With macro-economic uncertainty continuing in numerous markets around the globe, some chief marketing officers (CMOs) at large multinational companies are already being forced to make dramatic budget cuts to both their staffing levels and the associated annual operating budget.
One key area of marketing that’s going to be hit particularly hard is the Corporate Social Media team.
These organizations — led by people who consider themselves as “Social Media Experts” — are notorious for having difficulty justifying their leap-of-faith expenditures. But the savvy senior executive is no longer intimidated by their jargon, or tolerant of their demands for greater budget allocations. Game over.
Experts, or not, they’ve now come under the close scrutiny of their CEO — just as their counterparts in the legacy PR department did during the end of the 20th century. What’s happening here — and why is it surfacing now?
The High-Cost of Low-Quality Business Communication
B2B Social Media teams have a similar problem that their PR team peers have had historically — explaining to senior executives why they need so many people, consuming so much money, to produce so little in the form of an apparent return on investment (ROI).
And yet, this situation is actually a huge upside opportunity for new thinking. Let me explain.
Part of the problem stems from the apparent identity crisis these groups have inherited, as a by-product of the pervasive legacy media-buyer mentality within large company marketing departments.
Within the Technology, Media and Telecom (TMT) industries (my focus), the B2B corporate PR staffers rarely interact with the “Public” and their primary “Relations” are with outside agencies and contractors — i.e. where they outsource much of the real work. Perhaps a more accurate name for these organizations is the Press Release Production department — since that’s often seen as their primary deliverable.
Furthermore, over time, the corporate PR staff function has evolved into a program management role that provides coordination between the internal demand for publicity and the external supply of the strategy and execution that’s performed by a skilled and proficient outsider(s).
Missing the Essential Value-Added Component
That being said, I remember a time when people in large company corporate communications roles were required to be actively involved in assessing the marketplace, performing a situation analysis and then creatively crafting several alternative strategies before deciding on the best plan of action.
Only then would someone write a first draft of the storyline that would eventually result in a press release. They would proactively reach out to “brief” the best-fit industry analysts, mainstream journalists and independent columnists that were known to cover that particular topic. In most cases, the industry trade media was likely the chosen channel used for distribution — it was perceived to have the greatest reach.
What changed? Today, the strategic thinking and all of that traditional in-house PR work is now often performed by someone that doesn’t work on the corporate payroll. The typical end-result, many press releases lack context or a strong narrative with a distinctive point of view.
This common problem is compounded when the content is about an inherently complex technical product or service scenario that requires the lead strategist and the narrative author to possess core-business acumen and deep-domain industry knowledge or experience.
More often than not, the resulting attribute-lite PR output is clearly not newsworthy. It’s lacking in both meaning and substance. It’s not a coherent and compelling story — with a beginning, middle and an end. It relies mostly on the brand’s reputation as “a key industry player” to gain traction in the marketplace.
Given this backdrop, is it any wonder why CEOs are puzzled that they’re being asked to fund this expensive and frequently ineffectual exercise at current levels? When you consider the staff salaries and benefits involved, then add in the cost of their outsider program spend, the obvious question will naturally surface — isn’t there a better way that’s proven to be more effective?
How Most Social Media Teams Offer a Non-Solution
For clarity, let’s imagine this evolving scenario from the perspective of an impatient CEO.
In the TMT industry space, the collapse of the traditional trade media means that there are now fewer places to pitch old-school press release content. Granted, you can still find some media outlets that will gladly trade online exposure of your inert content (in return for paid-sponsorship of their event).
Regardless, the CMO preferred to create and populate a Social Media Marketing team. They may have transferred people in from the legacy PR and Marcom groups, and gave them “cool” or funky job titles. An outside Social Media consultant — hired by the Lead Expert — then proclaims that it’s all totally awesome.
The CEO merely groans in disbelief, as the Lead Expert finds new ways to spend more money.
Opportunistic social media software vendors are then quickly brought in with tools, to help build a very cool “Social Media Listening Center” — it didn’t seem to matter that the business imperative was unclear.
