The Biggest Mistake Brands Make When It Comes To Social Media

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What is the biggest mistake that brands make when it comes to Social Media?

Without question, this is the number one question I get asked in interviews, at speaking events and at roundtable forums (in fact, it happened today during a panel conversation for Connected For Business Magazine). You can shore up the many little instances, fumbles, mistakes and blunders into this one concept: The Social Contract. Prior to these Social Media channels, brands had a social contract with the media (for the most part, this social contract still exists, to this day) that worked/works like this: Something happens and the brand has a PR crisis on their hands. They are called to task by the media. The brand formulates a strategy and a plan, trains the media spokesperson from within the organization and then comes out publicly with a response – which is typically done in the formats of interviews, press releases and a press conference). From there, the media formulates their take (they may even go back to the company to ask for clarification or more information) and then the information gets disseminated to the public through these mass media channels. During this time, the company rarely interfaces with individuals from the public. They communicate through their chosen media platforms. There is an unwritten social contract between businesses and the media – an agreed upon process of response and how it all comes together. This isn’t done to slant the story, it’s just the way the "Gods of Production," as Jay Rosen calls them, works.

People – like you and I – don’t have a social contract with brands and this is tripping them up.

The mistakes that happen in Social Media (everything from United breaks guitars to Dell Hell) all demonstrate that people do not act in accordance to the way that trained and professional journalists act, and that brands can’t interact with individuals with the same kind of language, posture and social contract that they have with the mass media. The biggest mistake that brands make is thinking that they can act, respond and communicate with these individuals as if they are speaking to a journalist.

It’s not just in the communications… it’s the marketing to.

When brands fail at Social Media (and then ask "why?"), one look at most of their "marketing efforts" reveals a broadcasting and/or advertising posture that is not only narcissistic but self-serving. The platforms already exist for advertising, so if a brand is leveraging a Facebook page, YouTube videos or a Blog to speak to individuals in the same way that they have traditionally developed a magazine or television ad, it’s missing the point (and opportunity) as well. Don’t get me wrong, many brands are getting results from these types of tactics, but it tends to be the brands that are leveraging the power of their ad budgets to both interrupt and clamor the consumer’s online engagement experience. That not Social Media marketing… that’s advertising in Social Media channels and there’s a big difference between the two.

It’s a mindset.

Brands can overcome the mistake of following the traditional media social contract in one simple move: real interactions between real human beings. Leverage the actual people within the organization to speak to people as the people that they are. This is driven by a mindset of compassion and care by the brand to build loyalty over a customer service mandate that sounds and reads as if it’s being read out of a manual or a script. While the move is simple, the ability for the organization to change is hard. The mindset is not a personal or an individual one, it’s groupthink that permeates an organization and that is deadlocked by the legal department. See, individuals don’t have these issues, so they tweet, Blog and update their status’ with whatever is on their minds and – when it’s something negative about a brand – the brand tends to react as if there is that implied social contract.

It’s nothing new.

Social Media has been banging this drum of human interaction for over a decade now (need I remind us that The Cluetrain Manifesto is nearly twelve years old?). This kind of talk was happening long before this past decade entered the fray (and all of the technology and connectivity that came along with it). In the end, it’s not really a "mistake" that brands are making when it comes to Social Media. It’s actually a mistake that brands are making at a culture level (the DNA of the modern organization). The good news is that it’s not terminal. This is a reversible disease.

It makes you wonder why after all of the in-market proof, brands still struggle with it?


  1. While I agree with you that this is a big mistake for brands, I think the bigger mistake is not knowing what skeletons the brand has in the closet.
    The reality is that the individual (like you and I) expect brands to be as responsible for their actions as we are for ours. When a person screws up, and is challenged, they can address the challenge immediately.
    Large brands, however, have people interacting with consumers, that are unaware of any issues the brand might have. This means they need to find out if the challenge is valid, report the validity to the proper department, get a response, and share that response. To your earlier point, this is the social contract the brand has with the media. Time. The public sees the delay as disingenuous, like the brand is hiding something and crafting a response. This is not how individuals communicate.
    If the brand incorporates the practice of community management into regular operational meetings (beyond the marketing department), then the speed at which the brand can respond is increased.
    Also Brands can do a “Social Audit”. What this simply means is exploring the various aspects of the brands business and look for policies that may be contrary to the desires of the consumers. You don’t need to change the policies, you just need a valid reason for them (beyond cost effectiveness). If you know in advance what might upset a consumer, and you give your CM team the ammunition to deal with the issues, then you are able to have a conversation with the individual, like an individual.
    Large brands just need to remember the days when they were small brands, and how the company interacted with people back then. I wrote more about this here:
    Great read. Thnx.

  2. Time is a huge component to the social contract. An individual tweets in the heat of the moment and traditional media waits, gathers facts and then engages. It is the cracks in these processes that creates the turmoil.

  3. This is why social is not a state of doing, its a state of being that must happen from top to bottom in and organization–to ensure a more human side business. One of the best posts I’ve seen to explain the why of brand failure, rather than ranting about so-called “best practices.”

  4. Amen brother! You hit the nail on the head with this one. We are connecting with people and people are connecting with brands like they are people. It is not at a human level. Which means we all should be able to relate…………..hopefully.

  5. Interesting post. As I read it, you’re saying there are clear rules for going through the media filter. One that brands understand. But there aren’t clear rules when you leave that filter behind.
    I don’t do consumer work, but I help my clients go around the media filter with content marketing strategies, promoted through social media channels. Many times they struggle with being objective re the content, and quick re responses. So I see similarities there to what you’re talking about here.
    Don’t think there are no such things as best practices, however. Here’s one — don’t ask the intern to do it, just b/c he or she is the youngest in the office.

  6. I totally share the idea of being more sincere and true to itself for the branded communication.
    I also think that maybe business marketing would be better when considering to learn from WORST practice deep analysis more than find best practice to replicate andn relicate same things falling into the hidden trap of rendering everything similar instead of creative.

  7. Amen! I agree it can be reversed, but those that make those decision tend not to truly understand the true essence of talking to people 1 on 1. It is a struggle that will play out overtime, but for now big brands will struggle while new smaller companies come and eat their lunch for not being flexible enough.

  8. The concept of mindset change is the key here, Mitch.
    I think the reason that so many brands do social “wrong” is that they are in the transition of mindset and aren’t too happy about it.
    People that don’t live in this space tend to do two things, in my opinion.
    1) They see news stories about Facebook, Twtitter, etc and say, “We need that because that’s what everyone’s doing.”
    2) They want immediate, measurable results, so they try to push the same advertising messages to get immediate conversions.
    Rather than take the time to do it right and build relationships, they want to do what they’ve always done on the channels that they see as easy to access and cheap.
    All of this, like you say, comes down to a change of mindset.

  9. Another great post, the reason brands/companies struggle with this so much is they fail to realise how interaction within social media is a fundamental cultural change within the organisation.
    It is so vital for a brand to listen prior to engaging (if they decide to engage at all!)
    Understanding what is being said, the volume on conversation and the tone of your customers voice is important, it helps with your resourcing, gives you early insight into content and topics you can use as conversations starters.
    In my experience we have used our marketing campaigns and PR content as starting points for conversations, but not as broadcast items (or at least that has been the goal).
    I think brands need to continually evaluate their focus when using this medium.

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