Social Media is not a Strategy

If some famous fashion label VP came up to me and said, “We need a social media strategy – can you help us do it?” – I’d promptly answer, “No, I can’t.”


  1. Social media is not a strategy.
  2. Though I am heavily involved in social networking, I couldn’t bring business value in this sector.

The point is: you’re looking for business strategy, and business value. Not some stand-alone approach to the latest fad called social media. If you want to win, you don’t just employ a “knight strategy” in chess, do you?

Here is where the discussion should take place:

We need to launch a Facebook page for our customers! We need a strategy for real-time communications and better engagement with (this and/or that) set of stakeholders. Let’s assume that there is a concrete business answer to the question “Why?” (is there?). Now we can begin to talk about various media and approaches that may be appropriate. “We need a Facebook page!” is not a strategy.

We need a blog! We have a real problem with public perception and need to humanize to face of the company over the long-term. OK, we can begin to develop a strategy that may involve social media – but will probably also involve serious culture change. Presenting the company story via social media is powerful and potentially has great value, but – a Twitter page or a blog will not rescue an insular and sullen corporate culture. A social media strategy won’t make you nice to work with, or work for. As Olivier Blanchard stated in a recent tweet, “social media amplifies whatever you bring to the table: Knowledge or ignorance, generosity or greed, honesty or dishonesty.”

We should launch a YouTube channel! We need to provide new avenues of value to our customers in order to make them advocates and evangelists. Excellent starting place. Now, what role will communications and person-to-person engagement play in this? Is information curation and dissemination a major value-add? Making videos on YouTube might get page views, but will it provide value? Ask: what is my audience looking for? – not just what are they looking at.

We need to show up on Twitter searches! We need to be more “find-able” on-line. This is a no-brainer, but the question is; How? Will social media provide that exposure, and do you have the personnel resources to feed the beast over the long-haul? Is it a simpler SEO issue? Would a beefed-up LinkedIn presence be more effective than a blog? Best methods for raising an on-line profile will vary from industry to industry, and from need to need. Copying someone else’s social media approach isn’t a strategy.

We need to be out there on all the social networks! We need to build a broad opportunity network. Social networking technologies are great for this. But they are not the strategy, they are a component of a business approach to networking. Just putting a profile on every social site known to man or beast is not the same as creating and cultivating a business network.

Here in pharma world, where I do a good bit of my business, we finally crossed the Rubicon this year – companies have by and large moved out of the “what is social media and should we even touch it??” phase, into the “how do we do this?” phase. And for those of us involved in the industry evangelistic work over the past years, that’s rewarding – but also dangerous. Because now, social media is often treated as a bolt-on, a check-the-box component of the marketing mix. The awareness level has grown – three cheers! – but the strategic understanding aspect is still immature in most cases.

Yes, people and companies have to start somewhere, and specific tactics using social platforms are often the first toes in the water. An iPhone app can (and should) be part of a big-picture, longer-term strategy with business goals beyond just checking off the “my brand did social in 2010” box.

Because in the long run, you don’t need a social media strategy, or a stand-alone social media expert. You need a holistic business strategy. Which should incorporate an intelligent approach to the opportunities, challenges, and trench work of digital networked communications. People who know social media can help you learn the landscape, but don’t carve something off into a “social media strategy.” Increasingly, that notion will seem as odd as proposing an e-mail strategy, or an operating system strategy.

Great people and strong companies will flourish under the spotlight; mediocre companies and poseurs will simply be exposed for what they are. If you’re in the latter category, as Jay Baer recently put it, maybe you’re just not ready for social media. You may have some cultural infrastructure to build, and some broader strategies to put in place first. If you don’t understand the forces at work, then social media may not be a shovel-ready project – yet.

If you can articulate a sound business strategy that involves tactical usage of digital networked communications, go for it. Otherwise, you’re grabbing onto a solution without defining the problem.

(now if you do come to me about social media in fashion or some other field, I may not be your guy, but I’ll try to help you find the right resource you’re looking for. Because matchmaking clients with providers is a business need I can meet!)


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About Steve Woodruff
Steve Woodruff is a blogger, a Connection Agent, and a consultant in the pharma/healthcare industry. He specializes in helping people and companies make mutually beneficial connections.

29 Responses to Social Media is not a Strategy

  1. Agreed, Steve – and not only is is not a strategy, but strategies in and of themselves must be tied to the organization’s vision. I think what we’re seeing is organizations that want to be seen as “embracing social” without even understanding the larger picture of where they’re going as a company.

