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How to prepare for social media's big shift

Philippe Guegan
How to prepare for social media's big shift Philippe Guegan

Fashion victim, fashionista -- these are words not easily applied to me. However, I have learned one valuable lesson from my observations of an industry that's always on the lookout for the next big thing: If you wait long enough, past trends and patterns will make a comeback.

This is exactly to the case with social media right now. As all things social start to mature, the same evolution that took place in the digital marketing industry only a few years ago is returning. Social is fast becoming less about experimentation and more about regular production.

In recent months, a noticeable shift has taken place among the clients and prospects we've talked with at Big Fuel. They fall roughly into three categories: those still experimenting with social media, those using social media consistently as a tactical add-on to their marketing activities, and those trying to make social a more central, strategic component of their marketing efforts.

As we approach 2011 budget deadlines, more and more marketers are trying to switch gears and move from using social as a tactical add-on to employing it as a core component in their overall efforts. Small, medium, and large companies want to know how they can streamline, automate, budget, and measure social media and social marketing. How can it move from a series of handcrafted singular projects to a more consistent, more repeatable, more predictable undertaking?   

The key challenge remains implementation.

Marketing integration might have been the Holy Grail for advertisers over the last 15 years, yet the agency world became increasingly fragmented during that period of time. Many of the agencies that initially dismissed digital as a peripheral activity are now bent on not making the same mistake again with social.

Agencies rightfully see social as central to the future of marketing and work to develop in this space as fast as they can. Yet each agency, each discipline, looks at social through a very narrow lens that only puts the emphasis on their original core competencies; this is what spells trouble for marketers.

Let's go back to the issue of production. It is tempting to draw parallels between social content production/earned media on one hand and advertising production/paid media on the other. That comparison can be misleading in many ways, and there are at least five key differences about social that every marketer should bear in mind:

  1. Forget one-size-fits-all messages targeting the "lowest common denominator" audience. Recognize that fragmentation is here to stay, and embrace it at every step.

  2. Frequency and freshness of content matters more than production values. Increase your execution capability and move to rapid-fire, low-cost production cycles.

  3. Campaigns have a limited shelf life, but quality content is a valuable and reusable asset. Build your library for the long term and ensure that you will be able to do "re-runs."

  4. Stop thinking about (and budgeting around) campaign flights and push marketing. Start thinking about ongoing engagement. Audiences can no longer be turned on and off on command.

  5. In a genuine two-way, real-time conversation, it is hard to separate the production arm from the distribution arm. Your brain is connected to your mouth for a reason.

Larger creative and media agencies have legacy economic models built around scale and size that make it difficult to adapt and operate profitably in a world of exponentially fragmented audiences and touch points. When it comes to social, the question is not whether "they get it," but whether they can evolve to become as fast and nimble as marketers need them to be. Even web agencies, in spite of their digital DNA, can sometimes struggle with things like video production or labor intensive, low-tech conversational engagement.

The long-predicted new marketing paradigm is finally here. Marketers need to start thinking, behaving, and organizing themselves as content producers who treat engage consumers as audiences, instead of fully outsourcing this function to external publishers. Content is still king, after all.

It's official: Social is now well beyond a passing marketing fad. Amid this environment, marketers find it increasingly challenging to differentiate brands, products, and messages. The push for a constant flow of newness is becoming a key operational requirement -- just like in the fashion industry. One thing is certain: More change is yet to come in social media marketing.

Philippe Guegan is VP of strategy and engagement at Big Fuel Communications.

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