Social media disaster: What I learned when EVERYTHING went wrong

social media crisis

By Rogier Noort, {grow} Community Member

In the past 20 months I learned so much about Social Media and Social Business it’s just ridiculous. All the available information in blogs like {grow}, books, conferences, e-books, newsletters is almost overwhelming.

When I moved to Belgium I needed a new job and I had just one requirement — it needed to have a Social Media element in it.

I was, and still am, the Go-To Social Media guy for my friends and family and thought I knew it all a lot. With that attitude I went on a job interview in Brussels and, lo and behold, I actually got a job.

Good for me.., but now it was time to put my money where my mouth was.

The Strategy

I started with the Social Media Strategy … because that’s what you do, right?

My strategy did not have much to do with content creation, however. What I did was figure out where I wanted to end up, what my personal, ideal view on the use of social media was … based on the books and blog posts I had read.

It was a bit too … ambitious.

noort strategy

The company I worked for had 200 employees, supplied local customers in the Brussels region and has an old-school command-and-control culture.

There were other issues. All departments happily existed within their own silos, quite a few employees are permanently stationed at a remote client location and I was a stranger from another country who did not know the language well (it’s French, if you want to know, and although Brussels is supposed to be bilingual, it really isn’t).

I was realizing I did not have a strategy issue, I was facing a culture issue.

No Control

My first lesson was this: as a social media professional you depend on other people and departments to get things done.

Updating the corporate website, my first step in the strategy, was almost completely out of my control. Add to this a reduced budget, decentralized content-management, in-house web developers (who do not want to give up any control) and an overall priority for client websites and change becomes an arduous process.

It took me more than a year to feel like some changes were being implemented.

No Leadership = No Participation

My second lesson — A green light from management does not equal success.

Active management sponsorship is crucial for the success of a social strategy, or any business strategy for that matter.

I argued and pleaded and tried to convince employees to participate, but to no avail. The most involvement I got were two ghost-written blog posts. These were, in effect, of no consequence. They did not even relate to the company or solved any problem a client might have.

There was no executive leadership and that led to a lack of trickle-down-participation.

No Content Creators

The third lesson I learned was, creating great content is hard work.

It’s tough enough for a personal blog, but it is significantly more challenging for a multi-author corporate blog, especially when you are the only one pushing things along.

I learned that creating an editorial calendar is no guarantee deadlines are met. Even though our seven “regular” bloggers knew their topic and their deadline (I put these in their calendars), everybody always waited until the last possible moment.

And more often than not, I received an email the day before, “Sorry, but I can’t make it … No time.”

I ended up writing a bunch of posts to fill in the gaps. Oh well. I suppose this was good practice for me!

No IT Support

Although Social Media is not about hardware and computers, I learned that you don’t get anywhere without IT support.

To make progress, I needed a blog … something more than a Twitter account and a company Facebook page.

I tried to get blog functionality on our corporate website. This turned out to be too much of technological challenge. I argued that it wasn’t (Google was my supportive friend here), but, I hit a wall of IT obstinance.

In the end, I set up a WordPress blog on my own.

By the time I left the company we had just about 80 posts, some really good, and we had a reasonable amount of visitors, but not much more than that. There was no measurable ROI or business benefit.

I’m to Blame

Now, it may look like I’m pointing the finger at management, IT and everyone else who was supposed to support me … and it’s true that they probably could have gotten behind the program a bit more.

But the truth is, my strategy was doomed from the beginning.

I created something based on what I read on the web, not based in reality. I ticked off the list with things other people told me I would need. I did not take the company culture into account. I did not secure executive sponsorship. I did not look at realistic, measurable goals based on the capabilities of the company. I did not create a compelling story for what I was trying to accomplish and I did not use the company business plan as a guide.

I just started. And I won’t make that mistake again.

Key lessons

  1. A strategy without executive sponsorship is meaningless.
  2. The corporate culture dictates social media capabilities and competencies, not my will.
  3. There is no cookie-cutter approach from books and blog posts.
  4. I’ll never get the support I need without active management understanding and participation.
  5. I need to make a case for social media based on a business plan, in the language of the company.

What about you? Is there one mistake you made from which we can learn? Please share, I’d like to know so I don’t feel so alone out here!

As a social entrepreneur in the BeNeLux my focus lies on a holistic approach for helping companies mature their social media exploits, externally and/or internally. Find me on Twitter (@rogiernoort), LinkedIn ( or on my blog, where I write about social business in Western Europe.

Illustration courtesy 

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  • Claudia Licher

    If you succeed at getting management to participate once, don’t assume they’ll participate on a structural basis.
    Don’t forget your stakeholders, especially if you think you’re safe. You need to list them – all of them – and make sure you keep in touch.
    Thanks for sharing your lessons.

