The Emperor’s New Social Media Campaign: A Cautionary Tale

by Ken Mueller on August 17, 2011 · 18 comments

Ilustration of "The Emperor's New Clothes...

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Not too long ago there was an business owner so exceedingly fond of new shiny things that he spent all his money on all the latest marketing trends. He cared nothing about spending time with his employees , going to the business meetings, or even going for a ride in his car, except to tell others what a trendy, cutting edge early adopter he was. He had some new logo or ad slogan to show off everyday, and instead of saying, as one might, about any other businessman, “The owner is working hard,” here they always said, “The owner’s out looking for the next big thing.”

In the great city where he lived, life was always wonderful. Every day many visitors came to town, and among them one day came two salesmen. They let it be known they were Social Media consultants, and they said they could create the most amazing online presence imaginable. Not only would they tweet and manage Facebook for you, but the online communities that they created had a way of becoming invisible to anyone who didn’t “get it” or wasn’t good enough…or who was unusually stupid.

“This is exactly what I need,” thought the business owner. “If I put my business online, I can grow my business AND I can discover which people are unfit to be my customers! And I could tell the wise men from the fools. Yes, I certainly must let these consultants tweet for me.” He paid the two young consultants a large sum of money to start work at once. After all, they were young and fresh out of college. They understand this whole social networking thing, so he entrusted them with his brand and his business’s reputation and went on doing his own thing.

They set up a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and even a Foursquare account, and pretended to create online communities, though there was nothing happening. All the money which they demanded went into their wallets, while they built this social presence far into the night. They took the resources and rather than finding real people and community members, they got their friends and old college classmates to follow them and “like” the business man’s page. They even created a few fake profiles on Twitter and Facebook and “created” conversations and engagement. This way they could show fast numerical growth, which is what every businessman wants, because after all, it’s all about the numbers.

“I’d like to know how those consultants are getting on,” the business owner thought, but he felt slightly uncomfortable when he remembered that those who were unfit would not “understand” what a great thing this was. It couldn’t have been that he doubted himself, yet he thought he’d rather send someone else to see how things were going. All of the other business owners knew about the wonderful power of this new Social Media magic, and all were impatient to find out how stupid their neighbors were.

“I’ll send my manager to the consultants,” the owner decided. “He’ll be the best one to tell me how it is shaping up, for he’s a sensible man and no one does his duty better.”

So the manager went to the room where the two swindlers sat working away on their laptops and iPhones.

“Heaven help me,” he thought as his eyes flew wide open, “I can’t see anything at all”. But he did not say so.

Both the consultants begged him to be so kind as to come near to approve their excellent work. They pointed to the Facebook page and the manager stared as hard as he dared. He couldn’t see anything, because there was nothing to see. “Heaven have mercy,” he thought. “Can it be that I’m a fool? I’d have never guessed it, and not a soul must know. Am I unfit to be the manager? It would never do to let on that I can’t see the what must be thousands of fans.”

“Don’t hesitate to tell us what you think of it,” said one of the consultants.

“Oh, it’s wonderful -it’s amazing!” The old manager peered through his glasses. “Such engagement, what interaction!” I’ll be sure to tell the owner how delighted I am with it.”

“We’re pleased to hear that,” the consultants said. They proceeded to talk about all of the followers they had on Twitter and how the Facebook page was growing, and how the complicated analytics told a wonderful story of growth for the business. The manager paid the closest attention, so that he could tell it all to the owner. And so he did.

The consultants at once asked for more money and better computers, to get on with helping to market the business. But it all went into their pockets. They created fake profiles on Facebook and Twitter and talked to each other online as they worked busily.

The owner presently sent the bookkeeper to see how the work progressed and how soon it would be ready. The same thing happened to her that had happened to the manager. She looked and looked, but as there was nothing to see, she couldn’t see anything.

“Isn’t it marvelous how many customers we are bringing in?” the consultants asked her, as they described what they were doing in buzzwords and catch phrases. “We’re engaging lots of loyal customers, and see how they are telling others about you?” And yet when the bookkeeper looked at the books, all she could see was that they were not only not making any more money, but were losing money.

“I know I’m not stupid,” the woman thought, “so it must be that I’m unworthy of this wonderful job. That’s strange. I mustn’t let anyone find it out, though.” So she praised the work that the consultants were doing. She declared she was delighted with the results and the ROI. To the owner she said, “These guys are amazing…they’re…they’re…Ninjas!”

