Stop wasting money on social media (and social media agencies)

As an advocate of social media, I am becoming increasingly frustrated at the amount of money and effort that is now being wasted on it.  There are so many car crashes occurring as organisations drive recklessly and desperately into this space (I have been called to the scene of a few) that I have been prompted to try and define what is happening and why – with a view to help minimise the damage.  In doing this I have drawn from my own experience and observations, but also an analysis of the services offered (and case studies) of a number of the UK’s ‘leading’ social media agencies.

My conclusion is that there are three basic stages to successful adoption of social media and only one of these involves wasting money.  Unfortunately this is the phase most organisations are in at the moment. The trick, therefore, is to try and avoid this phase, although I suspect the reality of the way most organisations work is that they will need to go through this pain in order to create the necessary permission to progress.

Phase 1: False engagement (where money is wasted)

This is the phase that is all about creating social media campaigns or grafting social media onto existing channels of communication.  It is dominated by the mindset that sees social media as another channel you can use to ‘reach out’ to the consumer or customer and is based around taking existing approaches to marketing and communication and making them work in social media channels.

Because it is based on the old premise of putting a single proposition in front of a lot of people, the metrics in this phase are all about maximising numbers (Facebook ‘interactions’, YouTube hits, numbers of followers etc).  Success is determined according to being able to ‘engage’ with lots of people.  ROI is based on conventional marketing assumptions – i.e. that marketing involves spending lots of cash, usually in big lumps (campaigns) – and this has to be justified in terms of short-term increases in revenue or market share.

This is the phase that the vast majority of organisations are in at the moment.  It is certainly the phase that most of the existing social media agencies (at least in the UK) are aligned against if their case studies are any judge.

Probably the best example of a successful ‘campaign’ in this area is the 2010 Old Spice Bodywash campaign.  This much awarded campaign generated a huge amount of ‘positive buzz’ and additional media reach.  But this case study also highlights the problem with this phase – while it involves using social media tools, (and while it may have been deemed successful in terms of conventional ROI) it is not actually social.  P&G / Old Spice generated a huge amount of ‘conversation’ but this wasn’t conversation about the brand – it was about the campaign.  The brand itself did not have any authentic representation in this conversation.  Instead it tried to talk to people as though it was a cool black dude (i.e. the man from the ad).  Just take a look at the Old Spice Twitter feed and ask yourself the question “who am I talking to here?”  (As at time of writing, the Twitter conversation was about (American) football, because Isiah Mustafa, the man in the Old Spice ads, is a former footballer.  Relevance to Old Spice the product/brand – double zilch plus zero).  Also consider what might happen when P&G change ‘The Campaign’ – either because the research shows people are bored of it, or Isiah’s agent is asking too much money for a new contract or the creative director is bored and wants a new ad that features a sexy woman (will its’ Twitter feed then have a sex change?).

It is the phase of what I call false engagement where an organisation believes there is an intrinsic value in having 100,000 Facebook fans and accordingly decides to replicate its website in Facebook.  100,000 Facebook fans is a totally valueless concept because if you are using Facebook to try and ‘engage’ with your consumers, 100,000 is not enough, but if you are using Facebook as it is designed to be used, 100,000 is way too many.

Phase 2: the arrival of intelligence

Phase 2 usually arrives for one of two reasons.  First is the dawning recognition that the campaign approach may not be working.  Large amounts of money may have been spent with digital or social media agencies building brand communities to facilitate engagement and interaction with consumers or customers – and only a handful of people have shown up.  Conversations may have been identified, but when the brand has tried to join these conversations it is ignored.  People may have been blogging and tweeting and, to all intents and purposes, they have been shouting into a void.  Finance directors are asking difficult questions about placing an actual value on a Facebook ‘like’ and asking how this compares with the proven ability to reach the target audience through conventional media channels.

Second is the discovery, by accident or intention, that the real benefit from social media lies in the ability to listen to what consumers or customers are talking about, rather than trying to talk to them.  This intelligence can then be used to devise appropriate responses – appropriateness being defined around timing and relevance.  In essence this means recognising that what consumers and customers are doing in social media, at least the bit of their behaviour that is relevant to you, is asking each other (and maybe you) questions – “how do I fix this?”, “how do I make this happen?”, “where can I get it?”, “why is this not working?”.  Your response therefore needs to be shaped around answering these questions, through the content you produce and your ability to respond within a useful timeframe (usually close to real time).

