On uncertainty, case studies and the Great Race to be Second

People behave in many different ways that when they are unsure what is expected of them, but one of the most common is to hang back and watch what others do. It’s often a smart tactic. It allows us to observe the behaviours and expectations of others, see how transgressors are dealt with and, in the light of that information, choose a course of action which we hope will result in a good outcome for ourselves whilst avoiding the wrath of those around us.

This tactic breaks down when either the crowd doesn’t know what’s going on and so cannot clearly demonstrate the preferred or most effective behaviours, or when the crowd is simply wrong. In the first case, hesitancy can result in poor outcomes for everyone, and in the second case, bad decisions made by early actors result in bad decisions by those who copy them.

If you want a good example of extreme uncertainty, you need look no further than the use of social media in business. The last ten years has seen a transformation in the way that businesses and their customers communicate, and not just in terms of new tools arriving on the scene. There have also been major changes in expectations regarding tone, accessibility, and response times. Many of these changes are alien to business managers, young and old, who simply don’t know how to cope with them.

This uncertainty has resulted in a lot of people milling about, looking for examples of what other companies have done so that they can copy them. If you have absolutely no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, but you know that you have to do something, then it’s tempting to copy someone else. And the main way people find things to copy is by reading case studies.

The problem with case studies

The problem with relying on case studies as a learning tool is that they give readers a highly filtered view of reality. In fact, it’s often so filtered that it’s misleading.

The first issue is success bias: The projects that get written up and publisher are the ones that succeeded. It is very, very rare for a company to write a case study of a project that didn’t go as planned. Those are buried, unexamined by the public or by social media professionals.

This is a shame, because failures offer a lot of insights into how social media works, what people respond well to (or not), and what pitfalls exist. By publishing only successful case studies, we are robbed of the opportunity to learn from mistakes.

The second issue is glossing over: Projects which are ultimately deemed successful often include missteps and misunderstandings, yet these are again often airbrushed out of any resultant case study. Instead, you are given a narrative in which only successful decisions are made and everyone gets everything right first time.

Some companies are brave enough to include a section about ‘Challenges’, but usually these are just minor speed bumps that were overcome without affecting the overall outcome of the project. The truth is that most case studies have a skeleton or two in their closet, so you have to maintain a degree of scepticism because you are only being given half the story: The pretty half.

The third issue is that of context: Case studies are often only relevant to the company that executed the project at the time that they executed it. For example, a Facebook marketing case study from 5 years ago won’t be relevant in 2015, because Facebook has changed massively and the tactics that worked then may well fall flat now.

Even within one company, case studies may not be generalisable. For example, if you’re a publisher with a romance imprint and a factual imprint, it’s likely that what works for the romance audience won’t work for the factual audience, because what they want from social media interactions will be different.

Sure, some aspects of social media are universal, but the specifics of any strategy or campaign will depend on audience. So for a case study to be useful, you have to understand precisely the context and conditions in which the original project was implemented, how your situation differs from that, and how those differences will affect your own implementation of something similar.

If you’re going to go to all that trouble, you may as well start from first principles and learn how to construct a strategy from the ground up.

The Great Race To Be Second

A dependency on case studies can also mutate into something far, far worse: A refusal to act until someone else has demonstrated results first. This Great Race To Be Second is pervasive in the field of social media, and illustrates the extreme insecurity of those making the decisions.

No one gets fired for spending millions on Microsoft products, but spend a few thousand on an untried social tool and suddenly you may have to justify your decision. The easiest way to do this is to be able to point to the competition and say, “But this is what they’re doing!”

This way of thinking is incredibly problematic for several reasons:

  • Your competition might not actually know what they’re doing, so copying them can result in poor results for you
  • Your competition might be doing what’s right for them, but that might not be right for you
  • Waiting for someone else to go first introduces unnecessary delays and may give them the competitive advantage
  • Copying others can be a very shallow way of learning how to do something, resulting in only superficial knowledge
  • Copying others results in a loss of flexibility, as if your situation changes in a different way to that of your competition, you will have no one to copy and will lack the understanding needed to diverge from their path

Businesses must instead learn from first principles, developing a solid understanding of the foundations of social media in order to craft a strategy and roadmap that is right for their company, in their market, for their audience.