  • RogierNoort

    Thanks for the addition Claudia, it’s true. A one time effort is meaningless. One of the things they need to learn is that social (media or business) is an ongoing activity. It has to become business as usual.

  • jennifer lehner

    The timing of your article is spooky. I am embarking on two new jobs that will each present similar challenges to what you describe in Brussels. I don’t have the language barrier (man, that was brave) but I will be pulling teeth for content.

    I think one of the things we are always up against is that the people/businesses who need us most are often the ones who do not understand social media at all. After all, that’s often why we are there. We want to show them how effective and powerful it is. One of my new clients is at best ambivalent and possibly even resistant. He is one part of a 3 person team. I hope to bring him around but I also state their roles, and mine, very clearly in our contract.

    Thanks for the great post. And I love the diagram, too.

  • Thank you, Rogier, for this excellent learning opportunity. Pretty well all of the examples you listed here represent more the rule than the exception – especially for smaller businesses.

    Listening and observing the lay of the land before trying to impose our plans is a lesson I learned in pre social media times.
    We can’t isolate social from the company. As you imply, it needs to be integrated into the business plan and commitment from the top.

  • RogierNoort

    OK, well, good luck on the new assignments. Your part of a great community here on {grow}, I’m sure you’ll find any answers you need.
    And yes, you have a good point, those who need us the most, need to be convinced the most, sticky situation.

    You can use the diagram, but for me, it was just too much of a good thing.

    Thanks for the comment (and compliment).

  • RogierNoort

    Thanks for the comment Ray. Yes, had I known then what I know now.

  • Indeed. It’s a complex online world we live in. At our firm, we provide new clients with a mandatory online marketing and social networking training program (4 weeks – with homework) as well as a required engagement commitment of no less than 6 months, weekly collaborative sessions, monthly strategic meetings and quarterly review. We’ve found that when our clients are that invested, they stick to the plan which in turn delivers the ROI we all seek.

  • Rachel D Metscher

    Reading your post was like a flash back to my own personal experience moving a company into the social world. I think as practitioners and earlier adopters of social, we sometimes forget that not everyone wants to join in. Company culture is very important to change management of any kind, but especially for social media. Great article that addresses all the challenges of attempting to make a company social. I add two more to your list: 1) In the end, the only way a company will become truly social is with constant training and feedback. Prepare for the long haul 2) Help folks help themselves by providing guidelines like a social media playbook. Some folks need a framework of what to do and what not to do

  • RogierNoort

    Wow, that is intense. But, having a decent involvement over a longer period of time.., you do get results. People have enough time to get accustomed and create habits.
    Thanks shining that light Randy.

  • RogierNoort

    We did establish a Social Media Policy. And with great effort I managed to add some positive pointers in there. Mostly it was what employees couldn’t do, very negative. Training was in the planning, but took to much time to set up. And I couldn’t make it mandatory, which was a must for me.

    Tanks for adding the two points Rachel.

  • I’d describe it as a collaborative approach to delivering ROI. 🙂

  • Rachel D Metscher

    Ugh. Training is time intensive, but worth it if you have support. In your situation it sounds like folks were interested, but didn’t understand the true cost of social media beyond the low entry cost of the platforms. Very typical. But, your experience is worth-wild to share and thank you so much for doing so. It good to know other folks have similar challenges integrating social media in a business.

  • Ashley Faulkes

    Hey Rogier, that does sound like a tough but lesson-filled situation. Company structure and hierarchy can indeed make some tasks we would do easily alone, a lot more difficult. As for the language thing, I get that too – I am an Australian living and working in Switzerland :>

  • Randy, that is certainly an interesting apporach, and as far as I know, unique. Would you be interested in taking a crack at a guest post about it, especially highlighting results?

  • RogierNoort

    Yup, an Australian in Switzerland would do it. Where in Swiss? I do have some buddies in Luzern.
    Thanks for dropping in Ashley.

  • if you don’t mind me providing a link ( this is a 14-page ebook on our approach. Additionally, it is outlined on our (/plans) page.

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  • What a perfect reminder that marketing strategies increasingly must dovetail with business strategies and culture: something that senior management in too many companies seems unable or unwilling to understand and act on. Good luck as you continue your crusade, Rogier!

  • Thanks Rogier for the great article! Your experience is the reality I am in now. At first, I could not understand why these extremely smart and business savvy executives did not want to use social media, create more content, and engage better with the consumer. But the realization is 1) many executives don’t use social media, so they don’t understand it 2) the business has grown without social media, and they are just fine with that until it is proven that the bottom line is suffering 3) many businesses are reactionary, and will only buy in if competitors are finding success, or the industry as a whole buys in.

