Why Most Social Media Departments Fail

A few years ago, a colleague of mine was given a tremendous responsibility to oversee the social media department at a prestigious well known NYC-based public relations firm. Less than a year later, she was sent packing up her desk, a casualty of a company that jumped into that shiny toy syndrome that people call social media.

As more companies jump into social media, they, too, hear that “social media departments don’t execute” which results in the failure of a social media department that was never meant to be. I’ll be exploring some of those reasons below.

Goal Setting

You could be the biggest and most well-paid social media consultant out there, but if you don’t know what the specific goals are for the client project, you should never sign an agreement with the prospective company. A recent statement of work I encountered read just like this:

  • Manage and grow the our following on Twitter
  • Manage and grow our fan base on Facebook
  • Manage and grow our fan base on LinkedIn
  • Possibly manage the presence on other platforms

The social media consultant could follow every single one of these directives to an absolute tee, doing everything they were asked and even going above and beyond to build bridges with prospective customers via direct relationships, phone calls, and face to face interaction. But the bigger question goes to the client: why do you want someone to manage your social media presence? What are you trying to get out of it? If your client has to hesitate and cannot answer this question in a few sentences, and worse, doesn’t even give you a reply at all, any social media promotion you engage in will ultimately fail. As hired help, it won’t be your fault, but if you’re trying your best to understand the goals without any feedback from your client, it will hurt.

For your sake, consultants, don’t even bother with that relationship. It won’t end well even if there are “no hard feelings,” especially if you’ve made the effort to understand the goals of the engagement.

One thing that needs to be defined from the beginning is the target audience. As a client, you must be able to give your consultant information about your target audience via an audience profile that can be found with survey tools and market research. Keep in mind that this audience profile may be broadened through exposure to social media, giving you as a business even greater reach than thought possible.

However, clients, no, it is not the consultant’s responsibility to determine your goals and it’s highly offensive to suggest that “we hired you to tell us!” A new employee or consultant, especially someone who is new to the company culture, would not possibly be able to know your company goals, your mission statement, and your objectives from the offset. It’s your job to guide them, to give them the insights needed to truly shine in their role. And a list of “here’s what you should do” which is motivated by the latest and greatest social networks just isn’t enough. That’s why we call it shiny toy syndrome.

Do you truly want to succeed? Before you even consider a social media engagement and hiring an employee to take on this engagement, you need to set SMART goals. Any job descriptions and statements of work do not have a place without an itemized list of desired outcomes that benefit the company line.

What are SMART goals? To those unfamiliar with the phrase, these are goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. Perhaps it would make sense to see a 10% increase in sales over a 6 month period or an increase of 5,000 visitors to your website for the month. For your social initiatives, a brand new Twitter account may aim to seek 50 qualified followers by the end of November versus 50,000 followers with no end in sight.

Let’s talk about qualified followers for a moment. Anyone can buy Twitter followers and artificially inflate the numbers on your account, thereby making your social media consultant look like a true social media rockstar, but once the money is invested, in all likelihood, how many people will actually buy your product or use your service? None. Similarly, you would never want to buy Facebook fans; Facebook employs an algorithm known as EdgeRank which makes your content prominent if and only if people actually engage with it. If you’re buying followers and they’re not interested, that content won’t show up in their news feeds or in the feeds of people who truly do have an interest in your product. You’ve just wasted your money and gained nothing but short term satisfaction that the numbers are up — but are they sustainable?

No, if you want to be successful in social media, you need to understand from the get-go that it’s a relationship building process which takes time. You’ll see growth and followers, but will you really see growth and followers at an exponential rate? Realistically? It’s 2011.

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

That brings me to my next point: if you joined the party late, you’re not going to be as popular as the people who already have established presences on social networks. It’s the sad truth of a saturated marketplace. Those who joined the social media party in 2007 are thriving; those who join in 2011 often find themselves at a complete loss. When finding new companies to follow for a client of mine, I was shocked at how many companies whose social profiles were featured so prominently on their websites weren’t engaged at all, seemingly because they have given up social media engagement because their efforts (almost totally of a broadcast nature in the examples I’d seen) were being made almost entirely in vain.

If you’re aiming to join the social media space with the primary goal that you’re going to make a real difference on Twitter and Facebook, I have news for you: you’re going to be working very very hard. Millions of businesses have done the same exact thing before you, and consumers (and even businesses you’re trying to attract the attention of) are savvy enough that they’re less trusting from the get-go, which is why you have to work hard not to just get their attention but to keep them attuned to your news and updates.

