Should Brands Approach Social Media with a “Pilot Program” Mindset?

June 16, 2009 · 26 comments

airplane2My typical answer to that question has been “no.” Consistent participation usually leads to the best results in social media efforts. Approaching it as a test can lead to lower commitment levels from the brand and abandoned blogs and Facebook pages that look more like ghost towns than thriving communities.

But a couple things I’ve heard the past few days have me reconsidering.

A colleague interviewed Amber Naslund at BlogPotomac last week. One of the questions I passed along to my colleague was the very topic of this post. Amber’s response? She’s fine with it if that’s what it takes to get clients into the space.

Tonight, I watched a PR Week video interview with John Bell, managing director of 360 Digital Influence, Ogilvy. He said that one of the biggest trends he’s seen during the past six months or so is that more clients are moving away from big “cathedral” programs in social media and toward pilot programs where they can rapidly get some quick learning.

What do you think? Should brands approach social media efforts as pilot programs? Are there some social media strategies or tools where that mindset can work well, but some where it would most likely lead to less than stellar results?

*Update: My concern lies in starting an effort – say a blog – that traditionally takes time and lots of energy to grow without commitment, budget and resources planned and allocated beyond a few months.

*Image by √oхέƒx.

{ 4 trackbacks }

Should Brands Approach Social Media with a “Pilot Program” Mindset? | Communications Catalyst « Fredzimny’s CCCCC Blog
June 17, 2009 at 1:07 am
Social Media and Quick Learning | Optimistic Rebel
June 17, 2009 at 10:57 am
The Electric Waffle » Blog Archive » How NOT to find success with social media
July 25, 2009 at 6:08 pm
Testing The Social Media Waters – A Comprehensive Simplicity « Legends of Aerocles
August 10, 2009 at 4:24 pm

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Allan Schoenberg June 17, 2009 at 12:47 am

David I believe the correct answer here is “it depends”. Each brand, each company, each communications team is different and the needs of who they are trying to reach is different. Some companies may want to launch a huge, cross functional initiative while others may start with one platform. I speak from experience at the exchange that Facebook became our “pilot” program in using social media back in October 2007. Based on that experience we have since launched our Twitter feed (@CMEGroup), private LinkedIn groups and are looking at some other options. All this being said any social media program has to be treated like other channels. You need to know your goal, objectives, strategies, tactics and consider how you will evaluate success. I would hypothesize that with a good plan and commitment that brands will quickly learn that social media offers many benefits.



2 David June 17, 2009 at 7:36 am

Allan – thanks for sharing your experiences. It’s appreciated!

To clarify, I’m not at all opposed to a brand starting out with only one platform. My concern is when that one platform has a “let’s test it out” mentality going into it. For example, if a brand isn’t using social media, is it smart to approach a blog as a pilot program and only commit to the resources it takes to grow it for 3 months? Blogs take time to grow and the results may not be stellar after 3 months.

Your point about knowing the goal, objectives, strategies, tactics and having those well mapped out may be the answer. Even if the blog in this example is only committed to up front for a few months, seeing momentum could move the brand to a more long-term mindset. I guess my fear is giving up on it too soon before it has a chance to flourish, especially in the case of something like blogging. Thoughts?


3 Allan Schoenberg June 17, 2009 at 1:32 pm

Not to be repetitive but again I think it depends. A three month timeframe for a blog may be too short, but three months on Twitter could be appropriate. You are correct that giving up too soon is something to consider, but you need to have a benchmark for success. What would be success for your blog? The number of comments? The number of redirects? The number of pageviews? If you have no comments but lots of pageviews is that success or failure? Again, it depends. I think this whole notion that social media is a “silver bullet” is nonsense. It’s another channel for you to communicate with your audience. The difference, and what is making people take notice, is that it’s the most interactive of all our strategies outside of events.


4 David June 17, 2009 at 1:46 pm

I definitely agree that social media isn’t a silver bullet. And I’m seeing that the “test and see” approach may work, depending on platform and clear, possible objectives within the short time frame. Your last statement is the reason I think I’ve traditionally worried about the “test it” mindset. Social media is the most interactive of our strategies. It takes a lot of time and resources. I think that’s why I worry about not allocating both beyond a few months.

