Why is social so hard to get right?

The ‘messaging’ fallacy and standing outside the castle wall.


4/22/20166 min read

I was at a meeting with a potential client the other day, looking at their five-year old site and found myself talking about the two seismic shifts in digital comms — mobile and social.

Mobile I will talk about another day, but suffice to say mobile is a no-brainer. You simply have to have a good mobile experience or you are losing out. The stats are clear and probably your own habits of mobile use are enough to convince you that you need to have a good mobile presence.

But social… Social is still really hard for organisations to get on top of. How come?

What’s really difficult for organisations and businesses to understand is that social collapses the traditional communications and marketing professionals way of thinking and makes those operating models unfit for purpose.

I realise that’s a bold claim, so let me make my case.

‘Key messages’

Organisations with comms and marketing departments are in the habit of talking about ‘key messages’ and plan and deliver around them. It goes something like this:

  • The CEO/SMT and comms people look at their strategy and decide on a number of activities and plan the messages that will promote that activity.

  • Strategy > Ops plan > Comms/Marketing plan > delivery.

  • The messages are carefully bundled into PR, marketing campaigns or charity asks.

  • These campaigns are delivered to the target audience through online and offline media.

  • The comms teams waits for any reaction and tries to ‘reshape’ it, or simply reports on it.

  • Based on feedback they think about what else they will do in the next strategy round.

  • Rinse, repeat.

In all of this the comms or marketing person is operating from inside the ‘strategy wall’ of the organisation. Nothing that is not ‘on brand’ is allowed to ‘undermine’ the campaign. Where a campaign is active no staffers are allowed to react directly to any questions or critiques because that would risk them going ‘off message’. Comms and/or marketing handle that.

In this scenario the role of social is to deliver the message-bombs and then wait for their now-enlightened followers to magically hand these key messages around the internet for them. Some organisations will then use twitter to do some rebuttal and education, but it will be considered and highly professional. No one is meant to get burnt here.

This is all about social being another delivery mechanism, an apparently efficient and cheap way to ‘get your message out there’.

This approach seldom works. At best it’s naive and at worst it’s deeply patronising. People know what you’re doing. You are not setting the world alight with your carefully structured message, and the 8 seconds it’s at the top of someone’s timeline is generally a waste of a scroll, for you and them.

The comms team quickly tire of this — the activity level is too high for the return and they feel like they aren’t achieving anything. It is much more difficult to watch no one responding in real time than it is to do a mailout and be ‘happy’ with a 3% open rate. Social makes you confront the 97% and it’s a very large hole you are looking down.

Some organisations realise they are being a bit rubbish and try to up their game. They try to activate their Twitter work, upping the post frequency or pretending that it’s the CEO tweeting — and yeah, they write their own blog posts too right?

And this doesn’t work either. What’s going on? Why can’t organisations get their acts together?

There is a very long and in depth answer here (and it you are at all into this stuff then it’s an essential read) which somewhat addresses the always difficult ROI issue.

But my take on this is a question and two statements:

  1. Why should people give a damn?

  2. Twitter is an enthusiasts medium

  3. Comms & marketing has been over professionalised

  4. Why should people give a damn?

Point one is obvious, but bears repeating (endlessly). Why do you matter? What are you doing to prove this? Why should I take the time out from reading about climate change or Syria or watching cats to listen to you? Can you tell me that?

No, can you show me that? Can you actually achieve something on social itself? This is a key difference with social — if social sits inside comms exclusively then you have kind of missed the point. Social can be a working surface. Things can get done on social. Connections are made, questions answered, meetings arranged, offers made, people found.

There’s more to say about this but you get the point. Rather than ‘doing comms’ maybe you could make a difference. Then I might notice.

Social is an enthusiasts medium

Leading on from that take a look at the people who do well out of Social, those who have influence in your domain, I’m not talking about the celebs. They make a difference by being enthusiasts. They love their subject, they love what they do and would do it regardless of being paid.

