me off guard…I thought, “here we go, another rookie post about social media” but it’s not. I call this failure thing ducking and weaving in social media. You’re right…none of us are guru’s. None of us are “experts.” There are just some of us that know more about the tools and the players in the space and that’s about it. Because there is no playbook, we’re all bound to fail at some point. The key is getting the executives — the old grey haired dudes who write the checks — to grasp the failure concept.

  4. Nancy says

    Same basic philosophy in life, really. Success isn’t in the sprint to the finish; it is in the preparation and steady pace of the journey. Requires patience, time and understanding, from my experience, that is. :-) Thanks for this perspective and info!

  5. says

    It never ceases to amaze me how otherwise smart, rational people can get sucked into the “get-rich-quick” excitement of the next big thing, jump in with both feet (but without a long-term plan), then consider it a colossal waste when the shine wears off and they don’t get instant results. Patience and planning are virtues that apparently far too few possess. Great post, Jay.

  6. says

    Bravo for your post. When insights like yours start to become the norm, then you know a new technology has hit the “mature” mainstream. Which is to say, the hot, new, trendy, “next big thing” needs early excitement and overpromising in order to attract followers and get established. But huge and unrealistic expectations, while they draw lots of followers, are bound to disappoint at some level. Once they gain a foothold, more seasoned people start to climb aboard and realize that, even if they can’t hold their promise of “get-rich-quick” or “change the world forever”, they still have lots of value and deserve to be implemented for the long term. Blogging has reached that point, and now social media is approaching it. Jeremiah Owyang just wrote a post about how to integrate Social Media across the board into a company’s marketing efforts. I see lots of signs that Social Media is no longer a single stand-alone savior, but just another tool that companies should use in reaching their customers….one that, if implemented well, can bring lots of benefits, but if implemented poorly, will fail.

  7. says

    If I can be a complete geek for a second. What you’re describing is effectively “iterative delivery” in the software development world vs. the “big bang” model. Break that big thing into small chunks, start executing the small chunks and provide for adjustment along the way based upon what does and doesn’t work. Whether you call it planning for failure, or planning for flexible adjustment midstream, the overall point is the same. There’s a very good reason that digital marketing is evolving in similar patterns to the project management methodologies developed to accommodate the pace of internet development. Pace of change and therefore long term uncertainty demands it.

  8. says

    I love this, Jay. This is the very reason why tuneel-vision companies won’t let you take the time to invest in testing because they want results NOW and then when they don’t get them, the CEO or CFO claims it was a bad investment. I worked for so many tech startups that didn’t give me the leeway or ramp to test tactics, A/B email runs, etc. because I had only one quarter to do a campaign that got big results or we were screwed. They didn’t want to hear from ‘testing” because it “took too long.” So I’d spend more money on on a big online or direct mail campaign and then learn later that some tweaks here or there would have made it way more effective 6 months down the line rather than bombing miserably in 1 month’s time.

    I love the “we tried it before and didn’t work.” WHY didn’t it work? Did you review? Do you think maybe if you change your headline or test your colors, or run different versions of an ad you might get some traction? I wrote about this in a blog post recently titled, “Is the Media or the Message Getting in Your Way?” Take a look:

  9. says

    “Decisions by Anecdote”, three words that describe so much. Ironically on my dry erase board I have the words ‘anecdotal leadership’. It is interesting how the c-suite will gravitate instantly to the new shiny toy on the market, jump right in, expect breakthrough, paradigm shifting innovation or results for their organization. No results at the next staff meeting = it didn’t work. @tamadear has a great blog post on goals and I think too often we sell the aspirational goal when we should be selling the acceptable results. A realistic campaign/project goals, aligned with the organization’s overriding mission and objectives (my hot button) MUST be a part of the package when selling social media efforts. There are going to be a lot of new shiny toys by 2013, past failures do not dictate future success (or do they?).

  10. says

    Sounds like you’ve been talking with some of my clients and prospects. I hear this so often. You are spot on. Great post! This is true of any marketing, not just using social media. Everyone wants marketing to be a replicable science. It’s not, folks. It’s mostly art. And that means there is no single template or formula. Some stuff will work, some will fail. And you can’t just copy successful campaigns of others – because the variables in their equations are different (customers, needs, timing, etc.)

    And even with failure – you will learn what you need to do different next time. This isn’t just an issue in social media. It’s the entire issue of “failure” as this big awful dirty word. It’s not. As a marketing expert (not social media guru) with years of doing standup, sketch and improv (which I still do today), I know that you have to try before you know what works. The companies that try, fail quickly and learn quickly will be the ones to get it right next time. Remember the 10,000 hours principle Malcolm Gladwell writes about in “Outliers?” In 10K hours before you hit virtuoso status, there are gonna be some failures if you are doing it right. If you want to succeed, you have to first learn to experiment and, yes, fail with dignity. Fear of failure will keep people from innovating better marketing. Fear is the dirty f-word here, not failure.

  11. says

    Hmm…I agree with the concept – but not the title and summary.

    If you set your clients up to think Social Media is about the sale, then by all means tell them to “Expect to Fail”.

    If you train them to participate honorably and transparently and to expect “Engagement” as a result of social participation – then they can expect to win.

  12. says

    Fantastic post, Jay. I wrote about a similar topic recently is the correlation between how businesses view social media and driving a manual transmission (for the first time). I think you’ll like it:

    Every day I mess up or fail – but I make the best with what I got and always work to earn the trust and respect from our customers (at Infusionsoft). This is a never-ending battle, but it’s one I enjoy.

  13. says

    My Homer Simpson pint glass — always within arm’s reach — quotes “Trying is the first step toward failure.” Thanks for reminding us all that Homer’s quote is not necessarily an exhortation against trying.

