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Why social media is useless and empty for most companies

Social media is no longer a shiny exciting tool for most companies, it has become a standard part of the marketing department and a tested portion of the communications plan. It has come a long way and there are so many outlets for companies to connect with consumers.

In the last several years, communications platforms have exploded making the two dimensional world of tv/newspaper/mailers more conversational to include the consumer.

But you know all of this already, right? You’re here to learn why none of that is good enough, no?

Let’s take Starbucks as a primary example of why social media is useless and empty.

First, I should tell you that I’m a huge Starbucks fan, I’ve been going there since high school. One of the few stocks we own is SBUX, we’re there all the time, we have meetings there, we own a bunch of stupid Starbucks mugs, journals, etc. I feel a certain ownership over the brand as hundreds of thousands of others do.

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Starbucks has some great talent in the marketing department. Their print collateral is fantastic, packaging has always been impeccable, they enjoy one of the most popular Facebook pages of all time and have 1.2 million Twitter followers.

So what is Starbucks doing incorrectly?

It sounds like everything’s fantastic, right? I shovel money into their system, they are popular online and they remain the darlings of the marcom industry, so what are they doing poorly?

Their web presence. That is what they are doing incorrectly. Get as many followers as you want, but their entire social media presence is designed as a hollow facade… I have countless examples, but let’s just use a simple one- recycling.

I am frustrated that so many thousands of cups are wasted every day as well as glasses from their cold case. Here is the path of action:

  1. I ask a store employee if they have a recycling bin hidden somewhere. She gets me the manager who cheerfully tells me to go to
  2. Feeling brushed off, I think “whatev, I’m busy anyway.”
  3. It festers. I go to the dumb website. I see I’m not the first to have this suggestion and at the time three years ago, it was actually a popular topic (you can see how other ideas rank). I enter my idea to have on site recycling.
  4. Months go by. No recycling, no acknowledgement, just silence. Now I’m angry and being ignored is turning me into a tree hugging hippie and I’m about to burst and tie myself to a tree in protest.
  5. I “@” message Starbucks on Twitter with no response.
  6. I DM Starbucks and a week later get a message back noting that each location has the option to recycle, it is up to them to pay the extra expense.
  7. Seriously? Okay, so I go back to the manager and show her the tweet. She says she has asked for recycling and was told regionally that it was not an option. Oh. Okay, thanks.
  8. I yank the regional manager’s business card off of the sugar/milk rack and leave.
  9. I email the regional manager who notes that it is up to each store’s budgetary discretion.
  10. Like a hippie, I whine about it on Facebook where Starbucks (on their wall) said that many stores offer recycling and that a recycling program is set to go nationally. This was in 2008 that this went down…
  11. Like a bigger hippie, I whine on Twitter that I’m getting the runaround and @Starbucks told me to go to
  12. It is 2011 and I have to carry a damn cup with me because I feel like Starbucks hates the Earth and has a personal vendetta against my children.

I get the “benefit” of getting coupons on Facebook and I get to feel super cool mega awesome that “@Starbucks” follows and will acknowledge me by name, but if your client had to go through the above jerky jerk, they’d either fire you or go bald pulling their hair out.

Starbucks is not prepared to implement change on any level. It’s a hollow facade called social media that they’ve duped the C-Suite into thinking makes a difference. It’s bunk.

Starbucks isn’t alone

This isn’t an isolated incident. Many companies have discovered that they can set up a Twitter account and funnel all complaints to it then give the runaround just like the old fashioned “please hold, I’ll get my supervisor” system.

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Is it intentional? Absolutely not. Starbucks and any other company means well and they’re trying their hardest, but the consumer is on the verge of figuring out what I already have- social media use by most companies is simply par for the course and they “want” to get leads, keep consumers happy, answer questions, and every other tiny facet of the social media tenets, but it ends up being an insincere runaround and the bubble is about to burst, mark my words.

As an independent contractor, boutique broker or otherwise, don’t fall into this trap- maintain your web presence, but don’t do it because you went to a seminar on it and want to get rich quick or because your marketing department mandated it, do it IF and ONLY IF you are capable of managing it… social media marketing isn’t just about follower numbers or being “popular,” this is grown up business.

Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.



