Do you want to succeed at social media or social media marketing?  There is a difference—a huge difference.  It’s the difference between using social media tools and adopting social media philosophy; the difference between sparking posts about your marketing and posts about your product or service; and the difference between marketers who focus externally on how the brand is broadcast versus internally on how the brand is realized. 

So do you want to succeed at social media or social media marketing?  The answer is the former, but many marketers focus on the latter.  I’d like to make this difference more real by sharing two examples—the first in the entertainment industry and the second my own experiences in a mall this weekend. 

Snakes on a Plane (SoaP) is the entertainment industry’s greatest pre-release social media success story to date.  The Guardian called it, “Perhaps the most internet-hyped film of all time.”  Fans produced their own T-shirts, posters, trailers, novelty songs, and parodies.  Producers organized a contest to select a fan's music for use in the movie. The filmmakers added shooting days in order to implement changes suggested by fans on the Internet (including Samuel Jackson’s famous and unprintable-on-this-blog line about “m&f%*#f+!@ing snakes”).  

But what were all these fans fans of?  Not the product, apparently.  As EW put it, “SOAP came in below even the most ridiculously cynical predictions.”  The reasons why the social media buzz failed to produce business success are many (including that the PG-13 film was edited to an R rating due to fan input, a change that fatally narrowed the audience—so much for the wisdom of crowds), but in the end SoaP was a social media marketing success but a social media failure.

 To move the discussion out of the theater and into the mall, I am struck by how few retailers are paying attention to the difference between social media success and social media marketing success.  This weekend I visited three retailers in search of men’s apparel:

  • Retailer One:  I spent 15 minutes trying to find someone to offer assistance.  The only employees to be found were behind checkout counters with long lines. I left frustrated.
  • Retailer Two: I walked into a fitting room to try on shirts and found it looking like Hell’s storage room (or an average teen’s bedroom) with deep piles of clothes. I left disgusted.
  • Retailer Three:  I entered Nordstrom and found a store that was clean and staffed.  I got attention and helpful assistance from an employee.  And I spent $250.

Retailers One and Two are plotting social media marketing success.  They have “Join us on Facebook” links on their home pages—one has 500,000 fans and the other has 1 million.  They’ve enabled their catalogs with social tools so that site visitors can share products with their social networks.  They run social promotions including online events and sales.  And they spark engagement around fashion trends and scintillating discussion starters such as “Pick your preference: black or brown shoes?” 

What good are all of these social tactics if these retailers fail to provide the sort of real-world experience that get people saying positive things? While furnishing tools that customers can use to post stuff to social networks is helpful, what matters more are experiences that inspire people to engage with and about the brands in social ways.  I don’t think it is any coincidence that since the recession began in December 2007, Nordstrom’s stock (JWN) is down just 10 percent while the stock of the other two retailers is down between 30 and 50 percent.  And while Nordstrom has fewer Facebook fans than the other two retailers, it has more fans-per-location based on it 193 stores.  Nordstrom succeeds at both social media and social media marketing.

Does your organization want to be Snakes on a Plane, or does it want to be Nordstrom?  Do you want people buzzing about your marketing or about your product or service?  The difference is not found on Facebook or Twitter but in the ways companies are led. Marketing leaders who only focus on messages in social channels but fail to attend to how the brand is realized in actual product and service experiences may succeed with social media marketing but fail miserably with social media.