With social media channels, policies, and preferences in a state of continuous change, most marketers are constantly evaluating how best to engage and deliver measurable ROI. That said, it's not surprising that when it comes to selecting the right social media management tools and technology, it is a similarly challenging task. The options are numerous, the cost implications can be significant, and the features are as varied as the growing number of online channels themselves.
As one who has recently completed a comprehensive review of more than 25 competing social media monitoring and management technologies, I'm in a position to share what I believe are the key steps you can take to make sure you're not being lured by a choice you perceive as the "best-in-class" at one given moment. Rather, I'm advocating that you consider a few guidelines that will help you choose tools that meet the specific needs of your organization, and have the potential to adapt and grow with those needs as they change.
Tools and needs
A recent Demand Metric study revealed that more than 60 percent of organizations in North America have adopted social tools. The top three reasons for why they're using the tools are campaign tracking (60 percent), followed by brand analysis (48 percent), and competitive intelligence (40 percent).
Social media managers will tell you that they're still waiting for that one amazing tool that supports all of their day-to-day management and analytics needs. Unfortunately, the industry is not there yet.
You're going to need to identify your objectives and then decide what set of tools works best to meet these needs. Your toolset consideration should include:
- Listening/reputation management
- Customer care
- Social selling
- Content curation
Evaluation and scoring
To begin your research and evaluation, you should develop a comprehensive RFI for all of the tools of interest. Not only does this create a framework for organizing the participating vendor inputs based on your needs and expectations, the act of writing an RFI also forces you to think deeply and precisely about these needs. The RFI responses will provide the detail you need to go beyond the surface of what these vendors are selling on their website, to being responsive, to the specifications that will enable your business and marketing effectiveness and ROI. In addition, SMMS providers are happy to complete the RFI because it signals to them that this is a serious potential new customer.
To evaluate the responses to your RFI, develop an evaluation scorecard derived from the toolset considerations listed above. Here you can actually score each feature and capability individually. If certain features are more critical than others, use a weighted score to make sure that you're eliminating tools that fall outside your specifications or that don't meet the high priority needs of your organization.
The following sample weighted ranking scorecards can be used as a foundation for creating your own scorecards customized to your organization's objectives and the specific tools that you are evaluating.
Focus the field
Once you review all of the RFI responses, the first step is to eliminate tools that don't offer capabilities to suit your needs. Next, schedule the "test drive" demos with all of the tools that have potential. During these demos, be sure to ask clarifying questions. If you are not the one managing your social media day-to-day, bring in your team members who understand the minute details. They'll know better how to probe and uncover the true capabilities of an SMMS.
The SMMS sales reps will try to wow you with their client roster, many of which were likely short-term users and are not current. The client list is great for third-party credibility, but don't assume that just because a big-name brand is on their logo slide that the tool must be the best for your company, too. Remember, often times, the big brands (with big budgets) use several different tools -- many with overlapping features -- to ensure they have access to a variety of analytics and features.
After the initial demos, you'll narrow your list considerably. At this time, you should have a very deep understanding of your needs -- much stronger than at the start of your search. You may learn about new features that you'll want to add to your feature list for follow-up with other vendors to see how they compare. The demos may also spark new ideas for how to approach your social management, making you smarter and more efficient overall.
A reputable vendor will provide you with contact information for client references. Often times these reference checks are the confirmation that help you rest easy or the "ah-ha" moment when you realize that the features don't really work the way they appear to during a demo.
To make your final decision, you'll need to really dig into the tool. Many offer a free trial or will at least give you a guided walk-through, which is a much richer experience than a demo. I have found that while some tools don't allow for a free trial because of complicated setup requirements, the cost for a reduced trial period (say three months) is a worthy investment to give the tools a hands-on test.
You really need to understand the inner workings of a tool to know for sure that it's a right fit. Is the dashboard user-friendly? Are the features easy to find? Is the reporting clear? What are plans for updates and upgrades that are relevant to your business and marketing plans?
After this thorough research, you should be in a good position to know exactly which tools are the best fit for your organization's needs. With the speed at which social platforms and tools are evolving, the best match now may not maintain this position down the road, so make sure you negotiate a contract that doesn't lock you in too tightly. Happy hunting!
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