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How to safely experiment with social media marketing

Greg Kihlstrom
How to safely experiment with social media marketing Greg Kihlstrom


At some point in your career, you've probably been in the position where you think you are doing a phenomenal job marketing your organization. You are proud of the bulletproof strategy you've created, pleased with the tactics you are using to achieve the strategy, and thrilled with the measurable results you are able to report. But one day, you get the message from leadership that "everyone else is using (insert latest internet fad here), why aren't we?" The short answer would be that it doesn't fit into your current strategy, but when is the right time to introduce something new, and how do you do it in a way that is not disruptive to the rest of your strategy? You shouldn't always have to wait for pressure from another person within your organization -- sometimes you just need to experiment a little bit in a safe environment without detracting from your marketing plan.

How to safely experiment with social media marketing

We all know that an Instagram profile, a crowd-sourcing contest, and a Pinterest board are not strategies. As marketers, we take care to research and analyze the best communications channels for our unique audiences and the way we talk as a brand. But what happens when you've invested time, money, and effort into a comprehensive, long-term marketing strategy only to have a phenomenon like Pinterest pop-up out of nowhere and have to answer the "why aren't we there yet" question?

Because you hold yourself to measuring ROI on your marketing initiatives, how do you guarantee the "R" before you make the "I?" Even though the higher-ups in your organization (or in the case of an agency, your clients) are asking for something new and cutting edge, you know that you will be held accountable if it fails.

The problem

The constant introduction of new technologies, social networks, advertising avenues, and consumer preferences has hastened what many are calling "agile marketing." This is the inevitable result of the relentless forward march of the "new."

The term "agile marketing" comes from the agile software development process where instead of creating an exact blueprint of what every feature will do, how the user will interact with it, and having an exact timeline of what will be implemented when the new features are added in "sprints." Each of these sprints may be loosely or formally defined for what problems will be tackled in each, but exactly how they are tackled is more of an iterative process. This agile process allows developers to quickly solve problems that were not foreseeable at the time the project was started.

You can see how this easily relates to marketing. Gone are the days when we had the luxury of creating a plan that is set in stone and cannot be altered or modified for another calendar year. While we need to be careful not to simply make modifications to chase shiny new objects that might be temporarily popular, we also need to allow flexibility in our plans to safely try new things.

You must be careful when doing this because if you are distracted by adding new tactics to your marketing strategy, you could easily go against your strategy or even dilute your brand's communications.

For instance, you might be surprised how many companies jumped on the MySpace bandwagon too late. Who would want to be the last big brand to champion a failed social network? It means more than an embarrassing misstep for your brand, though. The time you spend on that failing property means time and money lost that could have been directed on better-performing channels.

With that being said, there are going to be times when you simply need to adopt a new tactic in the middle of a well-planned strategy. One caution is that this article assumes you have done some research on your audience and their usage of this new tactic, whatever it may be. Read on for a few ways to make this easier with a greater chance of success.

Four tips to start experimenting

Pick a short term or finite campaign to start
A great way to experiment with a new strategy or tactic is to test it on a campaign or event that has a finite existence. This might be the promotion of an upcoming seasonal sale, a weeklong event, or anything else that requires upfront promotion, but it doesn't necessarily require a long-term web or social media presence to support it.

This is a great way to test a new strategy or tactic because the unspoken "agreement" you have with your audience is that whatever you're doing to promote this campaign is by its very nature temporary. This way, if the new tactic you are trying out is not wildly successful, then you'll know not to use it for future campaigns. 

Integrate successful tactics for the best of both worlds
Make it easy on yourself. If you have a wildly successful Facebook presence but you choose to incorporate a new tactic into your arsenal, why not leverage a channel that is already working well for you? It's better to work with an engaged audience rather than users you know less about because you will quickly and easily see how an engaged audience responds to new channels. The other benefit is that the new tactic can look great if it works well, but it won't stand out like a sore thumb if it works less than perfect because you can easily direct traffic to the more successful channel -- in this case, your Facebook presence.

Be honest and get feedback
This is a very important one. Be honest about what you're doing with a new marketing tactic and be sure to have your customers' best interests at heart. If you're trying out a new tactic for a specific duration, tell your customers you're excited about the new communication channel you've opened up and that you want their feedback on how helpful it is. If you are planning to use the tactic in the long run, this feedback will be invaluable to incorporate into your larger strategy. This, combined with your measurements of their activity, is the best research you can possibly do.

If you've done your job correctly and figured out a good short-term strategy for the channel, your customers will more than likely love it and you can then work on your long-term plans of incorporating the new successful channel into your larger strategy.

If you're diverting energy from the rest of your strategy, you're doing it wrong
Remember that this is an experiment, not a permanent change to your marketing strategy. If you divert effort or energy from what was planned and what is working, it is not a fair test. That's one reason for the suggestion of making your experiment part of a short-term campaign. Chances are your efforts for something like that are kept separate from your traditional marketing strategy.

Now that you've decided that you're going ahead with the launch of an experiment, there are just a few more things you should keep in mind.

Commit to it

Whatever you do and however you approach your test of a new tactic, make sure that the organization fully commits to it. Just as consumers can separate hyperbole from fact and prefer recommendations from trusted sources as opposed to a company talking itself up, they can also tell when your heart isn't really in it.

Even with a short-term campaign, you still have the ability to put your full set of resources and the strength of your brand behind your efforts. This will go a long way in helping the success of your efforts.

You are being watched

Don't think for a minute that your competitors are not watching what you are doing. This is another reason to be careful about how you frame your experiment. If your campaign is wildly successful, don't be surprised if there is a copycat campaign or tactic launch by one of your competitors. If it's not successful, you might have just helped someone else save time and money.

Short-term measurement is key

Measuring your short-term results is probably obvious, but it's important to stress that your measurement needs to be tailored around seeing activity and results during the short term. Therefore, you need to build in measurements that can be quickly evaluated. Don't pick metrics that will take six to 12 months to fully evaluate if you are using a new tactic for a three month campaign.

In conclusion, while there are many things to keep in mind when launching an experiment like this, make sure to keep your approach agile and get as much customer feedback and data for its duration. Combine this with building in a way to manage expectations both within your organization and within your customer community, and you'll have a great platform with which to take some chances and not compromise your overarching marketing strategy.

Greg Khilstrom is principal, VP of digital strategy, of Carousel30.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Modern social media abstract" image via Shutterstock.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Sione Palu

2012, November 18

Greg, here is an informative paper from fromer head of Amazon data-mining, (Dr) Ron Kohavi who now works at Microsoft. The paper was submitted and appeared in ACM data-mining proceeding, KDD (2007). "Practical Guide to Controlled Experiments on the Web: Listen to Your Customers not to the HiPPO". Here is the download link : [http://www.exp-platform.com/documents/guidecontrolledexperiments.pdf]

Commenter: Sione Palu

2012, November 18

Greg, I think that experimentation is the way to go. There's an article from a few years ago on ZDNet (its still there) with the title : "Microsoft looks to make product planning more science than art" where they used experimentation. The tech-lead was (Dr) Ron Kohavi who was the head of data-mining at Amazon and that's exactly of what he did at Amazon when he was there before he left to work at Microsoft. Although the experimentation that Kohavi has been doing is not exactly the same as the experimentation that you cover in your article here, but the concepts are similar.