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News flash: Social media won’t fix your content problems

by Kristina Halvorson on March 3rd, 2010

On Monday, Altimer Group Partner Jeremiah Owyang published an article titled:

Make Your Corporate Websites Relevant by Integrating Facebook, Google, MySpace, Linked In, or Twitter

The post provides a detailed list of "feature attribute benefits of social integration," as well as "who offers what" for "social networking integration features." It’s a beautifully constructed post, the kind of post thousands of marketers will likely print and refer to as a daily resource when planning their social media initiatives.

Now. I am a reasonable person. I fully recognize that Owyang is one of the leading, most well-respected social media analysts in the world. He blogs for the Forbes CMO Network, he speaks internationally about social media, and is an all-around highly influential guy. This reputation is likely well-deserved.

However. When one wields such powerful influence over powerful people, one must wield said influence responsibly. And, in my opinion, this is one irresponsible article.

Three years ago…
Monday’s post is presented in the context of an article Owyang wrote three years ago, titled "How To Evolve Your Irrelevant Corporate Website." Why did Owyang think our websites were irrelvant? Because most of the content on those websites was "an unbelievable collection of hyperbole, artificial branding, and pro-corporate content" that utterly failed to support any part of the customer sales lifecycle. Especially from the customers’ perspective.

Owyang’s position at the time was that the corporate website, as we knew it, was a lost cause. In fact, Owyang suggested that the only way we could ensure our websites remained relevant was to collaborate with our customers as equals in planning and producing content.

I remember this post well, because his "disruptive" ideas struck me as ridiculous. If we apparently still hadn’t figured out how to effectively plan for, create, deliver, and govern our own website content, how the hell were we going to incorporate user-generated content into the mix?

Obviously, I was in the skeptical minority. And skeptics are never sexy.

And then the world blew up.
Of course, conversations about social media exploded. Our customers were talking, and, if we were going to survive over the coming years, we needed to listen. So we rushed to find out where our customers were, what they were saying, and to engage them in conversation about our products and services. Simultaneously, CMOs demanded brand presence on YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter. Never mind why. Just get us there.

Now, look. It’s not my intention to downplay the importance and omnipresence of social media. Like anyone else who has a pulse, I believe in the power and potential of well-planned, well-executed, corporate social media initiatives. I believe it is our responsibility (and an unprecedented business opportunity) to meet our customers where they are, to listen, and to engage.

Social media, itself, is not the problem.
Here’s the problem, and it’s a doozy: to support our social media initiatives, we churned out content. Meanwhile, our marketing teams continued to publish content. Corporate communications, advertising partners, public relations, product and service managers… the flood of content continued.

And it continues today. Unchecked. Unmonitored. Unable to be measured. Inconsistent. Outdated. Out of control. More of the "hyperbole, artifical branding, and pro-corporate content" Owyang rightfully criticized as "irrelevant."

Content that no one cares about.

And now, this. As of Monday, Owyang appears to have forgotten about the content part of things altogether. Because now what he is proposing is that website "relevance" can be achieved by using "products that allow thriving communities of buyers and prospects to connect with static corporate sites."

The same static corporate websites that, for all intents and purposes, likely still suck.

Now we come to the irresponsible part.
CMOs and their counterparts looooove this kind of post. It’s well-researched, more or less comprehensive, concise, and well-constructed. I’m sure this has already been circulated (634 retweets to date!), printed, and discussed in meetings all over the country, if not the world. It’s an attractive post because it more or less sums up what we need to consider when choosing social media features for our websites. As Owyang puts it, the matrix is a resource to "fast forward research activies." It’s a matrix that, if referenced judiciously, Owyang promises will help us to make our corporate websites relevant.

He’s wrong.

By focusing solely on social media’s features, Owyang continues to perpetuate the pervasive illusion that, if we choose the right tools, our customers will converse with us, talk about us, and share our content.

You know. The "hyperbole, artifical branding, and pro-corporate content" most of our websites still feature.

The relevancy of our corporate websites is not dependent whatsoever on which social media widgets have been deployed throughout the site. Its relevancy is driven by our site content, no matter who is creating it. And that content requires as much, if not more, strategic planning and consistent oversight as do our social media initiatives.

Hey, CMOs: I’m talking to you.
It’s time for executive leadership to stop being distracted by social media features, "disruptive technologies," and the like. These are bright, shiny objects that pull focus from what makes or breaks every corporate website: whether or not your customers can find, use, and act upon content they care about. The stuff they came for. The stuff they want. The stuff they need.

Make your corporate website relevant by having a well-founded, sustainable content strategy. Let that content strategy inform the kind of content you create and share, how you share it, how you engage, and how you react. Define process. Allocate resources to content creation and maintenance. Align on content governance policies and guidelines.