Relationship building is harder and a longer process in an already established community. You’re lucky to be there when it’s just being started; everyone is still trying to find their way and everyone helps each other. When you come 3-5 years after it’s already well known simply because everyone else is doing it, do you really think it will be a walk in the park? You and 4 (40? 400?) million other people are trying to do the same exact thing. It comes across as self-serving, even if you’re sharing valuable content. That’s why you need to put forth a tremendous amount of effort.

Social media alone doesn’t cut it anymore. In fact, it’s been predicted for years now that social media marketing will merge into public relations or some other marketing discipline. Are you really just a “social media expert,” and if so, are you prepared?

Social Media Marketing Coexists with Other Integrated Marketing Programs

While I get pitches all the time to offer “social media services” to clients, I rarely, if ever, exclusively offer social media marketing. Social media is here to stay, but it’s not something you can do in isolation of other marketing initiatives. I’ve been offering services in the full realm of digital marketing, from SEO to PPC to video marketing to blogger outreach to action plans to public relations, and of course, social media. But social media alone should never be treated as a standalone marketing method; it must coexist with other marketing strategies. An integrated digital marketing approach is the best way to see success online for any business.

If you’re just hired to handle social media, have no fear! The best client-contractor relationship is one where the consultant is fully aware of every single marketing initiative and is able to weigh in on these campaigns while they’re happening, ensuring that your responsibilities for outreach go in tandem with these other marketing tactics. That means that as a social media consultant, you should know if Facebook PPC is in play. You should know what SEO phrases are being targeted. You should know if your client is running a deal on a daily deals site. You should get a heads up about an infographic that your graphic design team is launching, and you should know the specific date of launch so that you can collaborate and ensure it reaches the social media audience as well.

And if you’re not being made abreast of these developments in your company? It comes down to them not valuing social media… and them not valuing you.

But don’t worry! They’re also setting themselves up for failure. You’re just going to be coming along for the ride.

I have news for you, social media experts: if social media alone is what you’re selling, I hope you start getting other skills under your belt.

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88 replies on “Why Most Social Media Departments Fail”
  1. says: Preston Ehrler

    Your post is right on point Tamar. The issue always must be communicated from the client, as to what are the exact expectations, then those metrics should be tracked. The question then becomes, to me, which companies should engage in social media and which should actually not. I’ve followed too many Twitter icons to find a profile that had not been updated in months. Also, is it worth the effort for a company that, unlike a Wibiya, is not typically online, other than a website. I think the old answer was that all businesses should engage in social media marketing, but as the space matures, does that still apply, and if so, where are the efforts most rewarded?

    1. All companies should – most companies do it because they see everyone else doing it and want to join in. That’s the wrong approach. They need a clear set of outcomes from doing it.

      Thanks Preston for the comments 🙂

  2. Nice post! Social media is important for companies not only for gaining new customers but also as a means of awesome customer support. It’s so convenient for users to ask questions about a product to the products twitter account or may be post it on the fb fan page. This aspect of social media helped me get justunfollow.com to where it is today. I believe in quick customer service and what better medium than social media!

    1. Customer service for social media is HUGE! It’s not just marketing – it’s about being great at service which will end up helping you market your products. 🙂 Thank you Nischal and congrats!

  3. says: andrew

    Tamar – You never cease to be correct.

    “While I get pitches all the time to offer “social media services” to clients, I rarely, if ever, exclusively offer social media marketing.”


    “An integrated digital marketing approach is the best way to see success online for any business.”

    Social media in a vacuum acts like a vacuum: it sucks.

  4. says: Emily Molitor

    I couldn’t agree more. For me, it has definitely been a process of figuring out how to integrate measurable social goals into bigger existing product/marketing plans and roadmaps… how can social tools help teams move business forward, etc…

  5. says: Ana

    As a junior communications and social media person, what other skills would you suggest getting ‘under my belt’?

    1. Hi Ana, the latter part of the article discusses other integrated marketing offerings. If you’re solely dependent on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook for success, what does one do when they all go away? Think about it that way. How did people market before social media? Are you building up your skill set?

    2. says: andrew

      Learn how to manage an email list: learn best practices on list hygiene. Learn everything you can about optimizing for deliverability (avoiding spam filters), optimize for opens (learn everything you can about testing and writing good subject lines), learn as much as you can about optimal layout and design of a good email piece.

