Lee Odden

5 Deadly Sins of Corporate Social Media Marketing

Lee Odden     Online Marketing, Social Media

While companies are hiring consultants, internal community managers, testing social media marketing management software and making other kinds of investments in social media marketing, there are a number of things, despite making those investments, many businesses are doing to sabotage their social media success. We could probably list a lot more than seven of these social media sins, but I’ll focus on some of the most important things I’ve been observing.

1. Fear – Of course we know fear is all in the mind and by the looks of it, there are some pretty vivid imaginations out there. Remember when companies feared putting up a blog with comments because, “What if someone says something bad about us?”.  In contrast, companies successful with social media are celebrating such criticism and showing how well they address customer concerns – in public.

A presentation during the Rise of Social Commerce event from Altimeter Group yesterday by Bob Kupbens, Vice President of e-Commerce at Delta.com, included a slide featuring a customer comment that used the words “Delta” and “suck” prolifically.  No one thought any less of Delta as a result. They listened intently on how Delta is engaging customers.

People know that companies aren’t perfect and there will be issues. Social media opens lines of communication for customers to give companies feedback on things that really do need to be fixed, when they otherwise might have go unattended and become huge problems. Companies need not fear the social web, just because they themselves are not social. Harvest internal talent, technology and even outside advice if necessary. Make a plan and commit to objectives along with the top down support necessary for organizational change.

2. Arrogance
– There are quite a few big brands that have decided they’re too big and important to listen to customers via social channels or to create two-way communication and engagement opportunities.  More commonly, companies are arrogant or maybe oblivious to who their competition is.  In the “real world” a company might be competing against other similarly large businesses in their industry and category through traditional media, sales on the street and other forms of marketing.

On the social web, there’s a bit more of an even playing field where much smaller (in revenue, staff and resources) companies have been growing their social networks, listening to customers and engaging them, creating opportunities not only for customers to have a dialog with the brand, but facilitating connections between customers and also activating evangelists.  While this grass roots sort of activity is happening, the big company designates a corporate PR person to “figure out this social media thing”, invests in a social media software and only monitors the competitors that they face in the traditional world – ignoring the “little people” companies building a groundswell of social equity that may very well give that big brand a taste of some “David & Goliath”.  Be open, be smart and avoid being arrogant. Make a plan for social media monitoring to uncover what’s important both to the company and especially to customers.

3. Frugalism
– Paying lip service to social participation and not allocating resources that can help it be successful is probably one of the most common sources for failure. Companies do this will all kinds of marketing where they don’t believe in the tactic, but throw money like spagetti against the wall and see if it sticks. It often goes like this:

Company A: “We tried social media but it didn’t work”.

Company B: “Really? What methodology did you use for a test case? What was your strategy?”

Company A: “Strategy?  We put up a Facebook page and Twitter but we didn’t get any leads. A waste of time and we put 2 weeks into it.”

There’s more to the situation above than being frugal, but my point is that a lack of resources for something like social media marketing makes it doomed to fail. Social isn’t really something you “do” anyway, at least not in the long term.  Companies like Dell, Ford, Blendtec, Mayo Clinic, Zappos and many others that have had success on the social web aren’t so much “doing” social things, they’re more focused on “being social”. That means allocating resources with the expectation of success.

A test is fine, in fact that makes the most sense in my experience. Just don’t throw up a Facebook page, Twitter and a blog plus Google Alerts as your “social media monitoring” solution, all managed by an intern and think there’s going to be success – by any definition.   Invest in research and social media monitoring to identify the scope and nature of conversations about the things that are important to your customers and decide based on that data/analysis to seriously invest or not. When you do decide to move forward, make a commitment long term. Don’t go about it half-way. By all means, test. But have some idea of what you’re trying to accomplish and develop a plan.

4. Egocentric
– If you’re a parent, you might be familiar with the transition kids make from perceiving the world as toddlers, only as it affects them to being able to empathize and detach what’s important to things beyond themselves. Many companies that are new to the social web behave the same way.  Marketing and Sales react to pressures by customers and competitors to become active on the social web and subsequently, marketing and sales tries to do what they know best: Market and sell. Pushing corporate agendas and focusing solely on what the company can get out of social networks and media sharing isn’t being very customer centric.

