By now most everyone has heard of social marketing, right? And, you have most likely been told by more than one well-meaning individual that you MUST be participating, right? In fact, if you have read any consumer, business or industry press articles, or blogs, you KNOW that you MUST participate, right?
Well, I’m here to debunk the advice. Or, at the very least, to offer a more skeptical view of its value.
Now, before you dismiss me as out-of-the-loop on modern marketing, I should state that I agree that there’s value in social marketing. Participating in social marketing enables companies to communicate, in a two-way fashion, with its customers; to monitor customers’ behavior and expose needs and desires; it provides a means for monitoring and resolving customer service issues; and, it can be a valuable means by which companies can build their brand, among other benefits. But, it is not THE be-all, end-all it’s purported to be. And, it’s not free! Yes, you heard correctly, it’s NOT free!
You see, it is not a stand-alone initiative. And, it requires dedicated resources, over a long period of time…as in infinitum! Social marketing should be one aspect of an overall marketing strategy, something every successful company must develop and on which they must execute. But, how many of today’s owners of Facebook Fan Pages, not to mention Twitter authors, have such an overall strategy in place?
Social marketing platforms – Facebook, My Space, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. – are just that, platforms. They are not silver bullets for what ails a company and participation on them does not guarantee a company’s success. In fact, if not handled properly, with an overall strategic plan in place, and with long-term dedicated resources applied to their use, they can do more harm than good. How, you ask? Well, let’s start at the beginning.
Before starting out on the social media path, a company must have well defined, and measurable, business goals. Why? Well, how can you know if what you’re expending your time, money and energy on is effective without having a goal by which you can measure success? Just as you wouldn’t set out to run a race without knowing how far and where the finish line is, a company needs to know what the “end game” is, they need to be able to determine when they have succeeded. Now, these goals can encompass many areas of the company, and all can be measured differently. But, each goal must have a “finish line,” a point at which you know you have succeeded. And, these goals are not limited to the staff handling social marketing. These are overall business goals, goals every department in the company should be striving to reach.
Perhaps the company’s goals include customer acquisition and retention. Perhaps the goals also include superior customer service. And, just maybe, increased market share is at the top of the list. Each of these goals will be reached in a different manner, each requires a different set of metrics, and each might be the primary focus of a different, or several departments. Lastly, each might require a different social media platform, or perhaps just a different use of the same platform.
As I participate on online forums, in various webinars and at conferences, as well as at start-up networking events, the refrain I hear again and again from companies just developing their social media initiative is, “Tell me how long it will take to see results; tell me exactly what I need to do; which tools should we use; how many people, and how many hours, will be required to succeed in social marketing?” Hearing this over and over again prompted me to write this article in the hopes that I could offer some clarification on what social marketing is and isn’t, what purposes it can serve, what types of resources might be required, and most importantly, how to implement and use it effectively as one part of an overall marketing strategy.
How Long Will It Take?
No one can provide that answer, and if someone says they can, they are simply not being truthful. How long it takes is dependent upon so many factors, your individual business goals being at the top of the list. How one company uses the various social marketing platforms can vary greatly from how another one does so, and how well known a company is already has a direct impact on how successful their efforts might be. For instance, if you are an auto dealership and your number-one business goal is to sell cars, and sell them to anyone who will by one just this one time so you can clear your lot of old inventory, the platforms and strategies you employ to reach customers might be quite different from the mom-and-pop scrapbook store whose number-one goal is to retain current (read: high-profit) customers. The dealership might not be as interested in ensuring repeat business since most customers are not likely to come back for at least 3 years – they may only care about selling that customer this one car, this one time. Whereas the scrapbook store might be focusing on providing weekly education about new products and techniques in the hopes that current customers will return, and spend, frequently. Most importantly, social marketing is not something you do once, or for a limited time (unless, of course, you find it is not netting the results you desire, and even then you might simply make adjustments to your efforts rather then throwing in the towel). Like every other aspect of marketing, it is a long-term initiative, one that requires dedicated resources as long as you participate in it.