But I definitely see the merit in Amber’s stance of getting them in the water, if that’s what it takes.

5 Chuck Hemann June 17, 2009 at 9:24 am

David – an interesting perspective, as always.

I’m all for companies engaging their stakeholders through social media channels. However, doing so on a temporary basis to “test out the tools” seems awfully dangerous in my view. What happens if you decide to join Twitter, and two weeks go by without any activity. Because there’s no activity, you decide to stop using Twitter only to be surprised two weeks later when someone requests something of the company through Twitter. How do you respond to that?

Maybe Twitter is a bad example. Blogs come and go everyday so perhaps it’s easier to test that out? I don’t know…you’ve definitely given some food for thought here.


6 Brandon Chesnutt June 17, 2009 at 9:34 am

Interesting discussion, Dave.

I have to side with Allan and put myself in the “it depends” category.

While I do agree with you that long-term involvement and consistent participation SHOULD be the ideal goal of a social media program, some organizations just aren’t comfortable enough or ready to dive in with that mindset.

An alternative would be approaching social media with Chris Brogan’s Pirate Ship mentality. Create a side program and let it sail off on its own. If it fails, you can easily close the community and say “that was great, but no thanks. Here is where you can find us now.” That, or completely disavow all knowledge.



7 Stuart Foster June 17, 2009 at 9:35 am

Yes and no. Should brands have a toehold presence and is something better then nothing? Absolutely. However, once they jump in the realization that usually takes place is one of “Oh crap, we should have been here 2 years ago.”

Pilot programs allow for quick learning though…I’d recommend running 2-3 concurrent ones though in order to more effectively leverage the learning taking place. (Each campaign is always going to be different)


8 Tyler Hayes June 17, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Absolutely! Who says you can’t have more than one pilot program? There’s certainly enough opinion, information, tools, and advice out there to put anyone down the right path with social media, to start with at least. If you really are 100% gung-ho about doing a pilot program first, then more power to you.

Pilot programs will always have their place in every industry, but I tend to think that social media should see less of them, if not none. I say this because who cares if you screw up in the social media realm? The point is not to not make mistakes, but to act like a normal human being/company and own up to your mistakes when you make them. Those companies that think they should do pilot programs because they will somehow allow them a better glimpse into the social media world, and therefore somehow they will have a leg up with “best practices,” (a truly horrible term) are fooling themselves. Social media is just human interaction online.

My advice to companies that want pilot programs is this: just step in already. No one is going to bite you. Sure, there are bloggers that may rip your crappy social marketing campaign to shreds; but how is that not better than having people hate your TV marketing campaign and not being able to say anything about it?

I could say more, but this is a comment not a blog 😉


9 Donnie Turlington June 17, 2009 at 9:40 am

Great post David! I’m definitely feeling the trend of more companies wanting to get their feet wet where social media is concerned, without diving into the deep end. More businesses are recognizing the value in social media, but it’s up to those who are selling the programs to be up front in helping the clients understand that there is an ownership issue and once the conversations begin, you cannot just leave them high and dry.

I’m currently working with a nonprofit in building a social media program and we are taking into account the fact that they do not have the manpower to commit to a “cathedral” program. But, they do have the time to invest in a smaller program that can work for them.

I agree with Allan, pilot program, or cathedral, we’ve got to be careful not to label social media programs as one size fits all. It really depends on the client.



10 Seth Hosko June 17, 2009 at 9:42 am

Very interesting, David.

I agree with the sentiment that it depends, but since we don’t approach our life like a pilot test, as an organization or company I don’t think we should either. Relationships are built over time and need interaction and growth. Throwing up an account with every social media tool and expecting them to do well on day one is like showing up at a party and expecting to have successful interaction with everyone, immediately. Unlikely to happen.. it has to be built. I would advise a company new to social media to utilize channels that encourage interaction and take little content or effort (Twitter) before starting a blog, and diligently growing relationships and presence.

