The following is an account* of my personal and professional experiences in the business world after years spent in Academia. Overall, both are terribly dysfunctional at present for a variety of reasons. Those reasons would fill volumes, but our focus here is Social Media Marketing. There are universities and institutions that are doing it well, and there are businesses that are doing it well. What they have in common is a group of smart, savvy, creative people who see the bigger picture. They refuse to be boxed in or limited by old-fashioned restrictive models that leave no room for innovation or individual expression. They embrace the technology, applications and cutting edge strategies that are driving every aspect of life today.
In short, they “get” Social Media and they encourage – even require – their people to engage it as a matter of policy. It is highly effective outreach. It’s where marketing lives today. It’s just good business. The institutions and businesses that are failing are the ones that refuse to acknowledge it. They stubbornly cling to obsolete business models and can’t even entertain the idea that these smart, savvy, creative people might actually know what they’re talking about. To borrow an Internet meme: Don’t be that guy. This is a cautionary tale…
This is not a Love Song
I used to be the Sales & Marketing Manager for a start-up company that built high end, ultra energy efficient, eco-friendly custom homes. Prior to that, I was a Sales Associate and Social Media Manager for the first iteration of that company. It failed in quite an ordinary fashion and it was not entirely unexpected, given the times. The company, founded in 2007, dissolved its partnership in 2011 at the height of the housing crisis. Admittedly, that is most certainly the primary reason the company failed. They were in the business of building homes, and few could afford their product.
But the marketing blunders were too egregious and numerous to be ignored. They did not effectively communicate the value of their product to the people who could afford it and would be the most interested in it – namely city-dwelling, educated professionals in their late 20’s to early 40’s who were forward-thinking, Progressive technophiles. They didn’t know the company existed because the company didn’t meet them where they lived. That demographic no longer subscribes to print newspapers, and yet the company wasted thousands on full-page ads in the New York Times and other publications. They have their closely-guarded e-mail accounts on lockdown so that the slick e-blast the company spent time and money creating just languished in SPAM folders, unopened.
They claimed to be a “green” company, and yet printed shelves full of very expensive, multi-color brochures, booklets, floor plan catalogs, press kits and informational DVDs that sat gathering dust, undistributed. It costs nothing to format that literature for pdf and link to it on the company website. YouTube, likewise, is free. That informational DVD could have been posted there with a link to it on the website.
No one in the company seemed to have the vision or openness to new ideas to respect Social Media, anticipate its growth and importance, or take advantage of its marketing potential. If Digital Marketing was a novel concept to them, Social Media was like an advanced alien race – utterly foreign and therefore difficult to grasp. This is, I maintain, an important factor in the company’s failure. If you are engaged in a business that provides a service or product in a saturated or shrinking marketplace, then innovation, distinctiveness and differentiators are absolutely vital. Something must separate you from the pack.
My attempts to engage in a couple basic platforms (Facebook and twitter) went largely ignored. I had no support, no budget, and no encouragement. In fact, when I went to the Regional Sales Manager (to whom I reported) and asked him if I could start a blog for the company I was told it wasn’t necessary, that actually we already had one and I wouldn’t be allowed to start a second one because it might confuse the message. Notice I was not asked to contribute to the existing blog, simply told I couldn’t start my own. That was the end of the conversation.
I had been with the company for about 4 months at the time and this was the first I was hearing of this blog. As a new hire in the Sales & Marketing Department, why wasn’t I told about the blog on Day 1? Why wasn’t it company policy to require all employees to read the blog on a regular basis? Why wasn’t everyone in the company, or at the very least everyone in the Marketing Department, encouraged to submit articles or links for publishing consideration? The blog appeared to be the personal domain of the CMO and the Director of Marketing, neither of whom were in my office or even in my state. In fact, our office didn’t really have a true Marketing Department. I was trying to cobble one together, but kept getting resistance from the “real” Marketing Department. We were dependent upon them for all our materials and they had a decidedly tin ear when it came to marketing to a Southern audience. They are…not Southern. Marketing 101: Know Your Audience.
