Analyst: Half of 'social media campaigns' will flop

New research from Gartner, to be presented later this month, encourages marketers and businesses to approach social media with caution because it's just so easy to screw up.

Adam Sarner, an analyst with market research firm Gartner, has projected that over 75 percent of Fortune 1000 companies with Web sites will have undertaken some kind of online social-networking initiative for marketing or customer relations purposes. But, he added in an interview with CNET News, 50 percent of those campaigns will be classified as failures.

Sarner plans to present his results at the annual Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2008, which takes place October 12-16 in Orlando, Fla.

"(Businesses) will rush to the community and try to connect, but essentially they won't have a mutual purpose, and they'll fail," Sarner said. By a "mutual purpose," he means a way to serve both the company putting out the campaign and the audience interacting with it: finding that balance is not easy. The quirkiest and most addictive campaigns often provide little value for the company and turn out to be fads, whereas marketing efforts on the Web often don't go over as well with the public.

He cited the Facebook craze as an example. The social network is "more for the community than it is for the bottom line," and it's tough for marketers to get their message in on a site that's focused on communicating with your friends rather than finding stuff to buy. One of its more business-savvy advertising options, Beacon, on the other hand, was "more about the business trying to get value than it is actually about the customer." Some Facebook users didn't like it, and a public backlash ensued.

Sarner's research deduced that by 2012, fully half of all purchases, whether online or offline, will have some Web-based component to them. That could mean searching for product reviews, reading about a new product on a blog, or comparing prices even if the purchase is ultimately made in a store.

There's obviously no universal solution to social-media advertising and marketing, because every company is different. But Sarner offered a preliminary tip: to make sure that there's a clear reason why such a campaign is instituted, and "get people talking" isn't enough. "Are you discovering what's going to be the new black next season?" he suggested as an example of a trendspotting-focused strategy.

Once you've answered that question, it's time to pick and choose: whether to use existing technologies or build them in-house, whether the focus should be video or discussion or Digg-like yes-no voting, ad nauseam.

The problem with one of the most visible failures in social-media marketing--the number of brands that rushed headlong into virtual world Second Life two years ago--was that nobody was asking or answering those questions, Sarner said. Companies simply built "virtual headquarters" in the hope that Second Life would gain mass appeal, and then it failed to budge from its status as a niche forum for subculture and futurism.

For some companies, a Second Life campaign would be a good idea if you were distinctly trying to target that segment of the population, Sarner explained, and could use the 3D technology to actually come up with something innovative. He cited the example of electric cars. "If Honda has a new car and it's going to be purely electric, you could've set a Second Life campaign up that's promotional in nature," he said. "The futurism angle of an electric car, it kind of fits the people in that segment."

When asked whether the faltering economy will mean that businesses are cutting back on this largely unproven field of social media for marketing or customer relations, Sarner said he didn't think so, and that many businesses will turn to the Web to stay in touch with consumers during a difficult financial climate. "This is going to be a lifeline," he said. "You don't ruin your customers, and your spirit of customers is probably the only thing you have."