So, go ahead. Print up that article. But take a big Sharpie and cross out the title. In its place, write this:

Social Media Features To Consider… Once We Have a Content Strategy


Kristina Halvorson is the CEO/Founder of Brain Traffic and the author of Content Strategy for the Web. Follow her on Twitter.



  • http://deliverbliss.com Tim Sanchez

    Really great post, found it from Jeremiah's tweet.
    The content (the base) will always be a problem because it's easier (and sexier) to use the newest tools instead of consistently working to build a great base.

  • leenjones

    Brilliant! Two things almost as un-sexy as skepticism are balance and common sense. But, your argument makes both seem darn compelling. I bet this post will liven up Atlanta Content Strategy's discussion of social marketing next week. http://bit.ly/cM0yaF

  • joshgroth

    Very well articulated article. What is the purpose of disseminating bad content to the masses? Yes, Owyang is correct in his post, and yes it will be referenced absolutely everywhere, but content comes first. It's like trying to run a race before you've put your shoes on. Consider this RTed.

    Josh Groth


  • http://web-strategist.com/blog Jeremiah Owyang

    Well reasoned post, and a good reminder of the basics, one that some companies already miss.

    Yet, I think it's interesting in the fact that Tim *found* this great content from a social channel like Twitter. Therefore that proves *both* of our points it's not an “or” good content and social work wonders when they work together.

    Neither of us should be insular in focusing on content, nor social technologies alone, as we should consider the viewpoints of the other folks on the web teams:

    We should consider the designers to jump in and say “it's all about good design” and the Information Architects to jump in and say “It's all about mental models” and UI developers to jump in and say “It's all about user experience” and the PR folks to say “It's all about influencer outreach” and the search folks to say “It's all about SEO and SEM” and the web developers to say “Its all about dynamic features”.

    We should agree that all of these components should work collectively –in an integrated fashion –that's true web strategy.

    Thanks again for reminding us of the baseline needs.

  • http://mbrewergroup.com mbrewer

    Content has been and will forever be the basis for a compelling and over the top experience. And, is that not what we are all aiming for at the end of the day. Be it sitting alone on the porch at night staring at the stars or participating with the brands that we cherish and rave about? Is it not all about the experience? And, at the heart of that experience is the almighty – content.

    Content is the basis for meeting consumers where they are. It's the basis for which we listen to them. It's the basis for which we participate with them. It's the premise we use to create content around the aforementioned content. It's the basis that allows us to participate around that content and if we are really really lucky we run across true engagement.

    I read a quote near the beginning of 2010 – forgive me for not remembering who wrote it. But, it basically suggested that we need to get the initiatives for 2008 and 2009 right before we think about the initiatives for 2010 and beyond. I think it applies as much to content as it does to web strategies – if content isn't compelling, true, real and somewhat authentic then shouting it from the rooftops of the world will do nothing more than get you right back to the essence of interruption marketing – ignorance from the community. What they ignore they don't know and what they don't know helps you not.

    Smashing post Kristina Halvorson – as a result of this great content – I am new fan. Have a great end to the week.

  • http://JustLetMeVent.wordpress.com/ jgraziani

    As a former journalist and magazine editor I have always subscribed to the notion that content is king, that writers are never more important than what they have to say, and that if you put out a quality product the readers will come. It doesn't make sense to me that a corporate website (which is like a magazine for the company online) would have irrelevant or outdated content, but I can see where that content could be overly pro-corporation. However, adding social media tools does not improve the relevancy of the site any more than redesigning a magazine improves its relevance to the readers. It's the content that keeps readers/users interested and coming back — not whether the info appears on or can be linked to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. People will read/use your site for the value you bring to them, and ultimately that's what makes them repeat customers.

  • http://braintraffic.com Kristina Halvorson

    >> We should agree that all of these components should work collectively –in an integrated fashion –that's true web strategy.

    Yes. Yes. Yes!!

    As I said, it's not that your information isn't relevant or social media is useless. You said it exactly: we need to learn how to facilitate better cross-discipline collaboration to improve the way we work on the Web.

    We'll get there. It's hard when there are just so damn many people involved. You know what we need? A DICTATOR. :)

    Can't tell you how much I appreciate your engaging in this conversation. Looking forward to future exchanges.

  • http://www.vazt.com seamuswalsh

    Cristina, I agree with most of what you say but I think when you are single out the CMO you may be preaching to the choir.

    This is an enterprise issue and it is clear that the early adopters like Zappos had buy in from senior leadership. Sure the CMO can be a champion and can educate and facilitate high profile co-workers to their cause but engagement must be at different levels of the organization, from the top down to the bottom up, not one or the other.