That factor made it even more important for us to establish a separate and distinct voice from the Midwest Office. Not different – the branding and messaging needed to remain consistent – but just slightly warmer, more relaxed and inviting. Not so coldly technical and Madison Ave slick. I fought an uphill battle. It was made clear to me that whatever I did in regards to Social Media on behalf of the company would go unappreciated when Robert, one of the partners, walked into my office and “caught” me posting to Facebook. In the office. DURING BUSINESS HOURS! I explained to him that I was logged into the company’s page and was uploading progress pictures from the house we were building. I was told to “stop wasting time and start doing [my] job.”
I survived the first three rounds of layoffs and finally got caught up in the fourth and final. I was unemployed for six months, but I remained active. In that time I built, launched and provided starter content for a small business blog; consulted on Social Media Strategy for an online sports talk radio show; and continued to up my Social Media cred by taking advantage of free resources available through articles and RSS Feeds on sites like TechCrunch and Mashable; and through Marketo’s free online webinars and white paper downloads. Just to name a few.
Second Verse, Same as the First
Almost exactly six months later, someone from the old company came calling. First, he simply wanted the login information for the Facebook and twitter accounts I had created. I handed them over. Then, he asked for some advice regarding, “well…just what the Hell is it we’re supposed to do with these, anyway? Bryce is insisting we do this.” Two of the four partners from the original firm, Donald and Robert, had broken away, closed up shop on the old company, took on a third partner – Bryce, a former client of the old company – and re-launched with essentially the same product but new management and a slightly modified business plan.
They had tightened belts and timelines, and effectively applied value engineering to a portfolio of revamped floor plans. They were on the right track. And their new partner was a real marketing guy. He was a true innovator with a solid background in digital marketing and Web 2.0 applications, including Social Media. He looked around and quickly realized no one understood a word that was coming out of his mouth when he talked Social Media. And while he understood Social Media as a concept, recognized its potential, and knew it was now an expected part of any business’s marketing plan his personal experience with it was limited.
He had a personal Facebook page, and was a moderate user, but that was the extent of his experience. He had never created a Social Media Calendar, built a blog, analyzed data from Facebook Insights or Google Analytics, or wrote copy for SEO. The company needed a Social Media specialist who could also do “regular” marketing as well as some sales. They needed me. After the third e-mail exchange whereby I gave away my pearls of wisdom for free, I (half)jokingly wrote, “one more e-mail and I’m going to charge a consulting fee. HAHA!!” The next morning the CEO’s assistant called me to come in for a meeting.
When I arrived for my interview/first day of work, I caught them in an impromptu branding and corporate ID brainstorming session. It was like I had never left. I jumped right in and Bryce and I knew we were on the same page. Things were looking up!
Over the next two months the two of us worked closely together to build the new company’s image and vision from the ground up. Part web design charrette, part old school textbook branding exercise, we went through all the boilerplate stuff for establishing a new business in the 21st century and launched a company and a product that was fresh, cutting-edge and sophisticated but still inviting, engaging and approachable. I was tasked with creating and maintaining Facebook, twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest accounts as well as a blog. I was in heaven. FINALLY someone got it.
And then Donald and Robert started getting in their own way. They weren’t seeing results fast enough. No one was buying our product (this was during the worst of the housing crisis; no one was buying anyone’s product) and they weren’t willing to let the marketing do its work. They were nervous, impatient and short-sighted. Those aspects were exacerbated by stubbornness and resistance to change. The marketing budget was the first to feel it. “Gotta trim that ‘fat,’ you know. It’s responsible business!” It’s a fatal mistake.
With less and less of my time being devoted to generating content and boosting our SEO, we fell farther and farther off the radar. Engagement tapered off, then plummeted, and soon disappeared. The phones stopped ringing. Salesforce may as well have been called Superfluous. We closed our office and all started working from home. People became directionless. We were unceremoniously dropped from payroll and lost our benefits. Morale was at an all-time low. Bryce wanted out; it wasn’t what he signed on for. It wasn’t what I signed on for, either.