      Learn SEO. Start with SEOmoz’s guide for beginners and read Google’s guide to SEO. Ignore most other SEO advice.

      Study branding and understand the power behind it.

      Tamar makes a great point: find out what people were doing before social media, and hone those skills. (Except avoid learning how to optimize smoke signals and carrier pigeon flight paths. We’re not using those techniques anymore).

  6. Thank you for a great article. I am trying to begin a business as a Social Media Manager, and I can see I have some challenges ahead. I plan to offer social media maintenance as well as customer support.

  7. says: Camilo Olea

    Excellent post, Tamar! I’m very happy to see that -albeit slowly- the marketplace is getting educated by people like you, that generate quality content explaining differences between doing Social Media Marketing professionally and the regular “Social Media Experts” which have flooded the market.

    My prediction is that eventually, the market will be educated enough to be able to pick the charlatans from the professionals. And the charlatans will just move to the next shiny toy.

    Best regards from Cancun, Mexico. 🙂

  8. says: Susan Emmer

    Hi Tamar,

    Great post, and thanks for pointing out that social media is not the silver bullet, but part of a much larger marketing strategy. As someone who has been doing integrated marketing for 15+ years, I hope clients will soon get over the “build it they will come” mindset since this attitude does not take into account their target audience, or their goals. If I hear, “I want 10,000 fans” yet again, I just may scream!

    1. So true — it pains me to hear companies that are so numbers driven that they’ll do crazy things outside the business goals to obtain that!

      I worked on a client project that didn’t pan out for the aforementioned reasons, and then I noticed that they hired someone else (who was in discussions with them beforehand) to do the same work. I noticed how totally off the beaten path this person is going to prove that her worth is more than mine (to the tune of a bunch of irrelevant fans) — fine with me, but I know those followers won’t convert!

  9. says: Jayna Locke


    I read your post with interest. I think there was quite a bit of uncertainty, missteps and fallout when social media crossed the chasm from purely personal sharing into the professional business realm. Savvy companies got it that social media could enhance the work they were doing to get more exposure for their brand, but it was so new several years ago, and so lacking in benchmarks and analytics, that they really did need hand holding and guidance to know what could be achieved.

    The story is different today. The digital marketing landscape has changed rapidly and now most companies get that social media is a part of a larger tool set for content marketing and brand visibility, and is just one component of a content strategy. Even so, as [fill in the blank – relationship marketing, digital marketing, social media marketing, content marketing] consultants, I believe our first job is to coax the goals out of the client and lay out a plan designed to meet those goals. Otherwise, the client cannot be faulted for going after the next shiny toy.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!


    1. Indeed, Jayna. I think that’s a big part of it. It’s a bit difficult to do so when the client is so fixated on a specific direction, which was the case in these stories I illustrated above. That SOW was real; all I did was remove the client name. That’s what they wanted. When asked for more information, they couldn’t tell me why they they wanted it, and when I told them that more information would be needed moving forward, they said “social media must be a big smokescreen.”

      Well then. Hard to work with those types of folks! Fortunately, most are open to collaboration with the members they elect to join their team. The others… well, I wish them luck. 😀

  10. says: Avi

    Tamar – I just have to say THANK YOU. THANK YOU for saying what I’ve been saying for a long time. Social media is ONE tool that INTEGRATES together.

  11. Well said, Tamar. I often find myself telling colleagues & clients that by my title, I might be the Global Director of Ketchum Digital, but by my counsel & practice, I am really more like the chief integration officer. Our digital & social media solutions mean nothing if they are not crafted from, and in unison with, the same insight-based communications strategy as the rest of the program for content & conversation — online & offline, paid & earned, all working together, with one voice. Thanks for making such a compelling case.

  12. Hi Tamar – thanks for this post!

    Social media is really just an extension of how you communicate and engage with your audience. For that reason, it is a part of a larger marketing plan, or as you mentioned, it should be.

    Another amazing post!


  13. Tamar-

    This is such a great article!! I love your point about the following:

    No, if you want to be successful in social media, you need to understand from the get-go that it’s a relationship building process which takes time.

    I really think many people do not get this portion of it! You’re great! Thanks again for sharing!!

  14. Amen, sistah! Love this post, I’ve been beating this drum for the last couple of years as I see more and more local companies jumping on the social media bandwagon. Thanks for writing and I plan to share it for those who are still dazzled by the “shiny toy syndrome”.