Waiting for others to move first and relying on their strategies to inform yours is a recipe for disaster, and not just because you’re ceding that first mover advantage to someone else. The Great Race To Be Second can only result in a substandard result, in both the short term through suboptimal strategy and execution, and in the long term through a failure to acquire the foundational knowledge needed to understand future changes in the social media landscape.

What are case studies good for?  

All of the above does not mean that case studies are entirely useless. They’re not, they can in fact be very useful indeed as sources of ideas. Seeing what other people have done and how they’ve done it can be provide inspiration, but other people’s projects should only ever be viewed as suggestive of possible avenues to explore, and must not be read as concrete recommendations.

Ultimately, your social media activity must be driven by the needs of your business, and the needs and wants of your audience. It will also be constrained by the limitations on your resources and the cultural expectations of your audience. So you cannot build a robust strategy piecemeal out of other people’s case studies because they do not take your specifics into account.

So, by all means, read case studies, but do so knowing that they are not blueprints for success, they are at best back-of-a-napkin sketches to be investigated further.

If you want to learn how to write your own tailor-made social media strategy, my online course is available for just $87 (£58) – a whopping 75% off – until 15 February. Udemy provides all students with lifetime access and a 30 day money back guarantee. 

Five social media myths debunked

A lot of myths about social media have grown up over the last decade, many of them now so commonly repeated that they’ve passed into received wisdom. Here I tackle five of the most pernicious.

1. Social media is for youngsters

The idea of the “digital native” is a pervasive one, telling us that young people somehow innately understand technology whilst older people are social media dullards incapable of truly understanding how it works. This idea is nonsense. The truth is much more mundane: Technological capability, interest and access varies as much amongst young people as it does amongst older people. And whilst young tech users may relate to their technology differently, that’s doesn’t mean that they have developed a deeper or more comprehensive understanding than older users.

It’s really important that business people understand this, because the myth of the digital native affects recruitment and promotion, often resulting in social media accounts being run by people who are too young and inexperienced to cope with being the public voice of a business. It also disadvantages older people who may know their business, market and audience better, and have all the communications skills needed to be successful in social media.

2. No one really knows what works on social media

Whilst social media is a new field — blogs have only been around 16 years, and most social networks are less than ten years old — the idea that we don’t know how it works or what to do is false. In fact, experienced practitioners have a very good idea of what works and what doesn’t, but because of the fickleness of human nature, no one can guarantee that a particular tactic will work at a specific time.

A good practitioner will know what tactics have the best chance of success, and which to completely avoid, dependent on the nature of their target audience and the content being produced. A well-crafted social media strategy will take into account the nature of your audience, assess your content assets and resources, and make sure you choose the right social media platforms based on your business needs.

3. You need to have a profile on every social network

It is better to maintain one social network profile really well than to sign up for lots and let most of them languish. The fear is that your audience will expect you to be everywhere and that to not have a presence shows a lack of interest in serving them. The truth is that small businesses do not have the resources to be everywhere, and people understand and accept this. But if you do have a profile then people will expect it to be active, so it’s better to not create the profile in the first place than to make one and let it lapse.

Furthermore, to the point of resources, every social media platform that you engage with comes with an opportunity cost: What else could you do with that time and money? If you are spending time, and therefore money, on using a social network that doesn’t actually support your business goals, eg it doesn’t result in more sales or more brand awareness, then you are wasting your resources. You should focus on the tools that are most likely to reach your target audience and support your business.

4. You must be on Facebook

Of all the social media tropes that I hear, this one is probably the most common. The logic is that Facebook has 1.35 billion “monthly active users”, and that to eschew Facebook is to miss out on a massive audience. There are two problems with this assumption. Firstly, it is getting increasingly difficult for small businesses to get value from spending time on Facebook. Changes to the platform’s algorithms mean that even if hundreds or thousands of people decide to like your page or join your group (which is in itself a challenge that’s getting harder to meet), only a small fraction of them will see any of your posts show up in their timeline. Facebook ultimately wants businesses to pay for their posts to be promoted, so it’s in their interests to make it harder to organically reach people, not easier.

Secondly, Facebook interactions tend to be shallow: People will share posts within Facebook, but are less likely to follow links and, when they do click, less likely to stay on the site they visit for more than 5 seconds. Is there any value to building up a large following on Facebook if people don’t visit your website or buy your products?

