My latest post for Harvard Business tackles the lessons other companies can learn from the latest social media disaster, this time brought to you by Qantas Airways:
[A]irlines are far from the only businesses to face a newly redrawn balance-of-power between company and customer, or between employer and employee. And it’s these larger shifts that should make every industry take note of the Qantas gaffe…The only way to prevent your company from pulling a Qantas is to…[s]top treating social media as marketing, and recognize it for what it is: an invitation to transform the entire way your company works, and possibly even the business you’re in.
The post focuses on the specific lessons that can be drawn from the Qantas misfire, but there’s a meta-lesson here, too. It’s a widely recognized truth that we must learn from failure: many people argue that failure is actually the most valuable, and perhaps the most fundamental, learning process. That’s why entrepreneurs, and tech entrepreneurs in particular, champion the virtues of failing fast: the faster you fail, the faster you can learn from your failure, iterate, and improve.
But here’s the truth about Internet-era failure: you can’t fail fast enough. Both technology offerings and customer demands evolve so quickly that if your learning by failure is limited to your own missteps, you will miss several cycles of learning and evolution by the time you get your next iteration out the door. You have to find a way to identify, track and learn from other people’s and other organizations’ failures, simply to get enough data about what does or doesn’t work today.
That’s why all the exegeses of social media #fails amount to more than just schadenfreude. Yes, it can be kind of amusing to watch other companies’ social media failures, particularly when they go so far over the line that they play as comedy. But it’s also a vital form of learning: a way to get better at social media faster than you can fail, learn and iterate on your own.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can do all your learning by failure from the comfort of the cheap seats, however. I see all too many organizations hang back from social media precisely because they’re terrified of failing; terrified of doing something that will provoke criticism or simply the embarrassment of an invitation to engagement that falls flat. The same companies that are too scared to make a move will likely try to convince themselves that learning from the failure of others is a great way to avoid making mistakes of their own.
But you won’t be ready to really absorb the lessons of other people’s social media missteps until you’ve gone wrong yourself. It’s the pain of going awry online — and the knowledge of the complicated organizational, technical and social dynamics that make the occasional misstep inevitable — that allow you to have some insight into the possible sources or consequences of another organization’s misfire. You can learn from the failure of others, to be sure — but you’ll learn the most if you are risking, embracing and learning from failure yourself.