All the town was talking of this splendid social media marketing campaign, and the owner wanted to see it for himself while it was still in its early stages. Attended by a group of trusted employees, among whom were his two most trusted officials-the ones who had been to visit the consultants before – he set out to see the two men. He found them working hard at their computers, but there didn’t seem to be anything on the screens but Farmville and Facebook chat.

“Magnificent,” said the two trusted employees already duped. “Just look, Sir, what engagement! What dialogue!” They pointed to the computers, each supposing that the others could see the stuff.

“What’s this?” thought the owner. “I can’t see anything happening. This is terrible!

Am I a fool? Am I unfit to run a business? What a thing to happen to me of all people! – Oh! It’s marvelous,” he said. “It has my highest approval.” And he nodded at the computers where nothing was happening. Nothing could make him say that he couldn’t see anything.

His whole staff stared and stared. One saw no more than another, but they all joined the owner in exclaiming, “Oh! It’s incredible,” and they advised him to make a big deal about this Social Media campaign far and to make a presentation on it at the next local business networking mixer. “Magnificent! Excellent! Unsurpassed!” were spouted from mouth to mouth, and everyone did his best to seem well pleased. The owner gave each of the consultants a bonus and wrote them very strong recommendations on LinkedIn.

Before the networking mixer the consultants sat up all night and kept the lights on, to show how busy they were working on the business owner’s Social Media campaign. They printed out Excel spread sheets and pdfs bearing terms like ROI and KPI, with lots of charts and graphs and numbers. And at last they said, “Your Social Media campaign is a success, and your business is doing so incredibly as a result”

Then the owner himself came with his most trusted friends, and the consultants each handed him stacks of papers and reports. They said, “Here are the charts and graphs and proof at how successful your Social Media campaign has been!”.”

“Exactly,” all the employees agreed, though they could see nothing, for there was nothing to see. They knew that the business was losing money and that there had been no new customers.

“If you will just look at this computer,” said the consultants, “we will help you understand how well your business is doing.”

The owner sat at the computer, and the consultants showed him a Facebook page and a Twitter account, both bearing the name of his business. He noticed that he had a few fans and followers, and there seemed to be an occasional tweet and status update.

“Look at all that engagement!” He heard on all sides, “Your marketing message is probably being seen all over the world, after all, there are 750 million people on Facebook.”

Then his manager said: “It’s time to go the networking presentation.”

“Well, I’m supposed to be ready,” the owner said, and made sure he had his powerpoint presentation ready. “It is really remarkable, isn’t it, how my business has grown, without me even really noticing it!”

So off went the owner to the networking event. Everyone there said, “Oh, there’s the business owner. He is so successful and smart. Have you liked his Facebook page? Do you follow him on Twitter?” Nobody would confess that none of them had ever patronized his business, even though some of them “liked” his Facebook page. None of them wanted to be seen as unfit to be his customers. They had liked the page and followed him on Twitter, but none of them could ever remember ever looking at his accounts or seeing any activity.

The owner gave his presentation, and spewed off lots of numbers and buzzwords that had been given to him by the consultants. He parroted their every word about how he had grown a great online community with a huge ROI and lots of new and repeat business.

“But there’s no engagement,” said one man. “All he does is spit out sales messages. No one cares.”

“Did you ever hear such a thing?” said another business man. And one whispered to another what the man had said, “There’s no engagement! This guy says he isn’t doing it right.”

“But there’s no engagement” the whole business community cried out at last, “There’s nothing happening on his pages. He isn’t getting any new customers.”

The owner shuddered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “I must not let on. I must put on airs and act as if everything is OK.” So he walked out of the room more proudly than ever, as he and his employees went back to the office to see if they could figure out how to repair their reputation and get customers to actually visit their store and spend money.

The consultants, meanwhile, moved on to the next town, made a presentation to the local Chamber of Commerce with lots of numbers and buzzwords, raised their rates, and began signing up new clients…

Is your Social Media program nothing but smoke and mirrors? If you outsource your Social Media (or any other type of marketing) do you really know what you’re getting?


This story was adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes.



Very creative and such good points. While I am not a business owner just yet, I am using social media to build a platform for the future, I appreciate the lesson from this. I recently streamlined my social media accounts in effort to be more meaningful and become less dependent on the surface numbers. I am seeing the results and I like it.

Great post!

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@kmueller62 Great post! Loved it despite that frightening part in the comments where you suggested my job should be eliminated, haha. :)


While I am not with a small business (Buchart Horn is an international engineering and architectural firm with 258 employees, 15 offices in seven states and Germany) I see no reason why my firm should not be using social media exactly as you suggest. True engagement is the most difficult aspect; there is pressure to post a lot of hooray for us items, but the posts that get the most comments and interest are helpful and interesting posts even if only marginally related to engineering or architecture. We've been learning as we go for several months now, and I can see us evolving to more and more original content.