    I like how you said “the strategic understanding aspect is still immature in most cases.” I think this is true in many cases in general – especially in smaller companies but surprisingly in larger companies as well – even without adding social media to the mix. A wasteful concoction, I’d say…

    • As you know, Lisa, it’s real easy to feel a compulsion to “jump on the bandwagon.” And I’ll be the first to explain why all this stuff is important. But none of that is a business case, at the vision or strategy level. Social media is an opportunity, and a means to various ends. Thanks for stopping by, and looking forward to #LeadershipChat tomorrow night!

    • Darleen says:

      Yes completely agree with both. Also demonstrates well how NOT to put the solution ahead of company vision, mission and then create strategy to push out the solution.

  2. Thanks to Lisa and Twitter that I came across your post Steve! I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments expressed here, especially with the smaller businesses that I work with!

    My clients might hear about me because of my social media skills, but it doesn’t take long before my inner management consultant is unleashed on them (nicely of course)!

    Often, the biggest challenge facing small businesses is getting the word out. This is true whether it is a new company or an established one. Social media platforms can greatly help in that regard, but those activities need to be carefully planned and executed. Just because these tools are ‘easy’ to learn doesn’t mean it is easy to use them effectively (Paint is easy to use, but I always hire a professional to paint my rooms).

    And it’s always dangerous to build too much investment into a platform you don’t own. It’s not too far fetched to imagine losing contact with all your fans based on some arbitrary platform change, as Facebook is wont to do. What cross-over mechanisms to capture their information do you have in place in anticipation of that happening?

    Thanks for a good read!

    • I am afraid that I and my readers may develop nightmares about unleashed management consultants – that could get scary! ;>} Love what you said about paint – I’m going to have to steal that analogy (even if I do all the painting myself…)

  3. What he really meant was “we need a marketing strategy for the social web.” And you know what? A slew of agencies will climb all over each other to give him whatever he wants: A Twitter strategy, a Facebook strategy, a blog strategy, even a content strategy. None of it will do any good, of course, but it will look pretty and the analytics about reach, impressions and traffic will be swell.

    • And I know that you think the same way about this as I do, Olivier – the default setting always seems to be “marketing.” There is so much more to networked communications, which spans all areas of business. The agencies that put forward smart strategists on the front-line will win in the long-term…

  4. David Perdew says:

    Now there’s a sound approach to using social media as part of a comprehensive business plan that will get results quicker than the “shotgun” effect. Absolutely, Steve, you have to know what you’re aiming at before you blast off in different directions at the moving target called social media. Patience, as in life, is a virtue with online marketing, and those who bide their time and ramp up slowly find long-term success. I think their customers will appreciate the less-desperate attitude that the company presents to its audience , too.

  5. Amen. Social media is not about the tools and technologies, it’s about leveraging the foundational principles of social media, e.g. collaboration, crowd sourcing, information-sharing, to achieve your business objectives more efficiently and more effectively. Thanks for your important post.

  6. Great post, Steve. For nonprofits as well as business the focus on communication, listening and building long-term engagement with an actual goal for increased sales or financial contributions will go a lot further than jumping on the social media train with no plan.

    • Maxine and Lori, I think the emergence of social media only underscores something Lisa alludes to above – a lot of groups simply don’t have a clear vision and well-thought out strategies PERIOD! Jumping on the new shiny object won’t fix that, but it will give the appearance of activity…

  7. Dan Elder says:

    I agree that a social media strategy should be a part of a larger effort (business strategy, marketing strategy), but I hope Steve’s assertions do not cause those who need a plan most to discount the idea of attaining goals through mapping out a plan.

    Just as a great coach needs a plan for the game, he also needs a plan for the entire season. Whether it is marketing, gauging the user experience, bug reports or suggestions and recommendations, the savvy business or organization needs to take a holistic approach to how they engage via social media.

    We all know deploying a Facebook page or establishing a Twitter account does not make an organizations socia media startegy. And just because I have a personal FB/Twitter does not in itself make me qualified to determine what right loks like.

    Middle ground for this piece is clearly in the statement “You need a holistic business strategy,” of which I agree with. Just ensure social media is a part of it, and you may want to have somebody other than a youthful intern craft it for you.

  8. Ike says:

    “We need a strategy” often comes before “What do we want to do?”

    Well articulated, my friend.

