The latest shift in social media

With social media 1.0, simply having a Twitter and Facebook account worked. Social media 2.0 forced brands to break down barriers between social networks, surf the swelling tide of mobile, and help customers navigate the maze of social noise. A new shift is underway -- one that nips at the heels of marketers who control robust budgets but must increasingly use social insights to make smart decisions. And there is big money in play.

Research firm BIA/Kelsey projects total U.S. social media advertising revenues will grow from $5.1 billion in 2013 to $15 billion in 2018. It's no secret that social networks are promoting paid advertising and dialing back organic reach in an effort to establish their own sustainable foothold. This may contribute significantly to rising social spend. So should brands grin, bear it, and pony up more dough for paid social and see what happens?

Not exactly. Just as racking up likes and follows is no longer a sustainable social strategy, neither is throwing money at social marketing because somehow big spend must equate to big success. This isn't to say that social marketing doesn't require financial investment; it does. However, money alone can't help a brand plan, create, and leverage better content or translate social insights into actionable business decisions.

Here are three "buckets" where social media insights can impact both marketing and the larger business.

Staffing

Social media was often mistakenly thought of as a "free" marketing tool. That was true if you weren't paying anyone to actually execute your social strategy -- to say nothing of paid advertising.

Another vestige of days past is the idea that brands do people a favor by replying to customer service issues on social media. Customers who engage a brand with a question or complaint now expect a response -- and a timely one too. Determining the correct social customer service staff can be challenging and require a strategic shift.

According to Katy Phillips, senior analyst of social communications for American Airlines, the company began staffing a 24/7 customer service operation in January 2013. When they first launched their social customer service presence in late 2011, American responded to customer questions on Twitter and Facebook during business hours. With the goal of eventually being a 24/7 operation, they increased their hours of operation to 12 hours a day in spring 2012 and then to 18 hours a day a couple of months later. There was lots of number crunching to forecast headcount. They used data to look at incoming volume, projected growth of fan base and other factors to determine the optimal number of team members.

Insights that lay bare potential holes in a brand's social media customer service such as average response time can help determine additional spend required to build an adequate team. This issue goes beyond customer service too. Does an Instagram presence require dedicated staff, or just current employees with smartphones and creative eyes?

Content creation

If you think projected social ad revenues are big, consider TV. eMarketer expects TV to continue capturing the largest share of paid ad spending in the U.S. for the foreseeable future, with revenues reaching an estimated $75.3 billion in 2017.

One could argue that brands with TV ad budget likely have enough money for social media ads. But again -- it's not about available spend; it's about smart use of good content. While answers will vary from brand to brand, marketers should ask questions such as: "Do we need to spend major resources creating custom content for YouTube, or is repurposing our TV spots enough?"

Many brands experience viral growth with their TV ads on YouTube -- especially around events like the Super Bowl. It's easy to fall into the mistake of planning content per channel when brands should plan it per audience. Chances are the people who respond most positively to a brand's TV ads are the same people who engage with the brand on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.

Again, there's no silver bullet here and finding the right answer will involve some trial and error. Understanding what organic content does well can help inform what to put spend against, and successful paid content can also be pushed out organically. Marketers don't always have to reinvent the wheel.

Beyond marketing

Social media for social media's sake is over. Earlier this year, Altimeter analyst Rebecca Lieb opined on this topic here. However, as she states, the maturing of social media doesn't diminish its importance, it's "essential for integration into the larger marketing organization."

I would take this a step further and contend that it's essential for integration into the larger business organization. Companies should increasingly use data to advance the entire organization across all departments when possible. Social media insights can potentially be used to make critical decisions from human resources to product development to sales. Community managers all the way up to CMOs should work to share data with others and explore how to capitalize on social insights to grow the entire business.

Brands must 1) ask the right questions and set the right objectives, 2) have the appropriate technology to access and use social data, and 3) have people with the intelligence and intuition to apply the data correctly. With this, marketers will be armed to make smart decisions for the company beyond social media.

Lux Narayan is co-founder and CEO of Unmetric.

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