Content and communications that are egocentric can be dismissed as gratuitous self promotion when they happen once in a while, but many companies have developed their social media marketing programs dedicated solely to promoting their own objectives without empathizing with customer needs and interests. Ignoring whats important to the people you’re trying to engage will only alienate customers.

Watch this video for a humorous example of an egocentric advertiser and customer to get what I mean.

5. Pigeonholing
– If and when an outside consultant is engaged and paid for advice, but tasked only to look at certain aspects of a social media program, only use certain tactics, only use certain technologies regardless of objectives, audience, strategy or goals, then it can really be a waste for all. Companies that can afford and feel comfortable with paying outside consultants to substantiate internal projects will find that those projects will succeed not because they gained internal executive support due to some “expert from out of town”, but because the projects are done for the right reasons.

If a company hires a consultant to help with their social media marketing efforts, that consultant should bring real-world and practical experience working with other companies to the table.  One would hope the company doing the hiring would seriously consider the consultant’s advice. It’s the discretion of any corporate buyer of consulting services to use, or not use, the information provided. But I’ve been seeing the situation where a consultant is paid to give advice, it’s not taken, then when the program fails, its the consultant’s fault. That’s the risk consultants take when they take on projects, but what’s more important is that social media marketing programs are very public. If a program has been developed, executed and achieved success in numerous scenarios over time and such advice can be provided, why not take it? Why do something else, fail and possibly tarnish the brand to customers?

My recommendation is simply to be open about advice from other companies that have already traveled the social media road and/or qualified consultants hired to provide such advice.

There are numerous reasons why social media marketing programs fail or why companies that fail in other ways find those failures communicated virally through the social web. Here’s an interesting presentation documenting a history of social media faiures:

Is your company guilty of any of these corporate social media marketing sins? Are you?

I can’t imagine any company or consultant starting out on their journey to understand the marketing opportunities on the social web that hasn’t. They key of course, is to learn from the mis-steps of those before you and avoid unproductive perspectives. I believe there are no hard and fast rules for success with social media marketing and that testing and participation are your best learning tools. At the same time, companies can save money, resources and time by realizing the shift in thinking and approach that are necessary for achieving the goals they’ve set for themselves.

What “social media marketing sins” should we add to this list?

Event Note:
I will be giving a presentation at PRSA International 10/18 in Washington D.C. on Social Media Optimization and will be giving the keynote presentation on “The Truth About Social Media ROI” at Social Media Junction in Auckland, New Zealand 11/16 as well as a workshop on Social Media Content Strategies 11/17. I hope to see you there.

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. Great post. When GRT2 Studios is hired by some clients I often wondered why is it such a struggle for them to listen to our recommendations. You called us, you hired us, you paid us now why wouldn’t you want to listen.
    The common answer usually stems from us challenging everything they (the client) have done previously and showing them a new way to do things.

    • Greg, the scenario we both describe is common to consulting in general unfortunately. I appreciate your approach. One way we deal with it is to better qualify during the initial process of taking on the project, then being very focused on those objectives during the process.

    • That kind of situation does make you wonder why they would hire you to begin with. But I’ve found that expertise/experience is simply one of the factors; and for some clients it is not as important as others, which is ludicrous, I know. But it’s true.

  2. For consultants the key is to communicate effectively during the initial talks so the client knows what the world of social media marketing encompasses, so they buy in early. Having a few case studies where you can quantify previous results never hurts either.

  3. Great post, strong illustration, funny video … TriFECTa! Definitely worth a Friday retweet!

  4. Very straight to the point! This is definitely something that everyone should read up on and remind themselves about what is involved with Social Media. This big monomer that just slapping up a Facebook page and Twitter account is considered ‘giving it their all’ in Social Media is something we find people still don’t understand. Thanks for the read. 🙂

  5. I can actually imagine sharing this list with a potential client. The “fear” thing is a particularly hard thing for clients to overcome. Another positive of negative comments: they increase your authenticity. I remember reading somewhere that people don’t trust 100% positive comments. (This isn’t the article I remember, but here’s a similar one: http://www.bazaarvoice.com/blog/2010/07/27/6-reasons-to-not-fear-negative-reviews/)

    • Sharing is good 🙂 I’ve seen the research on trusting or not trusting comments as well. It makes sense. If you ask a group of people about something and every single one of them gives glowing reviews without presenting any kind of downside, it’s “Stepford Wives” creepy.

