Blog post

How High is the Failure Rate for Social Media Initiatives?

By Anthony J. Bradley | September 23, 2009 | 4 Comments

I have been talking with clients and publishing on a very prevalent worst practice I call “Provide and Pray.” This involves simply providing access to a social software tool and praying something valuable comes from it. They pray that a community actually forms and that its activity delivers value to the enterprise. This isn’t “build it and they will come” because nothing is even built. Almost every enterprise I’ve talked with has suffered from the provide and pray practice. Even those who eventually are successful with social media. It almost seems a necessary step in the maturity process. The “provide and pray” approach drives the failure rate up significantly.

I have been talking about “a purposeful approach” for a few years now hoping to spare Gartner clients this intermediate failure step. See “Toolkit: Planning for Social Software Applications Using a Purpose Road Map” and “Ten Primary Design Considerations for Delivering Social Software Solutions: The PLANT SEEDS Framework” (available to Gartner clients or for a fee). Also see previous posts here, here, here, and here.

An August 2009 survey by Mzinga and Babson Executive Education found that 84% of respondents were not measuring the ROI of their social media initiatives. You could argue that this represents a possible 84% failure rate if you consider ROI as the measure of success and believe that “you get what you measure” or in this case you don’t get what you don’t measure. However, many consider ROI a poor measure of the value of social media.

As many of you already know, I have spent this year collecting a set of social media cases. I have collected 200 good social media cases after examining over 350 cases and discarding those that either were not really social collaboration or were clear failures (no significant adoption). I’m not talking about a survey here but a collection examined by hand. Next week I begin writing up my findings which should publish by mid October. Here were a few interesting discoveries (minus the actual numbers).

  1. Cases with good ROI metrics are rare.
  2. Cases with well articulated business results are few.
  3. Cases with activity metrics are more common.

My research indicates that if you measure success by business results, the failure rate is very high. If you measure success by adoption rates (social activity metrics), the failure rate is just high. Again, keep an eye on this blog and I will post when I’ve completed writing up my findings.   

BTW, one of my sources for cases was the social software technology vendors and by far most could not articulate the specific business value their clients gained by using their products.

What metrics are you using to measure social media success? What metrics do you consider a good measure of social media success?

And, of course, I always want to hear more success or horror stories (for my growing collection).

Leave a Comment


  • Barry Libert says:


    Thanks for mentioning our study in your blog post. When we look at metrics, we see that as companies interact with their customers, partners and employees they will be able to measure not only membership growth and retention but can also see how this affects the health and wellness of a community in addition to brand reputation.

    We hope that when we speak in the coming weeks you can see the great strides we, along with many companies in our space, are making towards answering the ROI question.

    Barry Libert
    Chairman & CEO

  • Anthony Bradley says:

    Barry, I look forward to it. I’m currently working on a framework for building social media business cases. It will be interesting to see how they fit together.

  • Sophia Swain says:

    Thanks for another really interesting blog post.

    I’m currently working on a social media deployment for a large utility. We’ve been keen to avoid falling into the trap of reporting activity simply because it doesn’t best represent the success of our initiative.

    For our business the key driver was creating a corporate memory through a wiki, and bottom up comms through blogging. Our ‘business case’ (if you can call it that) was based on these concepts. More recently we’ve seen what we call ‘interesting case studies’ of users connecting across silos and through that transforming their collaboration opportunities. Measuring this type of activity is almost impossible however through the use of a great MI tool we’ve been able to put high level figures around this and we’ve identified our best collaborators and connectors.

    What we have achieved is a u-turn in our approach to business cases, ROI and success measures. We purposefully went into our deployment avoiding all three terms because we believed (both in my team and as a business) that we would see benefit if we allowed the project to grow organically into whichever area of the business people felt it should go, keeping an eye on its development and where necessary stepping in to guide the business teams. Now opponents of the project who ask for our ROI or business case are met with a whithering look from the most important community in our business – the front line agents who spend their days dealing with complicated IT, limited training and difficult public customers.

    For me its a very exciting time to be involved in a project of this nature.

  • Anthony Bradley says:

    Sophia, I must point out that you are in the minority. I don’t believe avoiding business cases, ROI, or business measures is a good practice. Being met with “withering looks” when asked about ROI or business case is, IMO, not a sound business practice. If the initiative is so obviously valuable to the line agents then it should be an easy task for them to articulate the value of the initiative in concrete business terms.

    The vast majority of social media efforts I’ve seen with goals as broad as “creating a corporate memory through a wiki, and bottom up comms through blogging” do not succeed. You just may have been lucky this time but it doesn’t seem to me to be a repeatable competency. We do agree, however, that this is an exciting time to be collaborating.