Once, Twice, Three Times a Failure
But Donald and Robert refused to give up the ghost just yet. An upswing in the market was just around the corner; everyone could feel it building. They decided to leave Business A on the back burner for a while until new housing starts picked up and the banks started issuing construction loans once again. But we needed something to occupy our time, generate income, and keep the lights on. They established a plan to open a line of credit and buy foreclosures, renovate and flip them.
Business B was destined for failure right from the start. It was disorganized and directionless, without the resources required for the most basic of start-ups. No thought or care was put into the company’s identity or mission and every time I attempted to bring up the subject or take the initiative to do it on my own I was either redirected to another task or outright ignored. Because there was no general marketing plan to speak of, naturally Social Media was completely dismissed. It’s still a joke to them. Actually, I don’t think it is even on their radar.
All of my advice, statistics, facts, PowerPoint presentations, and professional opinions – the things they were paying me to provide them with – were ignored, ridiculed or dismissed. I was kept busy with a broad spectrum of responsibilities that ranged from performing due diligence and preparing a comparative market analysis on a home we had control of to fixing Donald’s afternoon espresso and picking up Robert’s son from the clinic and taking him home. For the record, I am not a Real Estate Agent, a secretary or a nanny. And I don’t wish to be any of those things.
We had a temperamental crew, no construction project manager, one incompetent bookkeeper, and a stressed-out marketing person who was now tasked with selling homes that weren’t ready to be listed, and promoting a business that was nowhere near ready for launch. I had no equipment, no materials and no budget. And yet, I was expected to generate sales leads for a renovation program we couldn’t deliver and procure buyers for houses we didn’t own. Did the business falter? You bet. Did we make costly mistakes? I’d rather not think about the exact figure. Did we learn from those mistakes, regroup and refocus, take the necessary steps to establish the business properly and throw some real money into a serious marketing campaign? I’d love to tell you this story has a happy ending.
Margin call on that line of credit looms. One house is under contract but may not close in time to meet it. The other two are still stripped down to their skeletons with tens of thousands of dollars of work left to be done. We came in over budget and far beyond the timeline on the house that is completed, severely cutting into the profit margin we’ll be lucky to make. In the meantime, pressure is on to bring in more revenue. We’re all supposed to be out there selling! Selling! Selling! “Selling what, exactly?” I ask. The business! The houses! Our services! What business? What houses? What services? We have no corporate identity, no housing inventory ready for list, and no way to provide the services we say we perform. And even if we did, we have no PLAN.
Through all of the changes we’ve made in three versions of the same company that keeps failing, one thing remains the same: the mistakes we keep making. It is no longer possible to build a company with just a flyer, a phone number and a smile. You have to go digital, even if it is only in very small ways. At the very least, if you cannot afford the most basic of websites, create a Facebook page. You will need some web presence to which you can direct your prospective clients. Because they will ask. The world lives in the Web now.
It is the Digital Age and there is no going back. WiFi, 4G, laptops, tablets, smartphones; these are your amplifiers. But Social Media is the microphone. The digital engine that powers those devices allows people to share your idea more widely and quickly than we’ve ever been able to in the history of humanity. Information travels at the speed of light across continents, across platforms and among vast networks of people who share interests, habits, and buying patterns. And that is amazing and important. But it’s just a body. It has no heart; it has no voice.
Social Media facilitates that voice. It tempers the Internet’s reach and brings it down to a deeply personal level. It brings communities together and builds neighborhoods. It joins people together who may not have otherwise met. It introduces a Foodie all alone in a new city to a friendly local gastro pub. It’s where you find your next computer, your next car, your next love, your next night out, and yes…your next home. If you have an idea or a product worth sharing, you can’t afford to be antisocial. You have to step up to the mic.
*All names and many details have been changed to protect the innocent, the guilty and ME.