  6. @costacinthia
    It is a really interesting article. The companies need to realize that there are people already talking about your company. With Social Media, the company is allowed to talk with their customer, to understand the problem and to bring a solution through a one-to-one relationship.

    • It’s a relationship in the true sense and social technologies make it much easier in some ways. That kind of access is very new and possibly scary to some companies that are used to being “in control”.

  7. Awesome! Loved it.
    Keep posting…

  8. I really don’t understand what the fear is with companies using Social Media. Either you generate and lead the conversation or you’ll be a victim of it. People are going to spread the word if you’re listening or not.

    Social Media is a brilliant idea and has contributed more content to the internet that any company could hope to do alone. I love it.

  9. I agree with what you said about big brands having attitude. I once saw a person who had a similar issue with one such brand. They just didn’t want to go online on social portals just because they thought they are too big and important and customers are too small for them.

  10. i haven’t seen many good examples of ‘old industries’ that incorporate social media into their marketing mix. Social media is about conversation, where marketing often is ‘getting your message out’ to as many people as possible.

    • Volume and reach are important, but engagement and conversion are even more important in social media, just like with any other marketing or advertising.

  11. Thank you for this article, you went straight to the point. I love the illustrations and the video. Good job!!!!

  12. I know this post was for corporate business, but I also find this problem quite often with big blogs. I have personally struggled with a couple of these and try to really use my social media campaign as a way to get to know my audience. Anyway good post.

  13. Great list. One problem that overlaps several of your items is that many corporate blogs aren’t very interesting. So no one comes and the thing just sort of withers.

    • It comes with the push vs conversation mentality. Without participation in the social community, how will companies know what’s interesting to people in the first place? Companies often don’t participate and are left with nothing but their own interests to promote. That, plus pressure from business leaders to directly affect the bottom line makes much of the corporate social and blog content pretty uninteresting to the people they’re actually trying to reach. Just a little ironic.

  14. Avatar Cherry Rahtu says

    The “scocial media screw up” presentation is interesting. I think pushing messaging instead of communication is the additional sin. What I learnt from other social media experts is to “make friends” on social media, forget about anything else.

    • The messaging vs communication is about empathy for the customer I think. A lot of the screw ups were egocentric and focused soley on the needs of the company in contrast to emulating what real relationship building is about.

  15. that’s a good post, though you put up a social media and these things would be in, then it will just be a waste of your time.

  16. I am loving the advices you post here and that video just made my day. I think, many startups and small businesses make a huge blunder into social media marketing, thinking that it is a short term goal achievable in nth time. They forgot that in having meaningful interaction counts most and this means that social media work is a continuous process. This is perhaps the reason why many simply gave up on it.

  17. Budget, pride and ignorance often lead to these sins – your definitions are dead on. Executives aren’t comfortable embracing what they don’t know and devoting time to what they don’t get. They want the results without the plan that may appear to cost them dearly. As consultants trying to help out, we look for new ways to avoid insulting them or making them feel like they don’t know what they’re doing. I’m encouraged by some leaders who at least want to dive in even if the budget doesn’t always match their enthusiasm.

    • Indeed, we are dealing with very new models of communications and behavior which are often not consistent with how executives are held accountable. That creates a disconnect that doesn’t inspire budget, resource allocation for things that aren’t a “sure thing” with increasing direct sales. At the same time, there are many others who can see beyond the short term and understand the value of using social technology to connect with customers and invest in relationships. When those kinds of investments gain momentum, they can generate amazing ROI.

  18. Avatar Charles Scala says

    Great article… Do you think that these sins are also prevalent among small business owners, or do you think that they are more willing to invest time and effort into adopting social media?

    • That’s a good question Charles. I think there are some crossovers but also unique reasons why small businesses neglect social channels. Fear and resources are pretty common. With SMBs there’s also often a “if it isn’t broken, then don’t fix it” mentality. However, on the whole, I think a lot of small businesses have tested social media tactics because there’s literally no cost to entry and engaging with customers /word of mouth is priceless for growing.

  19. Avatar Wyn_kirk627 says

    I really enjoyed your blog on the 5 deadly sins and believe they are very true. Social media marketing can be difficult and take time. Not taking time to engage with consumers and just using a social media market to mass market wont get as much feedback as one may like and quickly fail in the technique of social media marketing. Taking your time and really figuring out the best way to use a social media outlet will lead to best results. Great Post!