The CEO asked, but what are they “listening” for exactly? And what was the anticipated outcome of this voyeuristic activity? The response is often incoherent. So, the CEO wonders, maybe when our customers or sales prospects make remarks about our product and service offering in social networks, then the Experts would step in to offer thoughtful and insightful commentary. That’s a logical expectation, right?
By and large, that type of meaningful and substantive online engagement would require informed, experienced and knowledgeable people to react to what’s being displayed on those social monitoring tools. So, there’s no way to avoid it, we’re back to the talent issue. What to do next? That’s when the agencies and contractors were called upon, once again.
Meanwhile, it’s still hard to extract an acceptable ROI (business-related outcomes) from semi-skilled program managers. These internal Social Media Experts say they aren’t capable of being actual practitioners, due to technical content complexity issues. But that’s precisely what the CEO was expecting — employee engagement online that was impactful.
So, just what are these Social Media Experts doing with their time?
The Experts still won’t invest the effort to learn about their employer’s industry, nor the product or service portfolio — but they will find the time to give presentations and be on panels at conferences that focus on everything Experts would ever want to know about social media best practices.
After all, they likely still believe that Social Media is a profession; it’s the career they want to pursue. But there’s a huge problem: the people that choose to follow the Experts online are their peer group; not the buyers and purchase influencers that fit the company’s target persona profiles. Therefore, the CEO discovers the golden rule of online Social Influence — “You Are What You Share.”
Damn those cute cat videos and cuddly puppy photos. Curse those Social Media manifestos. What to do next? The CEO now warms up to the CMO’s “plan B” idea — position a few key internal executives as industry “thought-leaders” that share content with the company’s primary stakeholders online.
Yes, Thought-Leadership Requires Leading Thoughts
In my experience, this is easier said than done. It’s a fact; researching and developing meaningful thought-leadership is a significant undertaking, even for large companies that have dozens or hundreds of people with the words “marketing communications” in their job description.
Again, we’re back to the talent issue. Most of the senior executives are too busy to work on thought-leadership projects. Besides, those executives that can find time often struggle to produce something that’s truly enlightening. The few that can articulate something profound may still have difficulty writing a coherent narrative. What to do next?
The quest for a solution frequently focuses on attempting to find an internal ghostwriter that can perform the thinking, the analysis and the writing. This approach, and especially outsourcing the whole task to outsiders, can be very problematic. Keep in mind how easy it is to “out” someone online that isn’t authentic.
It’s one thing to credit a quote to an executive in a press release — knowing they didn’t say those words — but it’s a much bigger issue when you try to build-up the persona of an unknown thought-leader and then present that individual online for public scrutiny.
Amplification is No Substitute for Authentic Influence
But even if you boldly decide to take that risk, the newcomer thought-leader’s market reach and influence is somewhat limited, because they likely had no prior online presence. Now the challenge is compounded, because the investment must be made to promote the neophyte thought-leader and try to raise awareness. What to do next?
One solution that seems to be gaining favor is the notion of using social media amplification — that’s where you reach out to all your marketing employees and instruct them to use their own personal Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts to promote the “chosen” company thought-leader.
But wait, there’s another huge risk with this approach. What happens to all the investment in time and effort when the exalted executive with the elevated online persona decides to leave the company and join a competitor? It’s a rhetorical question; I’ve seen it happen. The pain was somewhat predictable.
When you place this much emphasis on the visions and perspectives of one or two people, and think through some worse case scenarios, then the major flaws of this top-down thinking will become blatantly obvious. Besides, it’s proven to be so much more effective when you promote the recognized authentic (real) thought-leaders — regardless of their job title —that already exist in large companies.
A Return to Quality-Centric Business Narrative
I believe we’ve reached an inflection point. It’s a crossroads where CMOs can choose communication quality over mere quantity. You see, the savvy CEO now realizes that mass quantities of bland and barren content gives the Social Media Experts lots of busy-work to fill their days, but it rarely contributes to actual core-business goals.
In a follow-on editorial, I’ll explain how CMO’s can raise the bar of expectations for their internal staff right now, and start down the path of being in a much better position to take back both the control and the execution of their essential corporate marketing communications.