Failing Successfully In Corporate Social Media

The Internet is filled with rich information on how brands should engage in social media. From learning how to get started using platforms to more effectively engaging with your target audience or craft posts, it seems that tips and techniques for succeeding are everywhere.

But there’s another side to social that rarely, if ever, gets the same visibility: the fail.

The truth is that social media is an ongoing experiment in what works and what doesn’t. Doing it right isn’t about following a set of rules or even knowing ahead of time how to proceed. There will be failures along the way, and all brands stumble at one time or another while pursuing a social strategy. Learning how to fail successfully, though—that’s a different story.

A True Tale Of Trial And Error When asked to explain his success, Michael Jordan has been known to say, “I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Like Mr. Jordan, I’ve had my share of failures over the years, some more colossal and memorable than others.

One of the most egregious failures I’ve experienced happened at my previous job some six to eight years ago. While coordinating my company’s annual conference, I thought it made sense to give sponsors on the conference floor the opportunity to use Twitter as a way to provide real-time information to conference goers. We set up 60-inch television screens around the conference with a nice visual mashup of the tweets and the show floor, assigned Twitter accounts to each of the sponsors, and waited for the rush of tweets so that the sponsors could tell conference goers what was happening at their booth at any given moment. It was a #fail. Not only was Twitter as a social platform uncharted territory for most everyone at the time, but using it actually added to the confusion rather than alleviate it.

Testing is a huge part of driving social media success, and it’s these very missteps and unexpected bumps along the way that have cleared the path forward, shaping many of the social strategies and “best practices” I use today. The same Twitter failure from that conference would probably go over very differently today, but I’d argue that it’s because of these failures, not in spite of them, that I’ve been able to play a role in shaping the social by design business. Am I done failing? Probably not. Do I want to fail? Of course not. But at the very least, I’ve learned to appreciate the art of failing successfully, and I think it’s a worthwhile conversation.

Done Right, Social Media Failure Is EphemeralWith social media, trial and error is inherent. At Adobe’s Social Media Center of Excellence, we have an entire pillar built on innovation—the sandbox where successes and failures thrive. At any given point, we have a handful of pilot programs that may or may not work. Sometimes these programs and technologies are successful; other times they’re a bust. Rarely do they result in great success or great failure, but most often, sit somewhere in between.

In your efforts to try new things, one key to measuring success is not what you do well, but rather how you fail. Sure, you need to be comfortable trying new things, and management must be open to innovation, but it’s more than that. We’ve heard for years about the value of taking business risks, but in truth, social is less about probabilities and more about being comfortable with uncertainty and moving forward despite unknowns. More specifically, having the gumption to know that when done right, social media failure is ephemeral.

Fail Quick And With Agility Failure isn’t something most businesses like to talk about, yet it’s a constant in the journey and, in many ways, a prerequisite for success. Professor Amar Bhide, author of "Origin and Evolution of New Business," reminds us that more than 90 percent of companies that we would view as successful today had to part ways with their original strategy because it frankly wasn’t producing the intended results. In other words, it was a #fail. In fact, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen has observed that these companies were able to succeed precisely because they failed, and more importantly, they were able to fail quick and with agility so that they could move forward with a new, more viable approach. Failing quickly and doing it with the dexterity to change direction on the fly is the key.

The good news? Even megabrands make horrible mistakes when it comes to social—and that’s OK. In fact, it’s often your biggest fails that make your best learning experiences, and it’s these very events that uncover the real impact social can have on your business. The key to failing successfully comes from understanding that failure, while uncomfortable, is temporary and a critical part of the social journey. Calculated risks and trial and error are important, but learning how to fail quickly and with agility may just end up being your best chance to finally get it right.

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About Cory Edwards

Cory Edwards is head of Adobe’s Social Business Center of Excellence. He is responsible for integrating social media into the way Adobe does business. Edwards and his team consult and train departments across Adobe to define and measure their social strategies. In addition, they identify opportunities to innovate and pilot new social business programs.