  14. Andy Holeman says

    Great piece. Willingness to risk failure takes strong leadership that is unfortunately all to rare at the most senior levels. Balancing a mix of conservative and innovative tactics is crucial in allowing Brands and those of us who manage them to grown and succeed in a world of constantly emerging media and evolving consumer behaviors.

  15. says

    So very very true, and I’m glad that you tied things other than Social Media into it.

    One of the sadder experiences of my short career occurred around an online advertising campaign. The site ran ads based on some mysterious algorithm that only they knew. We bought the space on a flat rate. Well, every time our poor client went to the site, it would always be someone else’s ad there. To add insult to injury, sometimes the same company’s 2 ads would be up at the same time. Just to make it a little more painful, the publication then proceeded to lose all lead information, so we couldn’t even say for sure what REALLY happened. Our client still avoids online ads like the plague. Can you blame them?

    I would say that you don’t have to necessarily go into Social Media (or any other marketing initiative) expecting to fail. But…you do have to plan to succeed.

  16. Anonymous says

    I cringe when I hear social media being touted as a panacea, often by overly enthusiastic junior marketers. Companies need to invest time and thought into a well-crafted strategy that uses social with a number of clearly established goals and enter into a campaign knowing that, despite our best efforts to predict consumer behavior, things fail.

  17. Nic Wirtz says

    Good article, especially about expecting to fail. Experience is useful in any business but why do any decision makers consider a one time experience the absolute truth?

    Would include your posts on expecting criticism in social media too.

  18. Chris Baldwin says

    Another good discussion Jay. Social media for me is like selling PR to a company who had only done advertising. I remember getting questioned from a prospect years ago about the value of a PR program and what could happen if consumers saw articles mentioning their products. He asked me if people would really read this and respond. I asked him how many people saw their ads and responded. Why was advertising fine and pr questionable? Seems like the same arguement being used against social media. Failure may happen. It happens with a lot of communications tactics for more reasons than we can count, but aren’t there enough examples of what’s working to help us define a program and it’s goals. We must be persistent. Thanks Jay.

  19. says

    You’re exactly right Chris. Social media is being held to some sort of higher standard. The concept of “we won’t do social media unless we can measure ROI precisely” is actually code for “we’re scared to death, so let’s come up with a reason to stay on the sidelines.”

  20. says

    Thanks Jason. Not only that, but even the VERY best social media program is just part of the overall communications program. Is it possible to be a successful business with social media only? Yes. But it’s not very likely.

  21. says

    Thank you Andy. I do realize that failure in social is a little scary because it is so damn public. But that doesn’t make it any less educational, or required.

  22. says

    Ouch. Just reading that brings the memories flooding back. The problem with online advertising “tear sheets” was (and still is, in some cases huge). Clients want to go to the website and see their banner. Except that their banner is one of possibly hundreds (or thousands) in rotation. It’s literally a needle in a haystack. Not seeing their ad, the client assumes they are being ripped off, and hijinx ensue. Boy, do I miss those days…..

  23. says

    Yes and no. Ultimately, social media is about the sale. Isn’t that where engagement leads? Otherwise, why do we bother? There’s no market for reselling Facebook fans or Twitter followers. Ultimately, companies need to make money, save money, or both via social media. Just not in a linear fashion.

  24. says

    Great comment Kathy, thank you. Excellent tie-in with Outliers. You’re 100% right about that. The other thing that bugs me (in addition to the clamor for proven ROI) is the need for case studies before companies get involved. Would you say “we should do a TV commercial JUST like Old Spice, except our guy will be on a donkey?” No. But yet, companies want a step-by-step social media playbook from some other company that they can magically replicate.

  25. says

    I’d like to see a study on social media germination and shelf-life for public vs private companies, or by how long companies have been in business. The need to put up numbers continuously contributes to our short-term results mindset.

  26. says

    Thanks Matt. You’re right. As a long-time owner of a digital agency that was rooted in testing and optimization, that colors my perception of a lot of this. What I used to tell every client is “we don’t know what will work for your company. so don’t pay us for that. what we do know is how to find out. pay us for the method, not the magic. because magic isn’t real.”

  27. Anonymous says

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. :)

    SM needs to be interface with offline marketing/communications so, at the very least, messaging is consistent. Socialization of business is still very much in its infancy, and we’re all learning as we go – so some campaigns will be dismal failures. I’m a firm believer that SM is ultimately all about sales, but getting there isn’t a nice, tidy causality.

  28. says

    Pull some connections that could relate? It’s something I face with 3 of my clients, but I do not label myself as a social media expert, so it would definitely be of assistance to someone like me.

    I’m in an advisory role, so I’m trying to help businesses learn what they need to be doing overall in sales, marketing, and sometimes operations – that support the other functions – and so I may see the potential opportunity to leverage social media and will find an “expert” to bring in, only they can’t “sell” it to the execs the way it should be. Just some thoughts on an ebooks potential value.

    A good combination of experts may make for a great ebook, report, etc.

  29. 3sixteenweb says

    It’s important not to fear failure. It’s how we learn. Too often a business owner is sold a bill of goods and told “absolutely, without a doubt” this will succeed. Setting unreal expectations from the beginning leaves both parties with egg on the face. Thanks for the post, it reminded me that failure is okay, and no, there is no one way to approach social media.

  30. Anonymous says

    It is important to use different methods for different places. What a bummer if you use many methods to a website and Google decides it is not one of these methods and decide to punish all your work accordingly.

  31. letstalkandchat says

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  32. Beth Kanter says

    I want a t-shirt that says “We tried that and it didn’t work”   But, let’s ask what lies beneath that statement?  Risk adversity, fear of failure, or desire for perfection.   Thanks for a terrific post

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