A Dose of Healthy Social Media Skepticism

Zain  Raj

Believe me when I say that I’m not afraid of change. I appreciate the value of trying new things maybe more than the next guy. But I’ve found that one of the best ways to keep from falling off a cliff is to look before I leap. Marketers today would do well to follow this simple advice, particularly if they want to avoid getting lost in the churn of an era of fickle fads.


Looking back to the late ‘90s, long after the question of whether to embrace the Internet had ceased to be a topic of discussion (the verdict, obviously, was yes, it was here to stay), I remember speaking about the future of brands and marketing at the National Retail Federation’s annual meeting in New York. At the time, social media was waiting in the wings, not yet standard, but starting to percolate. Reuters had sent a reporter out to cover predictions and reactions to social media from senior retail marketers at the meeting; he’d been hearing all day from every thought leader that “social was the next big thing, and that if you weren’t already doing it, you were going to lose.” When he called me for my thoughts, I’m sure he was expecting more of the same. We ended up having a fascinating conversation about my reasons for disagreeing.


It wasn’t that I didn’t think social media was important, or that it wasn’t a valuable part of the future of marketing; it’s just that I believed that the social channel was not just a marketing ploy. It needed to be a high-priority business initiative. Why? Social channels for the first time allowed consumers and customers to have direct, real-time access to companies, 24/7. This, therefore, required companies to have infrastructure and processes in place to respond in real time. Very few companies had this infrastructure at that time. My assertion was that without this infrastructure, companies were setting themselves up to damage their relationships with those customers who attempted to connect and were unsuccessful. None of us likes an unanswered contact.


It was interesting to see that I was the only naysayer in that group. All others were exhorting marketers to jump on this bandwagon. Social media gurus were springing up everywhere you looked, and there was no shortage of them. That’s the thing about fads: No one wants to be left behind, especially when they’re so enticing. My argument that social media was fundamentally different from traditional media was a lost sound in the wilderness. I felt that companies that looked at social media as just a media channel—the same as their print channels or television spots—were setting themselves up for a very rude awakening. Social media opened a direct line to consumers; it gave them the ability to connect and communicate with companies in real time. And most companies didn’t have the infrastructure in place to deal with the consequences of this. With a technology this new, it would be pretty much impossible to have that kind of infrastructure in place right off the bat. And without a collaborative model to enable them to listen and respond instantaneously, some of them found themselves in a whole world of trouble.


Social Flops and Faux Pas


Now, more than a decade in, we’ve learned a lot about how to handle (and how not to handle) social media. We’ve learned much from companies that were very successful in their own right but faltered when it came to handling the double-edged sword of social activism. Remember, for instance, when United Airlines customer and musician Dave Carroll’s guitar was broken on a United flight in 2008? If it had happened in an earlier time, you probably wouldn’t; thanks to YouTube, however, you probably do. Here’s the story in case you don’t: A singer/songwriter named Dave Carroll was flying from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Omaha, Nebraska, with a layover at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. As he was getting ready to get off the plane, he heard another passenger say, “My God! They’re throwing guitars out there!” As Dave and the other band members looked out onto the tarmac, where the luggage was being unloaded, they recognized their guitars. Their reaction was a blend of horror and disbelief. Later he discovered that the neck of his $3,500 Taylor guitar had been broken.


What followed was a customer-service nightmare. Dave tried for nine months to get a claim processed with United. The response was a firm and consistent “no.” The company claimed he had waited longer than 24 hours to process a claim, so he was out of luck. He tried phone calls. He tried e-mails. He even went so far as to suggest that instead of money, United give him $1,200 in flight vouchers to cover the cost of repairing the guitar.


United held firm. It said no. So what could a singer-songwriter do? He wrote a song and produced a music video. The song was titled “United Breaks Guitars.” He put it up on YouTube and it went viral. Very soon thereafter, large numbers of people were singing along to “United Breaks Guitars.” The video was posted on July 6, 2009. It amassed 150,000 views within one day, prompting United to contact Carroll and offer to right the wrong. The video had garnered over half a million hits by July 9, 5 million by mid-August 2009, 10 million by February 2011, and 14 million by February 2015.

After 150,000 views, United contacted Dave Carroll and offered payment to make the video go away. He had changed his mind, however. It wasn’t about the money anymore. In fact, he suggested that United donate the money to a charity. Here’s the kicker: Within four days of the video being posted online, United Airlines’ stock price fell 10 percent, costing stockholders about $180 million in value. An expensive lesson, wouldn’t you say?


Bud Light had to deal with a similar issue. In late April 2015, negative comments began flooding social media following extensive news coverage of a marketing message printed on some bottles that some critics said could be interpreted as contributing to a “rape culture.” These bottles were emblazoned with a slogan proclaiming Bud Light to be “the perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.” The brew’s “buzz” score fell from six to zero in fewer than three days, according to the YouGov BrandIndex, which measures daily brand consumer perception. The average score for domestic beers is currently 4, putting Bud Light below  its peers. Among women, Bud Light fell from a 5 to –3. “The drop that we are seeing is statistically significant. It is meaningful,” said Ted  Marzilli, CEO  of  YouGov BrandIndex.


The power that social media places in the hands of consumers shouldn’t be underestimated, as United and Bud Light learned; the ramifications can mean real losses in real dollars. Whereas marketers have been hard-pressed to show specific ROI from social media, there is certainly no shortage of examples of the power of social channels to lower the bottom line. Gap and Tropicana spent millions on new packaging and new logos, only to have to scramble after social media backlash forced them to scrap the designs and go back to the drawing board with their tails between their legs. It’s a one- two punch: The first blow comes when the grumbling starts, and the knockout gets delivered when companies can’t (or don’t) respond in real time to that grumbling, which soon becomes a deafening roar.


What can we take away from all of this, other than a healthy respect for looking before we leap? We can certainly say, based on these and other examples, that social media isn’t just a marketing issue. Instead, it has to be managed as a critical business function. The entire enterprise must be behind the social strategy—how it’s implemented, how it’s monitored, and how it’s used. Then and only then can you rest assured that you’ve got a fair chance to succeed in this brave new world.


-- Excerpt from Marketing for Tomorrow, Not Yesterday by Zain Raj


Zain Raj is the chairman and CEO of the independent research and insights company Shapiro + Raj, and founder and CEO of the ideas incubator zednext. He is author of Brand Rituals: How Successful Brands Bond with Customers for Life, an Amazon marketing and sales bestseller, and the 2015 release, Marketing for Tomorrow, Not Yesterday.

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