Enthusiasts don’t have guarded conversations, they share their passion. It’s not about messaging and strategy. People who do twitter well are not concerned with saying the wrong thing. Everything they say is right because it is what they want to say — they are authentic, and have no intention of being anything else.

For someone of my generation (cough cough) used to thinking about communications very cynically (my diet at Uni was french post-structuralist theory) this honesty in a open channel is disarming. Its taken me a while to get used to it, but now I have realised that with good Twitter there is no particular spin. People just say what they mean in real time.

That sounds really obvious, but in the context of professional comms and marketing practice it’s radical. When did you last tell the truth? When did you last say what you mean? In real time?

It’s the enthusiast you are competing with on Twitter, not other Brands or organisations. Don’t index your social efforts against other organisations in your sector, index against the Enthusiasts, then you’ll start to see how it works.

I’m going to single out an acquaintance of mine who embodies this. Leon is the Digital Manager at the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) for whom he does an outstanding job on their digital channels, including twitter. If you check out his personal feed though you find out that he really cares about social and about enabling charities in particular to understand and use it. There’s no ‘angle’ with Leon, if you’re into social then following what he has to say is all benefit.

Comms & marketing has been over professionalised

Leon works for an enlightened organisation, but normally the Enthusiast position is deeply incompatible with traditional professional comms & marketing. The aim of old-school (by which I mean most current) corporate PR, comms and marketing is to control message and manage reputation — you are seeking to own the viewpoint.

The only kind of Twitter that you can do under that paradigm is a basic news and links stream. If social is a conversation then, by definition, you can’t have a conversation that you seek to control — that’s called shouting. Give someone a gun and it’s called fascism. If you’re just shouting then your social becomes just another outbound channel. How far does shouting someone down in social settings get you? The dinner party invites will start drying up pretty soon.

To get the network effects of Twitter, the reach, you have to behave differently. You have to take the enthusiast position and step outside the safety of ‘the message’ and encourage the conversation.

This is a terrifying place for most organisations to be. They just can’t handle it. My suspicion is that many organisations simply cannot live up to what they say about themselves. Their messaging puts them in a position which they cannot back up if they had to enter a conversation about it.

As social is a conversation between enthusiasts you have to be prepared to be asked questions and respond. There is simply no way around this. And this is the problem with over-professionalised comms and marketing teams — they tie themselves in knots because they are looking for all the permutations of the question from the organisation’s point of view, running it through the strategy machine and finding a way to answer the question that will keep everyone happy.

I’ve seen this in person. A simple question on twitter or facebook sends the comms head into a blind panic and into an hour-long meeting with the CEO to clarify the organisation’s position. It’s a monumental waste of time, particularly in charities where the cost of that hour is less benefit delivered to end users.

A question on Social could unmask any number of things: It might be a hesitant and stuffy CEO. It might be your organisation delivers a rubbish service.

If there is something like this that is undermining the authenticity of an organisation and will not stand a good poke with a sharp stick, then that organisation has a real problem. Social, by putting the conversation on the outside of the messaging framework, means that any weaknesses like this could be exposed. It’s not an inevitability, it’s a risk — and an unmanageable risk — and most organisations can’t handle that.

This means that comms and marketing will be directed to come back inside the traditional outgoing-only comms framework. If the organisation is built on metaphors of control, containment and risk rather than conversation, transparency and network you won’t have the tools and support to make the leap into social successfully. I would argue further that charities are morally inadequate if they don’t operate from a conversational position — but that’s a post for another day.


The organisation wants to control the message and minimise risk — let’s call that ‘shout and run’. Social works best with people who will stand and talk and listen — let’s call that ‘stay and talk’. You can’t shout and run AND stay and talk at the same time.

So what do you do?

That’s something I will start to look at in my next blog post, where we look at how to work inside organisations that want to do command and control comms and marketing.