By Ted O’Callahan

There’s no question that social media offers companies an unprecedented opportunity to engage consumers. Ninety percent of marketers report that social media is important to their business, according to Social Media Examiner’s 2016 industry report. But for global firms navigating the ever-emerging crop of sites, platforms, norms, and new content types, each opportunity has a cost. And only 41% of those surveyed believe they are able to measure the return on their social media investment.

That means there is a lot of off-the-cuff experimentation aimed at creating a buzz. Sometimes it works. When the power went out at the 2013 Super Bowl, Oreo’s social media team tweeted an image declaring “You can still dunk in the dark,” and got thousands of retweets. But the impulse to engage with what’s going on, even if there isn’t a real link, can lead to trouble. When the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday fell the day after a big comeback win for the Seattle Seahawks, the team’s tweet of a King quotation over a picture of the quarterback crying in triumph was generally viewed as drawing an inappropriate parallel between a football game and the civil rights struggle.

Social media’s real strength should be in its ability to connect to customers in a more targeted way. Erin Reilly, managing director for the Innovation Lab at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, wrote in Strategy+Business that the information that’s now available should mean marketing nirvana. Instead, she wrote, companies are telling her,, “We’re drowning in data and starving for insights.”

One common approach is to target “superfans”—the 20% of consumers who provide 80% of the revenue. But Reilly said that  a wider range of “fans” can be engaged by asking why a fan is motivated and what triggers his or her behavior. Understanding motivation lets companies match content to the right platform. Facebook and Twitter are better fits for fans seeking entertainment or social connection, while Reddit and Tumblr are sites where fans motivated by mastery or advocacy may generate their own content. Reilly wrote, “When we look at fans through the lens of our two core questions of motivations and triggers, we discover multiple points of entry into a fan community, with multiple versions of meaningful engagement.”

Ragy Thomas, CEO and founder of Sprinklr, talked with Yale Insights about what’s at stake with social media. The virality of social platforms provide customers with megaphones. “Word of mouth is so powerful. If you have a great product, you have raving fans telling everyone else. On the flip side, if people don’t like your product, you’re toast,” Thomas said.

“I think everyone understands that something needs to be done,” Thomas said. “I think there is a lack of understand about what needs to be done and a lack of understanding about what it takes.” That can be because there isn’t clear internal ownership, coordination, or education on the social media strategy. “In most companies, social media is everybody’s problem, and when it’s everybody’s problem, it’s nobody’s problem.”

Part of the challenge is the need for multiple function areas to respond to developments on social media in real time and in a fully coordinated way. “If you think about large global businesses, they are really fragmented; they are really siloed. They are siloed for a reason, because that’s how you scale,” Thomas noted. “Today, you really have to work across the silos.”

Even those firms that have clear ownership of the social media strategy and coordination across functions must continue to adapt their internal infrastructure as platforms develop and as customers change their minds about the brands and products they like. “The key is to come up with a new way to market,” Thomas said.