The way I can see a pilot approach being successful is with a very popular brand where starting the conversation is easy.. sort of like a celebrity showing up at a party, everyone knows them and wants to interact. Still, the processes and interaction would have to be solid off the bat. Blog content would need to be rich, and social interaction consistent and fostering cross relationships across all channels.


11 Sonny Gill June 17, 2009 at 9:47 am

Interesting thought, David. I agree with Allan’s assessment for those specific platforms he’s mentioned and how pilot programs can work.

But to your specific notion of doing so for a blog, I’d have to reconsider. As you said, the time/effort/strategy that it takes to get a blog running is far from a ‘test’ program. Going into that type of platform, IMO, should be gone into with more of a concrete strategy and understanding of the medium. Your blog is going to be your ‘home-base’ of sorts where fans, customers, etc. are going to (hopefully) come and check out your content.

So the answer, depends on the platform.


12 Tiffany L Ryan June 17, 2009 at 10:24 am

Any form of advertising takes a little time to take hold. What you decribe in your response to Allen is exactly what we say to clients when they put out a TV spot. It takes time to take build momentum and drive interest. Our client is not going to experience an immediate increase in sales after running one week of TV spots.

I think if the companies have a “let’s test it out to see if we get any feedback/responses” that’s okay. As long as they aren’t expecting wild increases in sales for that time.

Social media strikes me as an investment into branding and not necessarily a way to increase sales. So it depends on what they are expecting to see at the end of the “test” to determine whether or not it’s “working”.


13 Ken Thompson June 17, 2009 at 11:24 am

Initial endeavors into social media as a marketing tool must be viewed as a long term investment. This is not an area that is easily quantified with standard financial metrics. Initially select one platform and fully engage for a minimum of six months to determine future activity.


14 Scott Hepburn June 17, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Fascinating question, David. Count me in the “Sure, why not?” camp. As you know, I’m a fan of the notion that social media is still in its Wild West days and that it’s too early for rules.

Amber gets it right, I think: If dipping your toe in the water is what it takes to get you into the conversation, then so be it. Baby steps are fine!

We’ve started experimenting with a few new models at the agency. For clients unsure of how committed they are to blogging, we’re creating a shared blog they can contribute to with others in their industry. Collaborating with competitors? Writing a blog you don’t own? It’s a little out there, but clients love the idea, and it’s a good gateway drug to “full-time” blogging.

We’re also playing with creative “campaigns” for clients that are already in the wading end of the pool. They’re not full frontal assaults, per se, so much as short-term creative engagements to create fun, engaging content across a variety of media.

What we’re seeing is that every client responds to different stimuli. “Pilot programs” or “dipping your toes” or whatever you call it is a great way to find the stimulus that delivers the “Aha!” moment. And that’s the goal, isn’t it?


15 @hotlotto June 17, 2009 at 1:48 pm

I’ve seen small experiments work because of the following:
1. The small scale and scope gave the lead idea person time to work out the kinks.
2. Once others were able to see the tangible results of the experiment, it was easier for them to visualize what they could contribute.
3. The outcome? Several experiments eventually became leading campaigns backed with significant budgets.

– I’ve also seen when people have had inappropriate expectations given what’s been invested. But the company learned. They got better at managing expectations, and actually, that’s when I began to see more backing for small scale experiments.

Bottom line: always be experimenting.


16 Kasey Skala June 17, 2009 at 2:48 pm

I’m going against the majority here and say no. I don’t think a ‘pilot program’ holds much weight. If you are going to invest the the time and effort into social media, don’t make it a temporary or ‘let’s see’ investment. It takes time and consistency to build a community. Sure, you’re able to find out a little bit in a short time, but how valid are those findings?

However, my biggest concern is the community that you have engaged during this ‘pilot program’. What happens to these people? You got their attention, they’re listening and now you’re going to eliminate this channel? To me, that’s poor service. Where’s the incentive for that customer to continue to engage with you? You lead them on, got what you wanted and determined it wasn’t worth it?

Social media isn’t for everyone. Not every organization should implement it. But it’s not trial-by-error. I think it’s your responsibility to do the proper research, come up with a strategic plan and implement the plan. If it doesn’t work, determine why. Jumping in and testing the waters isn’t the way to implement social media, though.


