This post is a long time coming — as our company has shifted focus a bit to brands, I have been thinking a lot lately about how bigger companies make decisions and draw conclusions about social media and where the will focus attention.  For every person who says that they want to increase Facebook investments (a good idea considering the data), there is a person who says that they also need to increase investments in QR codes or Instagram (a bad idea considering the data).  This coming from a set of customers that is supposedly concerned about Social ROI?

Pardon the generalization, but I've found that corporate middle-manager thinking about marketing is about as paradoxical as it gets.  The world's best companies optimize their operations and their marketing campaigns on data.  The top companies hire the best and brightest from the world's top business schools to analyze outcomes and redirect tactics.  Yet when it comes to marketing and social media, I often hear the most optimistic and laughable things about social media from brand stewards and corporate marketers.  Some of the biggest cheerleaders about social media come from the corporate world.  Their observations are based on personal preferences and usage patterns, and are devoid of persuasive statistics as if numbers are unimportant.  Very few (when pressed for specifics) can tell you that a meaningful business outcome improved dramatically because of using anything other than Facebook and maybe Twitter.

Why is this the case?

  1. Individuals want a job in a hot startup & get attention by showing support.
  2. Individuals want to stand out from their "moribund" corporate employer that "doesn't innovate".
  3. Individuals are not held to a high standard about "data-driven" thinking.
  4. The brand's need to "innovate" outweighs the need to develop Social ROI.  Put differently, the brand needs to connect with younger demographics and is willing to accept some inefficient spend to experiment.
  5. Agencies and experts dominate thought leadership, and the echo chamber is winning.

The first two make a lot of sense when you consider the divergent interests of individuals and the companies they work for.  A middle manager may be making a great career move by encouraging new technologies — it may land him/her in a job, an advisory role, a spot among experts in the social media community, VIP invites at events, etc.  Individual branding trumps all in today's world, and that's just a reality of marketing in the present day.

#s 3 and 4 are more management issues — which may or may not be an accident.  Brands seeking to redefine themselves, especially those that are viewed as being "old fashioned", are desperate to do anything that appears to be innovative.  A handful of experiments may just provide the serendipity needed to do something meaningful and important down the road.  But I find all too often that the middle managers report to senior executives with very little understanding of social media platforms, much less how to use them for marketing purposes.  Sorry, but if you don't use at least Facebook regularly, it's hard to coach middle managers on what success looks like.  So often times, middle managers are really creating the agenda for "social marketing" whatever it means, and ROI is tough to get because 1) they may not be doing the right things, and 2) their managers may not know exactly how to improve the situation.

#5 is a misalignment of incentives.  Over the last decade, agencies have done a particularly crafty job of getting between corporate marketing dollars and technology providers who make things simple.  Agencies have sold social media marketing, management, monitoring, community management, and a wealth of supporting platforms as a cocktail of unnecessarily confusing, yet important set of tools that any "smart" business would utilize.  Of course, managing it all is easier if you just hire the agency. 😉   A vast majority of thought leaders work for the very agencies that have gotten so adept at selling this complexity to the corporate world.  Oddly enough, the skill sets required to conduct good social media marketing and community management are not terribly complicated.  But because corporate marketing groups don't yet have the talent to develop an internal competency — intern to executive — they outsource this.

But to repeat — the very people selling highly profitable agency retainers to your company are the ones setting the thought leadership agenda.

Now before anyone accuses me otherwise, I am a friend to agencies.  There are a lot of great people in agencies and I have a lot of friends there.  But if you're an exec managing a brand, you have to recognize this dynamic to do your job well.

I suspect that this tech boom cycle will end a lot like the last one.  Companies that provide real value will survive.  The vast majority that don't will not survive.  Brands and bigger companies will gradually bring things in house as they get smarter.  As new technologies mature and get "less cool", investments in them will wane.  Investments in things that truly do move the marketing needle will increase and will disrupt the old way of doing things… much as you're starting to see investments increase in Facebook over existing web sites and e-mail.

But the way to get ahead of the curve today is to rein in middle managers and talk in terms of data — measurable success.  That is, if you really care.