    You are so right about the silos, lack of control, and how important the corporate lingo is in all this. I find that while the buy in is slow and even non-existent, I am highly valued for the knowledge I have. By building small successes I am slowly getting my strategy implemented, and truth be told, it would be a disaster (just as you experienced) if my strategy were implemented in the time frame I originally planned. There are so many opinions and so much information to digest, and really only small percentage applies to what I will be able to do. It is a challenge to sort out what will work in my business in my corporate structure. I think about the situation as being on the ground floor of new marketing due to a changing consumer and evolving technology, and that isn’t the worst place to be.

  • The lessons/advice here might be as good as any currently in publication. A wealth of wisdom. Best of luck!

  • Druter

    Social media is a dept/stategy/outlook that comands a lot of newspace and buzz in the climate of business today and wrongfully so. Eventually everyone will realize that social media is nothing more than a very VERY small part of marketing/PR. It asks for a lot and yet scoffs at the idea of proving ROI.

  • Is there a best time to sync up by phone?

  • Hi Mark. I have some case studies I can share.

  • Some may think that our collaborative approach mean clients will need us less in the future. That’s a possibility for sure, but we also think that clients will have a much better understanding of the value we are providing. We feel that the more they know and understand, the more they will appreciate that not everyone can (or will) pay attention to the details the way our team does. Plus, they become skilled enough to handle many of the routine tasks on their own, which saves them on billable hours. It also allows us to put our attention where it’s most useful: on devising future strategies and taking on higher-level challenges.

  • niliamar

    I definitely agree with how important is to understand the organisation’s culture to be able to embed a good social media strategy. I’m from Colombia working in England and the barriers are not just the language but also peoples reactions to different situation. I believe that in order to be successfully there is something about having great observation and listening skills and be able to understand and adapt your “book” strategy into every single context. Great post and thanks for making us feel that we are not the only ones in the struggle!

  • RogierNoort

    Thanks for the kind words Bill, much appreciated…

  • RogierNoort

    Just imagine a couple of years from now.., when all your hard work actually pays dividend. Those extremely smart and business savvy execs will be thanking you. Patience is the virtue.

    Thanks for the wonderful and open comment Lance.

  • RogierNoort

    Alignment is key. It’s dual purpose. Giving ‘us’ a good guide and ‘them’ good visualization (and hopefully understanding).

    Thanks for the good comment Pete.

  • RogierNoort

    No, your not alone. The comments here alone can attest to that.
    And yes, when working in another country you have to be a diplomat too.

    Thanks for adding to the conversation niliamar.

  • RogierNoort

    I have to disagree Druter. I believe ‘ROI’ is a very important part of any strategy. And it can be obtained when business goals and social media/business goals are aligned. Besides, ROI cannot be a goal in and of itself, it’s a consequence of achieving several goals (social media only helps you with that).

  • Great post. Admire the bravery to put it all out there. If we’re honest, I think probably 99.9% of everyone that’s worked in social media has faced these issues. But definitely good to learn from this stuff. Also, don’t take all the blame… sometimes a company, people, or culture just isn’t the right fit and it’s just not worth the time/effort to convince them of the value of social and what they should be doing.

  • RogierNoort

    Thanks for the support Jason.

    The thing is that I kept going at it a bit too long. Strategies and plans need to adapt. Having a bold plan is OK, but you have to adjust.., I didn’t, not enough.

  • jeffyablon


    Like so many others I thoroughly enjoyed this. Everything you say is true/makes sense/resonates etc., and finding it HERE is no surprise.

    But you did something that bugs me. You failed to state anything resembling a solution to ‘the’ problem you so eloquently described.

    Oh sure, you took responsibility. And your chart is brilliant (I’ll likely borrow it; it’s THAT good). But after your captivating narrative you didn’t finish anything!

    My point isn’t to pick on you. None of us wrote this; you did, and it summarizes what so many professionals in the (I don’t wish to call it ‘SOCIAL MEDIA”) biz can attest to, really, really well. But then … SO?

    Now of course, those of us that either teach others to deal with this stuff (HA!) or do it for them can take your roadmap, tweak it, and find our way somewhere. So again, great job (and thanks for the neat summary). But I’ll tell you what I tell clients: recognizing a problem is step one, sorting through it is step two, and unless you go onto step three to try and fix the problem you wasted your energy on one and two.

    I hope you’re ready to attack step three!

  • Donna Neumann

    Great info, Rogier. I am coming at social media from a bit of a different angle as a business owner but your comments still resonated. The two things I have learned for sure are: 1) that it take a lot more time than all the gurus out there who are selling their training courses would have you believe; and 2) it is always changing creating the need for an even bigger investment of time.

  • RogierNoort

    Hey Jeff.., love your comment. Yes, use the diagram, it’s why it’s there.

    To answer your question: TIme!

