Social Media Campaigns: DotCom Déjà Vu (All Over Again)

A colleague forwarded me this Business Insider article, “Why I Will Never, Ever Hire a ‘Social Media Expert,’” because he thought I would like it. He was right. I liked it, on Facebook, along with 9,000+ others. I also happen to agree with many of the points raised by its author, Peter Shankman. One being that you can’t make a great sandwich if you only know how to pull the bread out of the fridge. Translation: You can’t build a great brand campaign, if you only know how to tweet.

Shankman equates the social media craze to the DotCom saga, Redux:

We’re making the same mistakes that we made during the DotCom era, where everyone thought that just adding the term .com to your corporate logo made you instantly credible. It didn’t. If that’s all you did, you emphasized even more strongly how pathetic your company was. You weren’t “building a new paradigm while shifting alternate ways of focusing customers on the clicks and mortar of an organizational exchange.” No—you were simply an idiot who’d be out of business in six months.


Having owned a brand development studio during the DotCom years, I concur with Shankman. When the Internet first came on the corporate scene, most of my clients were racing to get online. In their defense, there was tremendous pressure to be in and on it––and to do it first. Before anyone really knew what “it” was. In that panicked environment, I found that I could easily charge more for the bells and whistles of programming, where the m.o. of the day was “the splashier, the better.” It was more of a struggle, however, to get clients to pony up for content development (i.e., What’s the message your programming bells and whistles are supporting?). “Creatives” right out of school who could dazzle you with seemingly magical Flash and html skills were coming out of the woodwork. Everyone under 25, it seemed, was a Web master. But these fresh young things held no real understanding of the larger brand picture or of client objectives and how to meet them. Web disaster was more like it.

Today, I see a similar trend. Many design schools are churning out the savvy “social media techie,” but again, this new wave of “experts” have no real handle on traditional marketing. As a result, for all their specialized tech skills, these folks only offer fragmented viral work. Companies are jumping to get Twitter accounts activated and Facebook fan pages up, more often than not with half-baked ideas. Almost every single ad spot on air right now is tagged with a Facebook URL or a Facebook logo. In fact, the only thing that I’m remembering now at the end of all the commercials is “Facebook,” not the brands or products being promoted. The only genius in that equation is Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has the whole corporate world advertising for his company, and he doesn’t have to spend a dime. The upshot: Clients are once again putting the cart before the horse. And if you think I’m overstating the point, go check out some open online job listings. How is it that companies are offering jobs for “social gurus” at $100K and entry for marketing mavens at $30K?

The hype won’t last forever. Consumers know the real thing when they see it. As we came to understand after the inevitable bust, the DotCom era only offered new ways to communicate and interact with customers. Social media channels and platforms, too, are only offering new outlets for interaction. None of which trumps the pillars of traditional brand building. The real power of social media, if utilized correctly with a fully baked brand plan, is that you can now connect with customers and target audiences with great accuracy—and in real time.

For example, let’s take a look at the early 2010 Domino’s Foursquare promotion that ran in the UK, which was mentioned a lot in the online responses to Shankman’s rant. (Reading through posted comments, by the way, is the equivalent of watching bad reality TV. You can expect a lot of ego, poor grammar, out-of-context verbal bashing.) As a rebuttal to Shankman, one commenter cited the Domino’s Pizza Foursquare promotion as an example of a successful “social media” campaign that used no “classic marketing techniques.” Quick recap of the campaign itself: The promotion basically rewarded folks with free pizza and/or side dishes for checking in on the social web app Foursquare when they went to Domino’s. It’s true that the CEO linked Domino’s 29% gain in profits to its success with Foursquare, along with other social media initiatives. But let’s also not forget the obvious: Rewarding loyal, frequent customers with free or discounted food was hardly new. One might even have called it a classic marketing technique—and given that fast food tends to thrive in a recessionary climate even when you charge for it, the giveaway promotion was blessed from inception. Domino’s recently revised recipes and menu offerings likely contributed to the success of the campaign and overall company performance as well. Ultimately, the campaign was a multi-faceted effort, supported by traditional media tactics and media buys. The winning formula to the Domino’s Foursquare promotion was a well-rounded effort that embodied “classic marketing techniques”: a good product paired with a message that appealed to its audience. The innovative part was that Domino’s utilized a location-based social app as its vehicle for the campaign.

The more relevant Domino’s “example,” to my mind, perhaps because it’s the sort of snafu we see more and more frequently, is the 2009 incident in the U.S.: The pizza chain was faced with a social media-inspired PR crisis when two employees created a less than appetizing video that went viral. The video was viewed over a million times. At first, Domino’s management decided to wait it out silently in hopes that the problem would go away. It didn’t. In fact, Domino’s lack of response further fueled the outrage. Domino’s learned two things quickly. First, nothing online dies on the vine. Second, the only way to control and solve a PR nightmare is to rely on traditional thinking and strategy: You gotta step in and put out the fire. (Duh.) With no social expert onboard, Domino’s management got a crash course in this new medium called social media. And trust me, the company took very deliberate, conscious “classic” steps when moving forward with all promotions after that—including the Foursquare tactic.

So, what’s the bottom line here? That marketing mavens should be paid more? 😉 That Shankman should be less hyperbolic? That Domino’s Pizza is today’s big cheese in corporate, social-media circles? How about this: Whether you’re ordering a sandwich, pizza, or a social-media program, going à la carte will likely end up costing you more in the end.

Filed: branding, crisis management, crisis pr, social media

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