Too Big To Start

IStock_000008369823XSmallWe’ve heard a lot in the press over the past year about companies that were “too big to fail.”  Being B-I-G has as many disadvantages as advantages.

For example, one conundrum for these megalithic companies is that when it comes to responding to consumers via Social Media channels, they sometimes feel as if they are “too big to start.”

This came up in conversations with a Fortune 500 brand manager.  We were talking about Twitter.  They’ve got their official Twitter handle; they have owned it for months.  But they have not tweeted.

They want to.  They feel the need to.  But this is a classic case of “analysis paralysis.”  With a big brand comes big expectations and a big spotlight.

Some of the questions that were raised by this Fortune 500 company…

What if we can’t scale to meet the ### of tweets directed at us?  What are the expectations for response times?

What if we inadvertently say something that is material to the markets?  What if we say something that negatively impacts the stock price?

What if we say something that gets us sued?

What if the mission we have in mind for this Twitter handle is subverted by user demands, i.e., what if we only want to tweet about our community relations efforts but everyone insists on @’ing us with customer service issues?  What if we don’t respond to those queries?

I am not writing this post to provide the answers here.  If you’re a regular reader you can guess how we handled such concerns (or tried to)!

I bring it up to show that there is an EAGERNESS on the side of large brands to “join the conversation,” but there is also a nearly unassailable sense of WARINESS as well.  And I have to admit — those were damned good questions they asked.  This stuff is risky.  And corporations don’t like risk.

Our responsibility as consumers, I think, is to applaud whatever baby steps are made by the world’s largest companies.  Coax them out into the open.

Posted on: September 3, 2009 at 11:30 am By Todd Defren
54 Responses to “Too Big To Start”


  • daniel young says:

    All companies are wise to think long and hard about the implications of engaging customers via social media – especially sprawling Fortune 500 companies, which would be wise to put the appropriate policies and guidelines in place. Any organisation that reaches paralysis by analysis stage, however, probably has some more fundamental questions to address. I’d wager that they are likely set up culturally or operationally to listen to customers and that’s a problem before social media even comes into the equation.

  • Kate Hartley says:

    This is a great post and there are very hard questions that big corporations have to answer before they engage over social media. The outcome should be that companies will put experienced people onto their public engagement in the same way they would their traditional media engagement. (Or risk doing a Habitat – whose official response to its hashtag debacle was “we had an intern running our Twitter account”.)

  • Todd,

    I’ve worked with both big and small companies who are afraid of exactly those things that you mentioned. In pre-Twitter era (and pre-other forms of social media) these companies were blissfully ignorant of much of the discussions that went on. The Twitter discussions are going to happen whether you are there or not. Better to be present, IMO.

    Twitter is much like jumping off a diving board. It seems scary as heck, but once you do it a couple of times you’ll wonder why you were frightened. Of course, you won’t be executing perfect 10s right away. Your technique will have to evolve through practice and conscious effort.


  • I think that part of the plan should always be never being so firmly set that you can’t accomodate the customer. Just like no strategy lasts long after the battle starts, the best and most well thought-out social media strategy is going to fail if it isn’t engaging. If customers want customer service, then you’ve probably got to split your focus, change your focus entirely, or spin out a new account that CS can manage.

    I come at this from the opposite angle – I work mostly with small businesses, and their big fear is that they aren’t going to find an audience based on their brand. The ones that try to bank on a brand that isn’t on the radar (usually due to ego) don’t get followers or fans or reactions. When they’re human with niche expertise (related to their business), it works. No matter what size your business is, it’s all about keeping the community engaged. If you can’t adapt to what they’re asking of you, the best social media plan is just serving Kobe beef to vegetarians.

  • George Snell says:

    Compelling topic, Todd, but I disagree that as consumers our responsibility is to applaud enterprises for wading into the social media waters. Isn’t it the responsibility of brands to come out an engage with their customers?

    But I do like your idea of some companies being too big to start. I see that a lot as well. Mostly because big companies are much more siloed and hierarchical than small companies. It really is difficult to figure out where and how to start Twittering when you have multiple brands and dozens of offices around the globe.

    The big debate inside enterprises seems to be focused on where social media will sit. With marketing or with communications? I think we’d both argue for the latter. But that debate also seems to be stalling adoption of social media.

