As a professor, I frequently give my students a real product from a fictional company and ask them to create a business strategy and marketing plan for it. They will then have five minutes to present their findings to the rest of the class.
They frequently confidently state in the first iteration of their plan that they will “use social media to do their marketing.” That is all there is to it. That is their entire marketing strategy. They quickly realize that following this simple advice is the fastest way to an F.
Although it is an all-too-common approach taken by businesses, flooding social media with information about your product is not good marketing. Many entrepreneurs believe that if they post something about their product on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter every day, they will eventually gain traction. That becomes the core and extent of their marketing strategy, just as it does for my students.
Social media platforms are simply channels through which you can disseminate your message. Only about 5% of the questions you need to ask are answered by determining which channels you’ll use in your marketing. Indeed, if the positioning and messaging aren’t right, it could be a complete waste of time and money, and even cause more harm than good.
It Isn’t a Magic Bullet
Let me be clear: I am not opposed to social media. Not at all! However, I meet far too many business leaders who believe that social media is a magic bullet that will instantly produce incredible results. As a result, they spend very little time or money figuring out how to effectively use these channels.
Before you start dumping content on social media, think about the customer journey. Keep in mind that social media channels respond more quickly than more traditional channels. You will receive a response in seconds, as opposed to days or weeks for a response in print. Depending on how much thought you put into creating social media content, this can be positive or negative.
Another thing to remember about social media is that you have less control over it than you do with most other forms of media. When you start interacting with the public on social media, you’ll quickly realize that you’re just one of many people who have an opinion to share. It’s impossible to predict what kind of feedback or response you’ll get, and it might surprise you.
If you put up a billboard that the general public dislikes, someone may eventually climb up and spray graffiti on it. They might write angry letters to the editor if they don’t like your print ad. Social media feedback, on the other hand, begins as soon as you publish something, and it can come in a tidal wave that overwhelms you. You have some control, but for the most part, it’s a freewheeling adventure. If you aren’t prepared, your brand, product, or service may suffer as a result.
What Is the Message You’re Sending?
Unilever faced a significant backlash after running a four-panel ad for their Dove soap brand on Facebook in 2017. An African American woman is seen removing her shirt in the first two panels. She appears to have transformed into a white woman in the third and fourth panels after removing her shirt.
The ad “was intended to convey that Dove Body Wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity,” according to a Dove spokeswoman. However, it appeared to convey the idea that light skin equals cleanliness to the general public. The social media backlash was swift and harsh, and the brand was tarnished by accusations of tone-deafness at best and overt racism at worst.
The company quickly apologized and removed the ad, but the conversation had already moved beyond their control due to the nature of social media. The debate was shaped by the general public, and Unilever was essentially at their mercy.
This isn’t the first time a major corporation has unintentionally sent a racist message through social media ads. Burger King in New Zealand was fined in 2019 after posting an Instagram ad for a Vietnamese-themed sandwich that showed a white woman feeding the sandwich to an Asian man with comically oversized chopsticks.
“Take your taste buds all the way to Ho Chi Minh City,” read a caption above the video. The backlash was swift, and the fast-food chain quickly removed the video, but not before it had amassed 2.7 million views and thousands of angry comments.
Before you post, consider your options
These are just a few examples. If you make a mistake with your social media messaging, the backlash can start almost immediately. Even if you have the best of intentions, if you aren’t prepared, you may end up damaging your brand.
In retrospect, most of these examples appear to be blatantly stupid. So, why do these types of social media gaffes happen so frequently, even to the most reputable businesses?
Consider this: as CEO, you’ve most likely asked your marketing team to simply get some marketing materials out there as soon as possible so that people will notice and talk about your company. This is an open invitation to a new or inexperienced marketer to create something quickly.
Checking the box and getting the CEO off marketing’s back is easy with social media. However, as you can see, this is extremely dangerous because it can be done carelessly and result in unintended consequences.
Plan, analyze, and then put your plan into action
Before you publish content on any platform, including social media platforms, I strongly advise you to give yourself and your marketing team time to think about your targeting, positioning, and messaging. You need to socially distance yourself from social media first if you’ll pardon the pun because once you post, the conversation is largely out of your control.
Social media marketing is far from a silver bullet, and it necessitates careful thought and planning. It can, however, become an essential part of an effective marketing plan if you and your marketing team take your time and execute it wisely.