  15. says: Dali Burgado

    This is a very well written and insightful post, Tamar. I think this lends itself for SEO consulting as well (in my case). The lines between Social media, SEO, content marketing etc. all converge. A consultant definitely needs to build his/her skill set and ensure that first and foremost the company/client is aware of why they want to utilize social, SEO etc in the first place. Great stuff.

    1. So true. If you’re doing social without SEO, I understand why you think it will help (links usually are the currency of the web), but your competitors are probably doing it better. Thanks for the comment, Dali 🙂

  16. says: Hugo Guzman

    Solid post as usual, Tamar! I’m glad that you touched on relationship building. I feel that many large companies (and the agencies or employees that manage social for them) completely overlook the engagement facet. They think that social media is all about the “media” aspect (e.g. building stuff) and forget that the first part (and arguably most important one) is the “social” (e.g. building relationships and interacting with consumers and influencers).

    1. Oh dear, this brings so many interesting memories of social media engagements gone bad… I hate pitches in general (read my contact form!) because the PR firms never make the effort. I really wonder why these clients sign with them anyway. Good salespeople, I guess! Goes downhill from there 🙂

      1. Phew! 🙂

        The truth is, despite anyone’s so-called “expert” status as a “social media guru,” we all know this remains a nascent, molten space. We are all, to some extent, innovating and experimenting in public view and in real-time.

        Social media has its risks along with its rewards. As such, there’s probably not a single firm out there in the marketing/communications field that’s not stumbled or taken a hit. It goes with the territory, and I’m sure we’ve all got the scars & war stories to show for it.

        I’m not suggesting that social media requires thrill-seekers only. But we all do have to go in with our eyes open, and we must be ready to watch & listen, then improvise, react & change course on a dime, if the situation calls for it.

        Then again, that’s part of what makes this great, right?



  17. I think that not setting up goals is the biggest mistake we make when we start with social media. However, for small companies (like mine) doesn´t really make sense at beginning stage… start interacting and learning where to go.

    1. Raul, I agree that you need to interact, but you also need to understand why you’re interacting. Otherwise, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

      If you want to interact, you can do that on your personal time, not on your business time.

  18. says: Lusine

    I’ve been looking at web analytics reports, and it does show that my visitors do not come only from social sites. And even within social sites, I will have to see where most of the value is generated. So there is no right or wrong here, it is that you have to see, analyze the results and make chnages in the strategy accordingly. I agree for sure only social media is not going to bring a success, and without intergrated approach in marketing, businesses will fail.

  19. says: Tess Cosad

    Finally, a point of view that appreciates the complexities and depth of social media, understanding the ethos of the online community and accepting that there are not such simple measures as ROI or Impressions. A strong piece that encompasses both B2B and B2C markets.

    Thank you Tamar!

  20. says: Juan Lulli

    There’s something extremely valuable that you say in your post Tamar — among others you cite — but for me the most salient. And I’ve known this as a truism, but for some reason, re-reading it here, has offered me a moment of re-discovery. Guess which of these three it is:

    1/ that social media without clear goals will fail?
    2/ that social media becomes harder the longer you adopt?
    3/ that social media will fail unless integrated into the marketing mix?

    Thanks for posting. Juan

      1. says: Juan Lulli

        I learned the most from #2. But I re-learned the most from #3 — from the perspective of consulting & advising side, I think this is what sooo many smm firms are missing.

        1. Indeed. I think that 1 and 3 really go hand in hand – usually those goals can be achieved by more than just social media, after all. 🙂

          Thanks for the excellent comments 🙂

    1. Just link building, Brian? Sounds like someone is using my comments to give his SEO-services.com page a boost.

      …and normally when that happens, I edit out the URL due to obvious manipulation. Consider yourself lucky.

  21. says: Cristina

    This is an amazing post!!!! I work as a social media consultant and you definitely need to have other skills for that role. I love you points and in fact it really does make sense. Setting reasonable goals and having valuable followers or fans is what will grow your presense online!

    Thanks again for the post!! 🙂

  22. says: Avi

    My question though is how to we convince companies to build their foundation right. Too many people either think social media = viral creative or that it’s something a kid can do when their culture isn’t open or social and either not communicating their values or has the wrong values for social media (i.e. non-transparent or social, requiring layers of bureaucracy for every tweet).

    1. Gut voch, Avi 🙂

      Well, they’ll either learn the hard way or they’ll have to read posts like this to hopefully educate them.