  • http://web-strategist.com/blog Jeremiah Owyang

    It's a healthy conversation to have, one that should resonate up the corporate food chain. Good sparring with you Kristina –you raised the discussion.

    Dictator? Nah, how about emperor?

  • http://deliverbliss.com Tim Sanchez

    “Yet, I think it's interesting in the fact that Tim *found* this great content from a social channel like Twitter.”

    I thought the same thing as I was reading. =)

    Social media is extremely important (which is why I participate), but that importance has the effect of steering people toward the new SM tools with reckless abandon. As you and Kristina pointed out, combining great content with productive use of any communication tool is the best strategy.

  • kiddredd

    Well spoken. Until clients (and online marketing agencies) start (at the very least) creating a line item in budgets for content strategy and creative, what they'll have is more unfocused babble posing as content.

  • fmachs

    “Just because you put a forum there, does not mean that people will start new threads there”. I read that but don't remember where.
    Also, it is always about the inventors. QQ

  • http://ericaglasier.com/ Erica

    In times of trouble, the ancient Romans—a democratic republic— elected a dictator to oversee the solution. Later this office morphed into Emperor. They saw the wisdom of turning complex situations over to one person to get the job done ;)

  • http://twitter.com/luckylou Luis Antezana (luckylou)

    Great post, and great comments. I was going to add mine about both social media and content strategy each being important, and, when done well on their own, and done well in consideration of the other, amplifying each other's effectiveness, but you and Jeremiah pretty much covered that here!

  • farfromfearless

    I read Owyang's recent and past post and it saddens me to see the dramatic departure–things change. I get that. But honestly, Owyang's recent post sounded more like pandering that postulating.

    In any case, I think this discussion also serves to highlight another issue, and that's the seeming disconnect between what is tactical vs. strategic. In my experience, the marketing/communications world rarely sees content as being anything other than tactical–an asset or resource to fulfill a strategy. Communicating that distinction has been difficult, especially with folks (CMOs, mar/comm. teams, agencies) who are primarily interested in the quick hits/high-return (e.g. short term gains).


  • ChristineHeller

    Great post, Kristina. So many folks I talk to nowadays want so much to jump on the social media bandwagon without doing the necessary analysis and justification. Without a content strategy, these “shiny objects” just create more noise.

  • DanHaley

    In the spirit of working more closely with our social technologies colleagues, here's a similar challenge content profs. share with them: effective social media work demands a long-term relationship, just like good content strategy. We can help each other by stressing this point to clients and supervisors/execs.

    Neither communities nor good content appear overnight.

  • http://www.blue-ferret.com/ BlueFerret

    As a content writer (and someone who pushes for content strategy with clients), I'm saying “Thank you very much!” for highlighting the importance of content relevance. I wind up arguing with too many clients (not everyone, mercifully) on content and (now) on social media. Specifically, on lack of strategy and the little importance they place on relevance.

    I tend to encounter two types of “canned response” to the social media/content intermix:
    1. “Oh, our clients wouldn't find us with social media. It's a waste of time to try.”
    2. “We need to be on every social media channel, updating all the time! They'll love hearing about us!”

    Strategy? What's that?


    How about this for a writer's “jump in” point, as Jeremiah illustrated…”It's all about what the customer wants solved!”

    P.S. – I think I'll start using “And then the world blew up” as my witty rejoinder.

  • lizmassey68

    As the Quakers would say, this post “speaks to my condition.” Many companies in many industries certainly do need to utilize social media, but if your website has very little to offer them in terms of user/customer-centric content, adding social media tools isn't going make people want to interact with you.

    Thank you for being the breath of pure oxygen in a room filled with laughing gas. (Or worse.) :)

  • lizmassey68

    This post “speaks to my condition,” as the Quakers would say. Thank you for being a breath of pure oxygen in a room filled with laughing gas–or worse. :)

  • http://www.richardingram.co.uk/2010/12/2010-articles-blogs/ 2010 in articles and blog entries | Richard Ingram | Shut the door on your way out Cicero…

    [...] News flash: Social media won’t fix your content problems [...]

  • Lindan42

    There is no technology that will create the content for corporations.  Sometimes I think the appeal of “social media” is that 140 characters creates the illusion that it’s easier to cut and paste from somewhere.  Remember the old saying- Nothing happens until somebody sells something?  There seems to be a curious thing happening-  the more outlets for stories we get… the less and less we’re hiring writers, content strategists, editors, designers. It’s like the second spawning of “reality programming”- no need for writers … it’s real life.  

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