What Do I Need To Do? Which Tool(s) Should We Use?
Again, this is dependent upon the goals of the business. If the scrapbook store’s number-one goal is to sell the new lines that come into the store every quarter, or even every month, ongoing communication that builds excitement will be key to getting customers to return regularly. Perhaps discounts might even be necessary. Which platform is used for this purpose can vary greatly based on the customer. How, you ask? Well, who is your ideal customer? Where do they “live” and where do they “play?” Knowing who your ideal customer is is essential to long-term success, knowing where they live and play is key to finding them not only in a receptive mood, but in encouraging them to share your offering with others. If your ideal customer is a 38-year old mother of two who works in a corporate environment, you are not likely to experience success in reaching her through your company’s MySpace page. The key to choosing a platform, or platforms, is to know who your ideal customer is and what their usage is of the various social media platforms.
How Many People, and How Many Hours, Will Be Required?
Once again, there is no one, right answer to these questions. Your resource requirements will be based on many factors, including: who you are trying to reach; when, where and how often you need to reach them; what kind of interaction your customers require in order to act (meaning engage or buy); the types of products or services you offer; and, again, most importantly, your overall marketing and business goals.
If I am able to effectively communicate nothing else, please understand this: social media involves tactical activity based on an overall strategy. Social marketing is an ongoing initiative, one that requires forethought and planning, and one that requires dedicated resources, focused attention, and constant monitoring (and tweaking as necessary). It is not a magic bullet for poor customer service or issues with your company’s reputation, nor is it necessarily the best way to “sell” to customers.
Social marketing can serve many purposes, including:
- As a means to learn about current and new customers’ behavior, needs and desires
- Delivering valuable content to interested parties
- Increasing mindshare
- Enhancing a brand’s reputation and trust in that brand
- Providing a forum for like-minded individuals to meet and share
- Providing two-way communication with prospects and customers
- Monitoring and response to customer service issues and opportunities
- Monitoring and response to PR issues and opportunities
- Offering specials or coupons to opt-in subscribers or visitors
- Communicating about a company and/or its products and services
Note that “selling” was placed at the bottom of the above list. This was intentional. Providing value is what endears you to customers and prospects. If you focus solely on selling to your audience, you’ll likely find they soon stop listening. There’s a delicate balance between offering real value to your audience and getting your products and/or services in their hands. It’s critical that you keep that in mind when crafting messages.
When executed effectively, social marketing not only enables companies to build loyalty within their customer base, but customers, or fans, willingly communicate, unprompted, with others about the company, and its products and services. In fact, most fans consider themselves heroes when they share their good fortune of finding your company with their networks of friends, family members and colleagues! You want these heroes on your team.
So, what are the keys to social marketing success? Well, here are just a few:
- Don’t eliminate your other marketing efforts unless they are not working for you. Email and direct mail can still be effective means of communication, as can ongoing PR and advertising. The key is determining which efforts are best suited to your reaching your goals.
- Be sure to coordinate your current marketing efforts with your new social marketing efforts – inconsistent messaging is confusing for customers and could place you in a vulnerable position with your competition
- Start with overall business goals – know what you are trying to accomplish and set measurable milestones
- Who is your “ideal” customer? Know who they are, what they like, where they live, where they work and play, what interests them, etc.
- Choose social marketing platforms based on the above ideal customer
- Know who your “other customers” might be – the press and financial analysts can be valuable fans to have
- Choose additional social marketing platforms based on your “other customers”
- Assign experience, dedicated resources to each social media effort. Be sure to include everyone on the company in terms of communicating what the overall goals are for your social marketing initiatives, but make sure some of the best and the brightest are in charge of your company’s online brand. These stars are responsible for knowing everything there is to know about your company and its offering, as well as about your “ideal” customer. They must also be well versed on the chosen platform(s) and how best to participate, and for monitoring success, and failure, of all activity in which your company engages. They must “own” the efforts to which they are assigned, be held accountable for failure and be rewarded for success.
