What is a “Real” Social Media Success Story?

Whenever you read about companies and celebrities using social media such as Twitter and Facebook, you hear all the stories about how these organizations and people have become huge social media success stories. They have expanded their reach to more followers and created another portal for constant engagement and brand-building.

A rundown of these social media success stories usually includes the following:

  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Ashton Kutcher
  • CNN
  • Walmart
  • Apple
  • Skittles
  • Marriott
  • Kodak
  • McDonald’s
  • CVS
  • Hershey’s
  • Staples
  • Intel
  • Cisco
  • UPS
  • The Home Depot
  • PepsiCo
  • Discovery Channel

Do you notice what they all they have in common?

They all existed before the rise of social media. Beyond that, they were all huge before the rise of social media.

Oprah, for example, got famous for creating one of the better daytime talk shows, and making it the cornerstone of her media empire. Every day, she touched a nerve with viewers and guests, and stayed away from the circus atmosphere of some other daytime shows (you know who I mean). She covered topics that were touching and interesting, and developed a brand that was largely based on her personality and interests.

In other words, she was a social element before the medium she could really exploit was even born. And you might notice that her show is still on television, and is still the foundation of her empire. Her followers would not be her followers without it. So is Oprah really a social media success story?

Similarly, Ashton Kutcher was not unknown before the rise of Twitter. It turns out he was already a very talented and funny actor, and the star of a hit television show, a veteran of several movies, a teen magazine heartthrob, and his posters graced the walls of girls’ bedrooms everywhere before he ever sent his first Tweet. Without all that, he’d probably be a geeky-but-dreamy guy working at Wal-Mart, known for his ability to make friends, but not a social media legend.

While we’re on the subject, Kutcher challenged CNN to gain more Twitter followers. He won, and claimed the victory showed that “Social media and social news outlets can become as powerful as the major news outlets.”

But CNN still seems to be standing. 90 million people subscribe to it through their cable providers and several million viewers tune in each day. Kutcher relies on reruns, movies, Nikon ads and tabloid covers to keep his name on everyone’s mind. When he covers a foreign war, humanitarian disaster, or the daily economic report using only his Twitter account, I’ll be impressed.

Speaking of Wal-Mart, you might have noticed that the company is larger than some countries in revenue and total square footage. This had nothing to do with social media, and neither will the company’s future. Wal-Mart’s only possible strategy with social media is to strengthen its relationship with followers, most of whom shop there only because of low prices (based on forcing its manufacturers to exploit slave labor overseas).

Apple took a lot of flak until very recently for being late to the party, and even discouraging the use of social media tools. The company is now on board, but with such a dedicated base of followers and some of the most innovative consumer-oriented multimedia tools, it’s surprising they didn’t lead. Apple’s finally building outposts using social media is not an example of a success story.

Skittles are tasty, fruity sugar drops that got to be one of the biggest sellers before the Internet was even around, so what is the point of a candy having a website anyway? Well, the Skittles marketers thought the same thing and replaced their website with a Twitter window and a little Flash with promotional offers and links to Facebook and YouTube. It’s brilliant, but is it a social media success? Skittles isn’t even a company. It’s just a brand sold by Wrigley Bros., which in turn is owned by Mars, Inc.

So what exactly is a social media success story?

It has to go beyond creating an outpost and generating buzz. A true social media success story should have been virtually unknown before using social media, and should be a legitimate business. A business is something that fills a market need, has a sustainable revenue model, and has the potential to enrich more than just the owner, but also its community, industry and audience. A lot of people make money from their blog, and they advertise their blog through social media, but have they created something that can continue to operate and adds value for others?

There are a few examples:


Bacon Salt

Cold Stone Creamery


Finally – a success story that more closely matches every marketer’s situation: How to take an existing business with a small budget and little name recognition and gain market share using social media.



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