Echo chamber: Social media strategists are talking to themselves

We may praise ourselves for our insight. But more often than not, none of that matters. The key decision makers that are creating and implementing these campaigns don’t care what we think.

* Jennifer Leggio is on vacation

Guest Editorial by Jonathan Trenn

Social media strategists are talking to themselves

Lately I've been thinking a lot about social media as an industry. Or as a field. It's very new. We're still finding ourselves. We're trying to figure out exactly what it is. What the parameters are. Who should lead it within an organization. For that matter, we’re still struggling for a specific definition as to what social media actually is.

As far as social media strategists, we’re a tight lot. We’ll friend one another on Facebook, follow one another on Twitter, read one another’s blogs. We’ve formed a reasonably tight community in which we’ll evangelize to one another concepts such as authenticity and transparency, relevance and subtlety. We’ll say that companies today must listen. They must engage their communities. We’ll all agree with ourselves.

But at this point, that’s clearly not enough. And the first thing we must do is recognize this.

About a month ago Forrester came out with a study of 16 social networking efforts put together by brands and their agencies. They found that of the 16, a full 15 were failing to make the grade. According to their metrics, this is a 94 percent failure rate. And the primary reasons for these failures were that those that were implementing the campaigns were using traditional online methodologies, leading Jeremiah Owyang to state “many brands are wasting their time, money, and resources." That’s not harsh…it’s accurate and fair.

The negative consequences of what we would call poorly run campaigns may not be all that readily apparent either. They could be looked on as learning experiences, experiences that can be improved on the next time around. A tweak here, a tweak there. All done by the same players that were in the first go around.

Now many of us will say, in a somewhat frustrated and self-satisfied tone, that “they just don’t get it.” These senior advertising agency and PR firm execs or corporate CMOs and marketing directors don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to social media.

And you know what? We may be 100 percent correct in our observations. We may praise ourselves for our insight. But more often than not, none of that matters. The key people in these equations -- “Big Marketing” as I call them, the senior decision makers that are creating and implementing these campaigns -- don’t care what we think. They’re not listening to us. They’ve likely heard of many of the principles of which we speak. But they could give a rat’s ass about them or what we have to say. Instead, both we as strategists and the very principles that we’ve been espousing are ignored as they forge ahead.Before we surmise that it’s just a matter of time before the advertising industry undergoes a tremendous change and we’ll rise to the top to lead the way, we must remember that this is happening on the client side as well. Marketers on the client side usually call the shots and give a thumbs up or a thumbs down on these campaigns. This effectively doubles the challenges we face.

Part of this is the natural progression of industry evolution. But part of it is turf protection from inside players who seek to maintain their status within business relationships and to leverage the power and influence that comes with it. That can pose a big problem for those of us in social media.

Ad agencies and PR firms have the ears and thus the attention of their clients. Direct access. Often, we don’t. We’re battling for that attention, often from the vantage point of being outsourced to via the traditional agencies that had been ignoring much of what we have to say. Or we’re told by prospective clients that we may be considered for the implementation for the next campaign. Whenever that will be.

Now of course there will be exceptions. There will be case studies of successes here, key hires there. But not enough to really get us a seat at the table.

And that’s the crux of the problem. Ad agencies with traditional mindsets will be positioning themselves as “getting it” to clients who are fearful of change. Many of these agencies will have time to evolve enough to maintain their positioning with clients by telling these very clients, who will still somewhat fearful of change, exactly what they want to hear. Many of the clients won’t necessarily know better because they’re covering marketing from all angles and mediums.

The new strategic developments from these conversations may not be what we, as social media strategists, believe in. They may not be as effective as the things we espouse. We may find some of what is being proposed to violate the spirit of social media. But it still may be of no matter. That’s because we may not be able, as a whole, to fully penetrate the power structure of business relationships to develop the standing by which to challenge those traditional mindsets. Those ad agencies may well shift enough to block our inclusion in getting that proverbial seat at the table. They may do this by hiring “young people” recently out of school (which is fine) who may be more willing to carry out what management wants. This may end up fortifying some “bad” practices, but those practices may be fine tuned enough to keep the status quo.

That’s called business. Shoulder pads and sharp elbows. On what could be an uneven playing field. We can’t rely on our predictions that marketing is all changing and we’ll soon at the forefront. We may be, but there are no guarantees.

I see this all the time. The AdClub of Washington, D.C., will be holding their annual Advertising Week next month. It’s obviously put on by the region’s ad agencies. And while this area has some of the sharpest minds in the social media world and some of the most innovative technology companies, none of them are to be found on the roster of speakers. These experts with great stories to tell weren’t contacted or probably even thought of. Instead, the AdClub has political and local media personalities speaking. When it comes to social media, there’s a panel with sales reps from LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace. Attendees won’t get ideas and insights…they’ll get sales presentations.

Ironically, one of the last discussion topics started on the DC AdClub Facebook page was started by me…nine months ago. I asked where everyone was…the group was dead. I got no replies.

An analogy on relationships and the power of influence. I just read in the Washington Post that Pandora, the Internet based music radio service may soon collapse. That’s very unfortunate because services like Pandora are about the freedom of personal choice in which the customer is truly in control. There’s a certain idealism in that, just as there is in the way we talk about social media.

But what Pandora didn’t count on the fact that the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA) has a lot of clout when it comes to lobbying. So the RIA convinced a federal agency, the Copyright Royalty Board, to double the royalties that net radio stations must pay. Before it was doubled, it had already been twice the rate of what subscription radio pays. Commercial radio, at least according to the Washington Post, pays no royalties. Royalty payments are killing internet radio. Pandora and others barely had a seat at the table. The established players, who knew their way around, used their power and influence to get what they want. Hopefully, it’s not too late for Pandora and other net radio stations.

So how does this effect social media? It shows that, like Pandora, we’re going to have to learn our way on effectively building relationships with clients, agencies, and other key stakeholders in this unexplored territory. We’re going to have to learn how to dynamically position in the disparate roles we’ll be playing. We’re going to have to find our voices beyond the conversation we have with one another. Otherwise, it won’t be enough.

Jonathan Trenn is Director of the Washington Office of the social media marketing agency Abraham & Harrison. He has an extensive background in online marketing, media relations and publicity, and organizational and event management. In addition, having worked as a grassroots lobbyist and on political campaigns, he has a solid working grasp of the political arena.

He is a contributor to Abraham Harrison corporate blog Marketing Conversation. A graduate of Boston College, he is a single father and lives in Falls Church, Va., with his son Connor and faithful dog Fenway.