This post was originally published on, a veritable storehouse of social media tough love and contrarian opinions.

If you work in social media, you probably spend most of your time talking about theory, strategy and process. That’s because it’s easy to talk about social media; it’s a lot harder to take action, and it’s even more difficult to take successful actions.


Because social media is a field rife with minor victories and few long-term successes.

Don’t Confuse Victory with Success

Let’s say you’re a videoblogger who’s posted dozens of webisodes to YouTube. On average, your videos garner a few hundred views. Then, one day, one of your videos skyrockets to 50,000 views.

Does that make you a web video expert?

No. It means you got lucky.

In fact, you probably have no idea why that video became so popular. It could have been…

  • The title
  • The description
  • The thumbnail image
  • A keyword within the title or description
  • A suddenly-relevant tag
  • Getting mentioned by a powerful influencer
  • Cross-posting to a highly-trafficked blog
  • A complete and total accident

If you don’t know why it happened, all you can do is guess. And if your next video is back to a few hundred views, you guessed wrong. You may have one victory under your belt, but you don’t yet have a winning system.

Victory means something worked. Success means your system works.

6 Tips for Building a Winning System

Set a goal. I repeat this often because I firmly believe it. Actions without reasons can’t possibly be measured accurately, mistakes made without context can’t be learned from, and any progress you make is arbitrary because you never know which direction you’re supposed to be pointed in.

Yes, exploration and experimentation are important, but they still need a course to deviate from.

Hold yourself accountable. No matter what goes wrong, it’s your fault. You could always have planned better, or done better research, or explained yourself more clearly. You could have hired the right people, managed them properly, trusted your gut or taken that risk. This isn’t about second-guessing; it’s about realizing that you’ll never succeed if you expect somebody else to carry you.

Measure everything (then analyze). Know what you’re doing, when you’re doing it, how and with whom. Know what the results are. Know how those results change when your variables change. The more you understand about the actions being taken and the impact they’re having, the better prepared you’ll be to maximize, troubleshoot and innovate.

Study the competition. Who are your competitors? What’s your shared measure of success? What percentage of that success does each competitor “own”? What are they doing differently, and how are those actions benefiting or backfiring against their bottom line? You can’t lose sleep over your competition, but you can’t ignore them (or the lessons their actions can provide) either.

Make incremental changes. The system you’re using now isn’t perfect, and it never will be. But that’s okay. Don’t throw it out; tinker with it. Tweak the elements that need tweaking. Add new tools when necessary, and retire old methods when they’re no longer effective.

Times change, people change, competition changes. Your system needs to change, too… just not all at once.

(Interested in seeing how some social media successes define their systems? Check out what John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing does on a daily basis, or how Chris Brogan assigns differing values to the five kinds of media he produces.)

A Word About Failure

If you think momentary victories are frustrating, try failing gracefully after a string of successes.

Success is always temporary. As soon as you think you have the system figured out, something changes — your personnel, your competition, your resources, your priorities. One day you wake up and you just don’t give a damn. Or, worse, you do still give a damn… but you just can’t execute.

Entropy happens. Dynasties crumble. The best teams still lose games, the best armies still lose wars and the best companies still get outfoxed by younger, hungrier competitors.

This is a good thing.

Old methods and ideas deserve to be challenged and surpassed by newer, better alternatives. If these things didn’t happen, we’d be trapped by the worst success of all: the unimprovable kind. And knowing there’s an infallible system is even more depressing than never winning once.

Winning forever isn’t a realistic goal. But winning more often than once?

That, you can do.

Want to learn how to get better at social media?  So will everybody else attending PodCamp Pittsburgh 5.  See you there!

3 Replies to “Do You Have a System for Social Media Success?”

  1. Justin,
    These basic rules of production always bear repeating…until we have all internalized them.

    I produce my Video Taiji YouTube series more from an artistic “need” to produce rather than from a need to compete in a marketplace, but the latter is becoming a way for me to expand the “message” that I’m presenting. Can you suggest other series that have a similar format, i.e., 3-5 minutes of ongoing daily or episodic content, that I could view as “competitors” in the episodic marketplace?

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