Social media is not an effective tool to use to speak to all of your audience (that is advertising), but it is a very effective tool to speak to a very small number of exactly the right people at exactly the right time. (See also

This is the point at which you will realise that most of the content you have been producing thus far is the wrong content and the conversations you have identified are the wrong conversations.  This is because your approach has been based around identifying the conversations you want to join, rather than the ones where you have something relevant to say.  And your content is based around the things you want to say about yourself, or that you want everyone to know.  For example, I have seen a specialist motorbike insurer create a community to talk about biking, forgetting that the only bit of ‘the biking conversation’ (if indeed something as broad as this can be said to exist) it has permission to operate within is the very small bit of that is relevant to what it actually does – i.e. insurance.  No-one is going to hang-out in a generic biking community created by an insurance agency (not strictly true, this community has 256 ‘active’ members, but none of them are talking about insurance and I would hate to think what the company is paying to build and maintain such a space, all for 256 essentially irrelevant people).

The key test for whether an organisation has reached stage two is if it has started to embrace the idea that social media is not simply about driving sales, it is about making the whole business more effective and efficient.  Social media is often as much about reducing cost as it is about short-term increases in revenue.

Phase 3: Genuine engagement

A few months ago I was presenting a social media strategy to the executive team of a large organisation.  It was part presentation and part discussion and at the end of the session the CEO said he had found the whole thing fascinating and had really enjoyed it, except the bit where I said his business model needed to change.

Unfortunately, there is a brutal reality to the fact that social media is changing the basis of the relationship between individuals and organisations, between brands and consumers.  If you are not changing your business to reflect this new reality, you are not actually responding effectively to social media or creating any genuine engagement.  In the first instance this may simply mean changing your investment in communications so it shifts from buying channels and media, to hiring people and making media.  It may then extend to changing the way you manage product development or customer service in order to allow the customer or consumer to exert greater control or participation.  Ultimately it will need to extend to a recognition that your business is not there to give your customer what they want, but to help them get what they want.  Recognising this is the basis for establishing genuine engagement and this may involve you playing a very different role in the process.

All businesses are solutions.  Up until now being successful meant making that solution better.  However, social media is changing the problem, and this usually requires a different solution not a solution upgrade.

Very few business have yet got to stage three and most that have reached this point have been forced there by the fact that their business models have already started to feel the strain.

If your business is in Phase 1, my recommendation would be.

  • Find one bright person from within your business.
  • Set them up with some real-time social media monitoring tools (the free ones).
  • Send them away for two weeks to find out ‘what’s going on out there’ – and then come back and tell the management team what new things they had found out about what their consumers or customers think about the business and its competitors.
  • Then fire your digital or social media agency (if you have one) and start again.


  1. Robin Houghton (@eggboxrobin)

    Hurrah! Thank you … I sometimes wonder if it’s me who’s crazy when the whole world seems hellbent on talking about ‘social media just another marketing channel blah blah’ and ‘buzz campaigns’. Too many people watching Mad Men and thinking the glory days of advertising is where it’s at, too many old school marketers jumping on the groaning wagon of sociaI media guru-dom. I suggest something else is needed before even the change in business model and that’s a change in vocabulary. But that would need a change in thinking. Heh ho. Nice one, Richard.

    • elena @erapisardi

      Mad men…. perfect example. I totally agree. Some ad men often forget that we all are persons, consumers, sellers, workers, citizens…. the social circles Simmel taked about in an other era. There seems to be a strange attitude: we tend to define ourselves considering one unique social role, and then we refer to the abstract entity that role belongs to (the market, the finance, the economy….) avoiding to take any responsibility.

  2. Pingback: What is social media and why does it matter? « People like to share
  3. vinsroma

    Really interesting. Congratulations! I agree, even if we must consider the country and the target, so to say: in Italy there’s not a culture of SM, so it’s not so easy.

  4. Pingback: Qantas: chasing the wrong type of engagement « Richard Stacy @ Stacy Consulting
  5. Pingback: Gutenberg and the social media revolution: an investigation of the world where it costs nothing to distribute information « Richard Stacy

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>