17 Matt Cheuvront June 17, 2009 at 4:04 pm

I genuinely believe that if you are a company seeking to invest/launch a social media campaign, you have to be willing to invest the time, both during the short term and over the long haul. Those businesses, entrepreneurs, and organizations who are looking to make a ‘quick pass’ over it all will realize that the response will be limited.

We, as social media enthusiasts, typically only respond to genuine conversation and interaction (which, in it’s own right can be difficult to achieve for a business). One of the first things that has be be brought to light when launching a social media campaign is that it involves time – time to both establish, then nurture the relationships and connections that are forged.


18 Lisa Hoffmann June 17, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Who knows? Some people will take this approach, see it catch fire and run with it to great success. Another may venture in haphazardly, get discouraged and quit. Still another may jump in, prove some worth, take the proof to her superiors and get the support she needs to create a better plan.

Having a plan is probably always better, but IMHO telling people they shouldn’t try without a top-down plan will discourage experimentation, which – despite what some marcomms may say – is not always detrimental and can lead to real breakthroughs.


19 Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear) June 17, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Without at least *some* toe-dipping in the SM waters ahead of a full-scale launch, your full-scale launch may, unintentionally, turn into a pilot program when it’s abandoned due to lack of resources, interest, or relevance.

What’s worked well in my experience is to use pilot programs, but not with the official stamp of the organization. Have the folks who’d be managing social media at the organization start using social media personally.

Usually people figure out pretty quickly if there’s relevance for their organization or not, and which tools would best serve them.


20 Leo Bottary June 17, 2009 at 6:31 pm

There’s a big difference between a test program and proceeding deliberately. I believe brands should proceed deliberately and learn what works best for them along the way.


21 Danny Brown June 18, 2009 at 2:28 am

Would you do a pilot program on an ad campaign? Or “traditional PR” campaign? Or marketing?

No. Because your market research has given you the answers you need to launch the next part of your strategy. You have the ammunition and you have your targets, so you go for them.

Social media is the same. Okay, so now it’s two-way conversation as opposed to one-way dialogue, but does that mean you take baby steps? No – it means you make more effort to ensure you’re prepared for what lies ahead.

How do you do this? If you’re a company that’s serious about a digital presence, you’re already involved on a personal level (or your employees are).

If not, you bring in a consultancy or agency to get you up to speed. You decide on the strongest tools for you to use and build effectively there, as opposed to haphazardly everywhere. You monitor progress (yes, SWOT still counts in social media) and you make sure you’re adaptable from the lessons learned along the way.

If you’re going to get drunk, you don’t drink apple juice. If you’re going to be serious about any strategy, social media-led or otherwise, you don’t say, “Well, let’s try build a little bit here and if we don’t like it let’s go back to our comfort zone.”

Starting something and pulling out can be perceived more negatively than not having started in the first place. No customer wants to deal with an indecisive company. Do they?


22 David Teicher (@Aerocles) August 10, 2009 at 1:05 pm

I think it’s more about choosing the right channel – pick one vehicle – facebook, youtube, twitter, a blog, etc…and focus all efforts on that one medium. This way, you’ve got your pilot program mentality in that you’re not trying to tackle the entire social space in one fell swoop. It’s not overwhelming; you have time to manage and monitor one platform, and thus you can develop a system in which consistancy is maintained.

Additionally, choosing one medium allows for much easier measurement and analytics, to determine if the effort has delivered and if it’s worthwhile to expand.

Of course, to do this, you also have to choose one goal – customer service, marketing, branding, PR…etc. – pick one & stick to it – let your goal be the guiding influence in choosing the most effective social platform and your method for measuring results.

This is my “Pilot Program.” It has longevity, a goal, consistency, and it’s measurable. If it’s deemed to be successful, you can adapt this mini-initiative to other social media, or expand your goals, if desired. Either way, limiting yourself or your brand to 1 goal, 1 platform, 1 campaign is the best, IMHO, form of Pilot Program – insofar as that it has all the elements of a traditional and comprehensive campaign, while keeping things simple enough to act as a test of your needs, capabilities, and suitability for the effectively utilizing these media.


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