  1. Cathy Benavides

    February 14, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    I don’t know why you waited to post this- it’s brilliant! What you are saying is so very true. Now that the new and shiny has worn off of social media, it’s starting to become stale- companies have it, but have ceased to utilize it. If you are putting the means to communicate out there, you have to do something with all of that feedback and better your company for your customer- otherwise you are wasting your time and mine.

  2. Fred Romano

    February 14, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Great article Lani, crazy story too, wow.

  3. Juan Carlos

    February 14, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    I had. No idea they had no recycling program. Seems like something simple and logical to implement.
    As an aside : mmmmmm Starbucks . . .

  4. Joe Loomer

    February 14, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Actually agree completely with you here, Lani – if you merely use Social Media to blast your name out there, then the backlash is as you stated.

    My own experience is you under-promise and over-deliver in any facet of your business in order to win the publicity game.

  5. Velda

    February 14, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Any yet you still spend your money there. If a company upsets me, I stop giving them my hard earned dollars. One person might not make an impact on that company’s bottom dollar but I feel better if they aren’t using my money. The only way that a company will change is when enough dollars aren’t making it into their coffers and if they know why. THEY ONLY KNOW “MONEY-SPEAK.”

  6. Matthew Hardy

    February 14, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    > the bubble is about to burst, mark my words

    Prescient. But not for the reasons you hope.

    There is a false characteristic to social media that many social media proponents do not see because, while real, good relationships can happen out of social media engagements, on the whole it is vacuous noise. From the erosion of concepts of privacy to the convoluted idea of “personal branding” a truth is revealed: it’s all about advertising; shifted, yes, to new methods and venues, but ultimately more specious because a veneer of “transparency” serves to hide this truth. It may seem that the “media” part is muscling-out the “social” part but that already happened long ago — when real money got involved. You look at a trashcan of discarded cups and say “yes we can!” while Starbucks says “buy another please!”

    The network is fantastic. Communication is wonderful. But when they are used to pretend something other than what is… well, you could get a lot of people involved.

    So Lani, can you imagine a time when folks refer to the long-gone days of Facebook and Twitter with embarrassment and perhaps even derision? Or perhaps when you can purchase an ad-free Facebook account with TOS that prevent any of your musings from being sold?

  7. Profit

    February 14, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    When social media were a novelty and had got many focused attention from many people – it really worked!
    Now social media loosing its own peculiarity and just becoming only one of many other things in the life. (Sorry for my english).

  8. Matt Thomson

    February 14, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Want to do something really fun? Post this into Twitter Search: “The 30-second impression”
    It’s the title of an automated blog that a company here in Seattle sells to agents. Choose 10 or so of the 100’s of people that come up and send them an @ message on Twitter. See how many actually respond.
    It’s a classic case of social media not working for agents.

  9. Andy Theobald

    February 14, 2011 at 5:38 pm


    I think the headline should instead read “Why social media is an unrealized opportunity for most companies”. Clearly, the fault in Starbucks case (and in most other venues where I’ve seen it done badly) isn’t that social media has failed to provide a medium, but that the company has failed to utilize social media to its potential. In this case, the social media is being used by Starbucks marketing people strictly to get more eyeballs on the green circle with the mermaid. It is capable of doing much, much more, but it is up to Starbucks to take advantage of those tools. Whenever someone tells me that they think Twitter is a waste of time or that they don’t get it, I tell them the problem isn’t Twitter, THEY are the problem.

    And, when it comes to coffee, I personally will vouch that social media can work because, thanks to Twitter, I found a locally owned coffee shop that doesn’t just get social media in a way that Starbucks hasn’t, they also make a far better cup of coffee.

  10. Matthew Rathbun

    February 15, 2011 at 6:01 am

    My Starbucks recycles…

    I think the real issue with companies and social media is their unwillingness to say ‘no but thanks for suggesting.’ It’s feasible to me that SBUX actually does have a policy that it’s up to each local owner, but doesn’t mandate recycling. Not all areas have recycling, so to make it a corporate policy may be a hardsh for some local stores. So they should just say that.

    It’s equally possible that the local manger found it easier to blame it on corporate or simple didn’t know that corporate had made it an option.

    To me the bigger travesty is Social media usage is at places like Bank of America where their twitter team and Facebook team are very responsive, but have no authority or weight to get anything down. In the end it’s just one more person or name that you have that could do nothing and wasted your time. Time that could have been better spent driving 16 penny nails into your forehead with a flat-head shovel and yielded the same result…

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