    I’m not a math major (obviously), but I do think there is a formula that could prove that the larger a company – the more risk adverse it becomes, especially with such powerful and leveling technology as the web provides.

  • Todd, great post. The concerns raised by Fortune 500 company are real and valid ones–I have at times been very frustrated by the insistence of some social media evangelists that big companies need to, essentially, just “get over it” and jump in to social media with both feet. That sort of thinking is naive–big, publicly owned companies have an awful lot to think about before taking a risk like social media. In some cases, taking the risk might be perceived as fiscally or legally irresponsible, something that shareholders tend not to like.

    That said, were I still in an advisory capacity at a PR firm, my recommendation would be to plan. Plan (or try to) for all of those instances listed above. If the Twitter handle is subverted for Customer Service? Have a plan in place to address that. Scaling/response times? Try to plan for it. Have backups in place. (Getting sued is trickier, and isn’t a false concern; I’ve noticed a number of cases getting attention.)

    At any rate, your closing comment is great–these companies will make mistakes in social media. Being level-headed and not overly critical is key to encouraging them to remain in the space. If their lawyers let them. ;-)

    • Todd Defren says:

      “Plan, plan, plan” is (of course) part of the game plan. But those clients who DO make the jump also want “results, results, results.”

      It’s hard to measure stuff that doesn’t happen as a result of careful planning. ;)

      • “It’s hard to measure stuff that doesn’t happen as a result of careful planning.”

        This is a great point, and one that unfortunately is often underappreciated–especially by clients who are leaders in their industry and feel they don’t need to engage in social media. Many times the best case scenario of engaging is they simply remain an industry leader and prevent their competitors to get a foot in the door.

  • Genevieve says:

    I think if companies (even the big guys), want to stay viable in the coming years and decades, they have to learn to be comfortable with a level of transparency that is not currently the status quo. I believe that Generation Y and the generations that come after it value an open-door policy, and they are immediately suspicious of companies that appear to be “hiding something.” Gen Y takes their brands more seriously than any previous generations ever have, and they want a level of trust of their brand relationships. So the big companies better step up and assume some of that “risk” that comes with an evolving market!

    • Todd Defren says:

      The real challenge will come, though, when the companies SCREW UP ROYALLY. When the users jump ugly on a company that screws up OR, simply because they disagree with a corp decision, what we all want to avoid is a retrenchment behind the firewall!

  • Matt says:


    I think you’re right on. We’re seeing more and more companies coming to us eager to LEARN more about social media, but not necessarily ready for implementation.

    It’s interesting that you put a call to action to consumers. Of course we want to see big brands humanized and communicating with us on a personal level. However, we remain quick to call out poor efforts and hesitant to recognized successful ones. If that mindset starts to shift, I think more corps will realize there’s more risk in NOT participating.

  • Todd – Great topic for discussion. Exposing yourself in social media is like standing naked in front of your competitors and clients … make sure you’ve been doing your sit-ups!

    Twitter did not go as planned for us (@PRNewswire). The audience did dictate what it would be and kind of took it out of our hands. And guess what, it turned out better than we had planned. Sharing control with your audience is not such a bad thing.

  • tim dyson says:

    I guess the comfort we should take from this is:

    1. they want to join the conversation
    2. they are not just jumping in and creating a mess

    That said, the longer they sit on the sidelines the harder it will get to join the game…

    • Todd Defren says:

      Thanks for visiting, Mr. Dyson.

      You’re right of course. What I wonder is what will happen to those brands that DO wait too long (or never join in at all), but whose actions are STILL publicly debated in the online marketplace.

      Does “too late” mean that they’ll never get to react? No, but, they’ll be viewed more warily for having started playing “on defense.”

    • Ari Herzog says:

      Why is sitting on the sidelines a bad thing? Baseball players do it a lot–until the coach (or popular opinion) asks them to play.

      Is the sitting company the player or the coach? Or is the sitting company the participant in the stands who gets up to cheer and sits down to watch but rarely, if ever, is asked to come down after the game and run the bases?

  • Jon Clements says:

    It’s a phenomenon we are witnessing here in the UK with major brands and I feel that our embracing and evangelism of social media can be alarming for those in corporations responsible for re-evaluating the direction of their communications and, often, their communications culture. Anyone who works with large blue chip companies knows this is like turning oil tankers.

    At least if they are asking questions, their minds are on the page. It’s just their hearts that need to follow.

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