    The main reason I “gave up” was the time it would take to accomplish goals. The decision was also a combination of location and payment, some personal stuff. But, in the end I felt that it would take me several more years to get to a satisfactory level of Social within that company.
    I felt that the current wave of business opportunity demanded a different approach and a certain freedom.

    The above story was not with a client, but a “regular” job. Had it been a client, I would not have given up.

    The trick, indeed, for me is to apply all I’ve learned and not repeat the mistakes made. And that wouldn’t fit in a single blogpost. That’s why I’ve been writing on my own blog and on {grow} (and an E-book). Just to get my head around things and make sure that the next challenge will be met.

  • RogierNoort

    It does depend on who you read. Some get, others regurgitate information which it floating around. As with so many things, it rarely translates flawlessly from print to real life. Some myths need to be busted.

    Yes, it takes time, money and effort. In some cases a whole lot of it. Everything you undertake needs to be customized to your, and your business’, needs. It (Social Media or Social Business) are not one-time efforts (campaigns are).
    It has to be, at some point, business as usual. Second nature.

    One of the things I encountered was hearing about new projects or events from third parties, like a newspaper. Instead of creating a campaign leading up to the publication, I now had to post the fact we were published. After the fact Social Media is as good as useless.

    Once you adapt a certain routine, it might become less intrusive for you as a business owner. And yes, the ever changing social landscape demands you stay up-to-date. Being able to hire somebody is a luxury for sure.

    Happy you found the post useful Donna, thanks for stopping by.

  • Ashley Faulkes

    no worries, interesting to read people’s experiences in companies and in foreign cultures.

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  • Hassanmirza

    This is so great! Makes me think back to my first truly social media gig at a professional body. I literally had to fight to get my social strategy heard by senior management – and the CEO was so intimidated and confused by digital media, she avoided me in the hallways and denied all attempts at dialogue. Social challenges hierarchies, it requires collaboration instead of silos, and as you said – a strong management structure. Thankfully at that job, I had a great manager and lots of enthusiastic colleagues who were keen to get involved. I trained everyone I could, reached out and developed relationships with key influencers outside the business, and tried to integrate it all up with the website and business objectives as much as possible. Well done for you for writing this post – you summed up your learnings so well and I really appreciate you recognising your mistakes. Just followed you on Twitter and added you on Linkedin- would love to see more of your work.

  • Tamar Weiss

    Rogier, great post and something I could have used in the last job! You really do need everyone on board – and, I would add, a content strategy of 2013 with dialogue and transparency, rather than the 1990 billboard mentality. Glad to have now found a great community that will help me with my new social media job.

  • RogierNoort

    Cheers Tamar, sometimes ‘lessons learned’ reach people on time, sometimes not. I’d wish I knew up front.
    And yes, a decent content strategy was not on the table, in hindsight, this is what you need to pull everything together.

    Thanks for the addition.

  • RogierNoort

    Hey Hassan, thanks so much for sharing your experience. It’s definitely a good example on ‘how it’s done’. We can’t assume to land a job like this and have everybody support and join you throughout a company from the get go. It’ll be a while before that happens, if ever.

    Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Kristy

    I can relate to some of the problems you list above. I also especially like the choice of photo for this post.

  • Seems you’ve learned that you can’t “do social media”, you must become a social enterprise 🙂

    A lesson we are all still learning everyday

  • RogierNoort

    Heh, credit for the photo goes to our Chief, Mark. But, yes, it’s very apt.

  • RogierNoort

    So very true Warren. Now, all we have to do is convince everybody else. 🙂

    Thanks for stopping by.

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  • Guest blog has been written. Will send it to you via email by tomorrow. Thanks Mark.

  • Maria Juana

    Having the right strategy you’ll get quality work in time.

  • Hi Mark. I attempted to send you my blog article on Saturday but do not see it in my sent folder. Would you please confirm if you received it or not? Thank you.

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  • Sara Dee

    It’s so rare to find something like this. I love that you took the time
    to reflect on your mistakes and that you chose to share it with the rest of us.
    I’m a student right now hoping to make the switch from working in IT to working
    in PR and reading this gives me an idea of what it might be like to create a
    social media strategy and what obstacles I’d have to face when doing so. I
    think, because I grew up using Facebook, Twitter, tumblr and the like, and also
    because I work in IT, I take my knowledge of social media for granted so I
    automatically assume that everyone understands the value of it. Reading your
    post has made me realize that this is still very new to many people who have
    never used any sort of social media outlets and may actually feel threatened by
    it in many ways. Thank you for taking the time to share with everyone your
    experience and what you learned from it!

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  • Guest

    Extremely thoughtful and helpful post, Rogier. As a Social Media Editor

  • I really think the whole issue was summed up with your culture comment. Culture trumps strategy all day long.

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