      Some just won’t ever get it. Some hopefully will pick it up over time through trial and error.

      All I’ve written, from my book to my blog posts to everything in between, comes from trial and error. I write from experience. I know that not everyone does that, but if they want to start somewhere, I may be biased but this is a good place. 😉

  23. says: Sam

    Yes very good honest post. It’s good to read the flaws of social media promises and perceived easy wins (which has in my mind become the spam of the marketing world on LinkedIn, Twitter etc).

    So much i read is “Follow this Social Media strategy and bring millions for your client”.

    or in Mashable “The Ten best social media campaigns ever” – those ten were all done by mega corporations with oodles of cash followed by massive PR campaigns, which generally bear no relevance to normal businesses.

    And i agree, social media can be both everything and nothing in the marketing mix. It has the best impact when working with the other marketing departments, as well as sales and HR.

    Thanks Tamar. Good stuff.

    1. I don’t know if they bear no relevance to normal business, Sam. Creativity can be a great driver for small companies. Think Blendtec. But yes, you need to do it with other marketing initiatives and not all alone.

  24. Great opinion post Tamar! My advice to consultants is to offer the help to integrate social media into the existing organisation. That way you have no problems with understanding and measuring objectives, and social media doesn’t become this isolated silo department that no one understands anyway.

  25. says: Ryan

    Which of the three (Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin) would you recommend focusing on most? Linkedin has a more professional feel but the ROI doesn’t seem too impressive to me. Maybe I’m just doing it wrong.

    1. Ryan, sorry! That’s the wrong question to ask. See above, section #1: goals (with emphasis on target audience). There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for this, and that’s the beauty of marketing in general. If everyone did the same thing, would it still be successful the 5th, 10th, 40th time around?

  26. says: Susan Young

    Great comments and a rude awakening for many companies who simply want to “do social media” without taking the time to think about how it ties into their sales and business goals. A good reminder too for marketing folks who are managing their clients’ marketing efforts to reinforce this message in client conversations.

  27. says: Donnie Clapp

    You’ve got some fire in your belly, and I like it.

    I’d go a step further/flip over the ambiguous goals. I think that “grow the audience” is a fine goal. The reason it often falls flat after the fact is the reason for doing so isn’t understood or specified. As valuable as the audience can be for converting sales directly, I think there is an equally important long-term goal: curating a self-selected online representation of exactly your target market in the real world, to which you can eventually deliver your story more efficiently than you might be able to through current methods and middlemen.

    In this light, avoiding fake fans and iPad giveaways is equally or more important, but overall growth is still a worthwhile goal.

  28. says: karen kouf

    Great post. Like most digital marketing tactics with analytics, social media allows you to learn more about your customer. Measuring their engagement against specific goals is critical for product/service improvement. When you orchestrate all mktg initiatives together — wow, that’s powerful stuff.

  29. says: Martin Walsh

    Great post Tamar.

    So good to hear more and more people understanding this fundamental tenant of great social influence marketing and integrated marketing.

    I’ve previously been involved in defining, developing, operationalising and executing this discipline at Microsoft & IBM leading digital marketing and in my new role as CMO.

    Out of frustration I put my whole Social Influence Marketing strategy framework up on SlideShare to help others access knowledge and experience that they won’t get from many agencies or so called ‘experts’:


  30. Great post. I had the feeling for quite some time now that for a lot of companies who jumped on the SM wagon reality settled in. All those early case studies made people believe SM is a guarantee for more customers and sales. In reality marketing has just a new channel with a hefty price tag.

  31. Hi,

    This was a really good read! I learned a lot.. Social sharing hmmm – I’m afraid it not really for me.. I am still very private and “shy”. I can’t see nor want to share my profile right left and center – I do not let in anyone!

    Just because so many people follow along… the masses .. Why?
    (Old story with “flies”….)

    I always ask myself… Do I want to .. Is this leading to something good? Maybe… So I can tag along on the side… To see!
    But really… Is facebook going anywhere? Twitter DID contribute to helping in many situations.

    So many social tools are a complete waste of time?
    Some can be helpful… But since time is the stuff LIFE is made of… I do not want to waste any!

    have a great day


    1. Hi Peter, yes, sometimes sharing doesn’t suit your needs/goals, so I’d understand your hesitation. Of course, you’re talking about a personal brand versus a company brand. A company brand needs to grow its followers (if that’s a goal) by contributing value.

      And I don’t think Facebook is going to fail. It’s my favorite social network by far.


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