5. Social media strategies are a waste of time

Social media can be deceptive: It’s very easy to create an account on a social network such as Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr. They’re pretty easy to use too, excepting Facebook’s impenetrable privacy settings. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to successfully use social media for business.

Many businesses who just plunge on in end up using the wrong platforms and/or the wrong messaging, see poor results and give up thinking that social media isn’t right for them or their business. In actual fact, what they needed was to think strategically about what they want to get out of their social media use, who they are talking to, and what those people will want to hear.

Using social media for business without a strategy is rather like going for a walk without a map: You might get where you want to go, but you might also end up going down a lot of dead ends, wasting a lot of time and could even get so frustrated trying to find your way that you give up.

If you want to learn how to write your own tailor-made social media strategy, you can get 50% off my online course using the code SA150120. Udemy provides all students with lifetime access and a 30 day money back guarantee. 

A fun way to earn revenue with newspaper archives

Sheboygan Press 107th Anniversary edition
The cover of the Sheboygan Press 107th Anniversary edition

The week before Christmas, the Sheboygan Press, one of the papers I edit, celebrated its 107th anniversary. Our business might be news, but our readers also love history. We run a weekly column from the head of the country historical society, and it’s really popular.

Seven years ago, for our centennial, we ran an anniversary edition and included a replica of our very first edition. For this edition, we decided to celebrate our birthday with a vintage styled newspaper with stories from throughout the decades.

As a new editor and a newcomer, it was a great way to learn about the history of the city and of the newspaper. I learned about Charles Broughton, who led the newspaper to become “one of the most influential, liberal papers in the state”. The graphic on the front page trumpeted many of his and the newspaper’s campaigns and accomplishments including the preservation of local wetlands.

Broughton was also a fierce anti-Prohibitionist, and on the front page of the commemorative edition, I included an editorial I assume he penned railing away against the Anti-Saloon League, which branded the Sheboygan Press a “bootleg newspaper”.

It was fascinating looking through our bound archives to see the features we had. Our paper used to have a society editor who chronicled just about everything when it came to the who’s who of Sheboygan. The society editor chronicled local teas, travel and social events. It’s odd that in this age of social media when we reveal just about everything to friends real and virtual that I find it a slightly creepy invasion of privacy to have this level of detail about the local goings on. Discuss.

In our first edition, the publishers ran an announcement of their intentions in launching the paper, and to be honest, there wasn’t much that I would change. They wrote:

IN PRESENTING this the first issue of the SHEBOYGAN DAILY PRESS, the publishers do so with a sense of deep responsibility mingled with feelings of pride that Sheboygan has now a daily morning paper and one that will represent the people and all classes of people.

…It is a hard matter to please everybody, and it would be foolish and futile for us to attempt to do that.

…Sensational stories and fake news will be given a wide berth. We realize that our city is a growing one and its interests will always receive our first thought. Anything that tends to advance Sheboygan and put it in the front rank will always have our cordial support. Of course there may be times when certain public affairs will demand attention and notice and when it may be difficult for us to take an impartial stand, but if such an emergency arises, as it surely will, the influence of the SHEBOYGAN DAILY PRESS will always be for what we consider the right.

When my news editor and I first came up with the idea, I felt like it was definitely one of the crazier things that we had come up with since I started. But I went to our ad director who let me know about the replica edition we had created for our centennial. The ad team embraced the idea. Actually, they didn’t just embrace it, they didn’t just run with it. They bloody well sprinted away with it. Initially, we were only going to run with four pages, but our advertisers loved the idea so much, they sold almost three pages of ads in a day. We added two more pages to the section. It’s a very nice thing to be adding pages to a mid-week edition because we have so much ad support.

We promoted the project on Facebook and even paid to ‘boost’ our posts to reach people beyond our normal audience. One post has 203 likes, which is pretty good going for a local newspaper.

I had a lot of fun putting the edition together, and I think that showed through with the edition. Our readers loved it and responded to it, and our advertisers really loved it too. What more could I ask for? We need to surprise, amuse and engage our readers more like this. It ended the year on a high note, and I am looking to carry that momentum into the new year. Happy 2015!