- Establish “rules” around how you’ll participate on each platform you choose to use – professionalism and appropriateness are minimum requirements
- Establish a schedule for participation and manage your audience’s expectations accordingly – blasting your audience with hourly Tweets after promising to contact them only weekly when they signed up will not endear your audience to you
- Focus on your audience, not on you! When creating content of any type, be it a blog post, a Tweet or a special sale, take a moment to evaluate what you are communicating – is it about what you want to say, or what your reader wants to hear? Are you being helpful, providing value, creating an opportunity for further communication?
- Establish yourself and/or your company as the authority on your industry or offering by providing concise, focused, unique, relevant and valuable (non-sales) content that your audience will value
- Treasure your reputation and guard it with your life! In today’s online world, word spreads fast, whether the words are complementary or disparaging. At the first sign of trouble, acknowledge the issue and respond, taking responsibility and making changes when necessary, and correcting incorrect information in a professional manner. Never engage someone who’s hell-bent on your destruction by responding to attacks in a reciprocal manner. Instead, diffuse their power by stating the facts and remaining calm and unemotional. And, be sure to acknowledge and thank anyone who sings your praises – they deserve your loyalty!
- Contribute content elsewhere. Provide some of your best material to others whom you admire, on others’ forums or posted as comments on others’ posts. This will not only endear you to the recipient of your content, but could enable other audiences, audiences you might otherwise not reach, to learn about you and your company.
- Spell check, grammar check and proofread all content – nothing reduces a person’s or company’s credibility like typos and obvious spelling or grammatical mistakes
- When you read something of value elsewhere, share the information with your audience by providing a link or Tweeting about it – not only will your audience likely appreciate the content, you might gain new fans as a result of reTweets or links to your site as the information is shared by your audience and others
- No one cares about your marketing except you – make all content relevant to the needs or desires of your audience
- Build a strong community and forge reciprocal relationships – let your community guide your efforts and empower those who demonstrate a desire to lead. These “influencers” are of great value to any company and have the ability to spread your reach far and wide.
- Deliver outstanding customer service whether you are working with customers, prospects, interested parties such as the press, or your suppliers. Keep the promises you make and deliver on your commitments.
- Look for opportunities to participate in cross-promotions or co-marketing with companies whom you do business with and respect, or whose offering complements yours – each company could provide a link to the other’s site/content enabling each to benefit from new audience members
- When soliciting a sale, be sure it is appropriate and of value to its recipient – include a call-to-action and install a landing page that makes the buying process easy and enjoyable – there’s nothing worse than clicking on a link for a sale product and ending up on the front page of the shopping area of a site with no idea of how to find the product being promoted!
- Don’t apply hard-sell tactics! Social marketing is not for selling, it’s for providing value to your potential and current customers. Providing value endears people to you and will likely result in sales without your needing to strong-arm people into buying.
- Be thankful! Be sure to acknowledge and thank your customers, contributors, community leaders and the people in charge of your social marketing efforts – and do it on a regular basis!
- Make it easy to do business with you! Test, test and test again every aspect of your business processes to be sure they are optimized for your customers and not only for your company and employees. Invite a few of your ideal customers to explore and test every aspect of your customer service processes, your website(s) and your social marketing pages (its preferable that you do this before going live to the masses). Reward your testers for honest feedback, and implement changes that make doing business with you easier and more enjoyable.
The list above is by no means a complete list of all success factors. Much of what you end up implementing will result from going and doing, and learning.
To wrap up, the most important thing is to know WHY you are going to use social marketing. If you can’t answer the “why,” take a moment and re-evaluate your plan. Go back to your goals. Is a social marketing effort the best choice for reaching your goals? If not, examine other options. If you are sure of your decision to employ social marketing tactics, go for it! And, share your success with others so they may learn from you.