    • And, “We need to be on Twitter!” often comes before “We need a strategy,” which comes before, “What do we want to do?” which comes before “What is our overarching vision?” I guess backwards is some direction, however…

  9. Lucretia Pruitt says:

    Hm. I’m going to disagree slightly. 3 years ago, I railed and ranted against the adoption os the term “social media” which really means the tools to apply to the people who practiced with them whether they were marketers, PR, content creators/writers, HR, Customer Service… I lost.
    By overwhelming majority rule, we now mean “everything that happens using the tools as they apply to my intent and the people who know how to do that.”
    Sorry… I’d love to be on your side on this. Because frankly? It drives me freaking crazy to hear “social media” used as a generic catch all. But language follows the rule of “definition by the majority” not sadly, necessarily the informed.
    If it didn’t Google would still be a noun and not a verb.

    I was speaking just last night to someone who said “saying we are in the field consumer engagement field gets blank stares.” my response is that I can inform my clients over time as to everything you’ve said above – but if they came to me and said “we need a social media strategy can yo do it? ” and I said “no” – they wouldn’t end up being MY clients. They would go find some shyster who said yes and told them a Twitter account was all they need!

    Instead I say, “absolutely… But first? Let’s figure out your needs when it comes to using Social Media. If I can ask you a few questions, we’ll start figuring out what your companies highest priorities are and how this can help you achieve those and which tools and platforms are going to best bring that about,”

    Sometimes? You speak the language of the customer (even the internal one) in order to help teach him the right one over time.

    • Excellent point, Lucretia. And we’re in agreement, despite the impression I may have left with the “dramatic entry” of the blog post. I’m still fighting the hopeless battle with majority rule on terminology, but…we do need to take people where they’re at. Great reminder.

  10. Liz says:

    Excellent post Steve. I guess that I diverge from the thought that social media isn’t a strategy or that businesses don’t (or do) need it. Although I agree with you holistically, that it is simply a part of a broader marketing program, I do feel that in and of itself, it does require a strategic approach that considers overall organizational goals and expectations. If we stay away from the tactics, e.g. blogs, you tube, etc, and just get down to the nuts and bolts, then indeed, we are talking apples and apples, or strategy and strategy. I echo Lucretia’s approach and have in fact, engaged with clients in that direction. The answer to the question “do I need a SM strategy?” is always, let’s take a look at how you are currently engaging with your customers and see if a SM component makes sense.

    • I think we pretty much agree, Liz. Social media needs to be approached strategically, as part of organizational goals, but approaching it as an end in itself (“let’s do social media!!”), is putting the click before the mouse. Or something like that.

  11. Alan Berkson says:

    Great post, Steve. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Business strategy is still business strategy: how do I get my message to my customers/partners/vendors? We all need to take a step back and take a deep breath. Yes, the rules have changed a bit — they always do — but the basics of strategy still apply.

  12. Varadh says:

    Loved your post. We need to play it down to make them look deeper. Your title and post helps doing that.
    The topic helps people to stop and take a look at least. Yes people do think its a quick fix for growth. People do ask me all the time “what will social media do to my business? or can you suggest a social media strategy?”. I try to tell them “No one can prescribe social media to your business the way medicines are prescribed for better health. With medicines, whether the person understands or not, it works and works the same way. Social Media wont work for you unless you understand and works to the extent of your understanding”. I help them asking questions. Will it drive your sales? Will it help you listen to your prospects, new opportunities, complaints etc… ? Will it lower costs? Which category of customers will you reach through Social Media? Do they matter for your organization?Ask these and more business questions and do a match-making with Social Media tools. If they are not willing, they go to someone else who can prescribe social media for them.

  13. Steve, I can’t agree with you more. This is very well put – I’ve been saying this for a couple of years now. There is no such thing as a social media strategy. We’ve even begun to talk about how there is no such thing as ‘social media’ but a bunch of techniques that need to be incorporated appropriately into campaigns and strategies. And to Olivier’s point above, the web itself has gone social (our latest version of our corporate presentation is titled: “The Rise of the Social Web”).

    To Lucretia’s point, we still market Social Media Strategies, and Social Media, as that is what the market understands and is looking for. But once the conversation begins, we start discussing the realities of what social media is and what it isn’t, and how it’s about creating a business strategy, and a marketing strategy, of which social media tactics and techniques will form a (potentially major) part. If they still don’t get it, and are looking for someone to just create a FB page for them, well, it’s probably not a good fit.

    • I’m sure there will be thousands of abandoned Facebook pages (and Twitter accounts, and blogs…), all of them launched because it was the thing to do. Very costly bytes.

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  17. Phil Simon says:


    Really interesting post.

    Olivier Blanchard is indeed a smart cookie. You mean that there are no quick fixes? Surely there must be!

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