Great story Ken. As a busy business owner, it's a little long for me, but it's a great message! Hope you are enjoying the beach and not spending too much time working.

Amie Marse
Amie Marse

Great post! Yeah, social media is a tough thing for small business owners to use in a smart way. There are 137 things to do each day, which means it's tough to learn a whole new skill set. I think the smart thing to do is research on your own and then once you have a grasp of the landscape you can outsource. We just hired a social media manager last month and it has been amazing. BUT, I interact with her daily on Skype and keep a pretty close eye on what's happening. After a month I can cut the micromanaging to a minimum. I think the biggest concern is how to set ground rules and goals. Without either you are just asking for problems.

Just like content writing (cough, self serving promo) you should be careful to outsource social media stuff only to people from your own country. The last thing you want is for your social media person to make your business look worse with their grammar or word choice.


I love, love, love this post. I want to get it in the hands of every single business owner who has hired or thought about hiring that kind of fly by night social media consultant. Thank you, Ken -- this is fabulous!

KenMueller moderator

@BrandonPDuncan Thanks, Brandon. It's great seeing someone laying the groundwork for a strong social presence, rather than thinking about it as an afterthought. I'll be curious to hear how things progress for you.


@EmmaofCEM haha. the way it was worded, it seemed like an outsourcing deal. i would never want your job eliminated

KenMueller moderator

@BH_BA it's all about great content. Many B2B firms avoid SM and blogging because they have no clue what they are going to write about. It doesn't have to be those "hooray for us" posts, but rather posts that do what you said: provide helpful and interesting content even if not directly related to what you do.

KenMueller moderator

@BestRoofer I'm doing my fair share of relaxing and working...which for me...often overlap

KenMueller moderator

@Amie Marse It's no secret that I'm not a big fan of any type of outsourcing, but like you said, there needs to be a very close relationship between the business and the SM manager. I guess my question for you would be, if you keep a close eye on things, and interact with her via Skype every day, perhaps you might actually have the time to do it on your own and save some money? It really isn't a whole new skillset, if you think of it in "social" terms.

Also, I would say that IF you are going to outsource, it shouldn't just be in the same country, but if you are a local business, it should be someone local who knows the lay of the land and the community.

I firmly believe that the best day to day management of SM happens when it is kept in house.

KenMueller moderator

@Marijean Thanks, MJ. That was really the point. I feel like I've been ranting about this a lot lately, but I think a lot of businesses need to hear this. Perhaps I should have made this a Small Business Tip post...

Amie Marse
Amie Marse

@KenMueller "I guess my question for you would be, if you keep a close eye on things, and interact with her via Skype every day, perhaps you might actually have the time to do it on your own and save some money? It really isn't a whole new skillset, if you think of it in "social" terms."

This is a good point, I do spend a lot of time keeping tabs on our SM manager at this point, but eventually I will give her more space. When I tried to do SM on my own it was sporadic at best. This way no matter what fires I am putting out throughout the day I know there is somebody putting in the time, day to day and week to week. And she is becoming familiar with the landscape of our industry each day.

"Also, I would say that IF you are going to outsource, it shouldn't just be in the same country, but if you are a local business, it should be someone local who knows the lay of the land and the community."

My reasons behind using someone in your same country is for communication purposes. If someone from overseas were to do my social media (or any other type of writing) they might have a difficult time grasping a nuance. Or completely misuse or misunderstand a slang term, etc. Those are little things that make a big impression on people. I might be particularly sensitive to this in my industry as so many people outsource their content writing overseas to save money. When we first launched I got calls everyday asking where we were located and who actually did our writing. Thankfully now we charge a little more and get those calls a lot less often.

"I firmly believe that the best day to day management of SM happens when it is kept in house."

I agree and I guess I was a bit vague when I described hiring a SM manager. We hired a person to join our team as a permanent fixture. This is not a 15 hour a week "get us started" type of thing. This is a new staff member that is here to stay. Just like we hire new editors or writers, we hired a new team member for social media. That means this person is doing our social media as her "day job" and is as "in-house" as anybody else. Which is a *complete* relief :)

Amie Marse
Amie Marse

@KenMueller LOL! Glad to hear it! And yeah... I love my job and I still wouldn't want to do what she does :)

KenMueller moderator

@Amie Marse Ah, well I thought you meant you were outsourcing. I feel much better now. Whew! And I would never want Emma's job eliminated. I LOVE Emma! Thanks for the clarification.

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