We're So Quick to Crown Social-Media Successes That We Forget What They're Actually Based On

If You Don't Have the Right Strategy, Good Tactics Won't Help You

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One of these tales is true; the other is not.

1) A couple of entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley created a company to develop an iPhone social-media app. Eighteen months later, they sold the company to Facebook for $1 billion in cash and stock.

2) A couple of entrepreneurs from Newark, N.J., created a company to develop a household product and promoted the brand exclusively with social media. Eighteen months later, they sold the company to Procter & Gamble for $1 billion in cash and stock.

1) Instagram. (2) No chance in hell.

Years ago, an out-of -towner was being shown the wonders of New York's financial district. Pointing out the handsome ships at anchor off Wall Street , his guide said, "Look at those brokers' yachts."

"But," asked the visitor, "where are the customers' yachts?"

A billion dollars is enough to buy a dozen yachts for Instagram investors. But what about the companies that advertise on the internet and are heavy users of social media—where are their yachts?

The Subservient Chicken
I've been collecting social-media success stories for many years. The portfolio is rather small. One example, mentioned by dozens of marketing pundits, is Burger King's Subservient Chicken.

One marketing professor said this:

"An early, hugely successful viral video campaign was "Subservient Chicken,' a website to introduce the BK Broiler Chicken Sandwich. It attracted millions of visitors, who shared the site with millions of their friends. The site generated hundreds of news stories and blog entries, and ... a nice sales lift for Burger King."

Per-unit sales at BK restaurants in the U.S. rose 7.2% the first year of the promotion and 2.9% the second. But the equivalent numbers at McDonald's were 9.5% and 4.7%. So was the "nice sales lift" a result of Subservient Chicken or a growing fast-food market?

Old Spice's The Man Your Man Could Smell Like
Old Spice's The Man Your Man Could Smell Like

The Man Your Man Could Smell Like
Old Spice launched this campaign with Isaiah Mustafa with a 30-second commercial during the 2010 Super Bowl. The spot was a hit on video-sharing websites, such as YouTube, where it has received more than 41 million views. (It won the Grand Prix for film at the 2010 Cannes Lions.)

Old Spice capitalized on the campaign's notoriety by producing a number of online videos featuring Mustafa.

Procter & Gamble announced in 2011 that Fabio would be the Old Spice pitchman, leading to a rebellion among Mustafa fans and a poll on which hunk viewers preferred. A "Mano a Mano" video featured a good-natured confrontation between them.

The campaign boosted sales, but by how much? And how much of the increase was attributable to the TV spots and how much to the social follow-up?

'The Hunger Games'
The movie has just passed the $600 million mark, which makes it the highest-grossing film of the year by far.

A New York Times headline on March 19 read, "A digital blitz for Hunger Games rewrites Hollywood's marketing script." The article said that "the dark art of movie promotion increasingly lives on the web, where studios are playing a wilier game, using social media and a blizzard of other inexpensive yet effective online techniques to pull off what may be the marketer's ultimate trick: persuading fans to persuade each other."

It went on to say that "the campaign's centerpiece has been a phased, yearlong digital effort built around the content platforms cherished by young audiences: near-constant use of Facebook and Twitter, a YouTube channel, a Tumblr blog, iPhone games and live Yahoo streaming from the premiere."

Not until 10 paragraphs in did the Times mention that when the movie opened there were more than 24 million copies of "The Hunger Games" trilogy in print in the U.S. (I wonder what might have happened to "John Carter" if 24 million copies of a book had been circulating the day the movie opened.)

Though both print and the web made "The Hunger Games" movie a success, would it have been a blockbuster without the book?

Brands built on the web
The internet is exceptionally good at promoting web, not physical, brands.

The entrepreneurs who launched Google, Facebook, YouTube, Groupon, Pinterest and LinkedIn (and the venture capitalists who backed them) can afford yachts. But what about their partners, what about the advertisers using the web and social media to build their businesses?

Where are the customers' yachts?

It's hard to find success stories that match those of Instagram and their ilk. Yet social media has so captured the imagination of the marketing community that no one seems to want to talk about anything else.

If you don't have the right strategy, good tactics won't help you very much. And social, like all media, is a tactic. What concerns me is that too many marketers have elevated tactics -- especially those of social media -- to the level of strategy.

Or even worse.

The death of strategy
"We don't just live in a VUCA world -- a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world -- we live in a super-VUCA world," Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, recently said. "We live in a vibrant world where our kids are connecting to each other and to brands across the world with no money involved."

"Strategy is dead," Mr. Roberts proclaimed. "Who really knows what is going to happen anymore . ... The more time and money you spend devising strategies, the more time you are giving your rivals to start eating your lunch."

This idea isn't new. When I worked at Needham, an ad agency that later became part of DDB, strategy was an afterthought.

What was important was "creativity." You made the work you thought would knock the socks off judges at awards contests and "backed down" the strategy. That is , you began with the advertising, and then asked yourself what you could invent to justify it. You designed a client presentation that focused on a problem your advertising was going to solve.

If social media's the solution, what's the problem?
Though that 's the question everyone appears to be asking, I'm not sure it's the right one. It seems the order should be reversed: What's the problem? What's the strategy to address it? Which tactics to we use to execute the strategy?

Strategy should dictate tactics, and coming up with a good one is difficult.

Take Burger King. After decades of copying McDonald's line extensions with little success, you might think the fast-food chain would have reversed direction and focused on burgers instead of chicken.

But, no. Subservient Cow just isn't as funny as Subservient Chicken.

Al Ries is chairman of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm he runs with his daughter Laura.

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