Is social marketing success different from any other business success? When it comes down to it, you have to make more from your social marketing efforts than you spend generating them, correct? SROI can be masked with lots of fancy terms and charts, but social efforts will be axed like any other business effort if it doesn't help the bottom line. What can companies do to insure social marketing success when "success" means, "we made more money from social marketing than we spent on social marketing?"
NextStage was commissioned in 2009 to monitor the social efforts of more than 400 companies in the U.S. and Canada for three years. Many of the companies are known brands; some are local and regional businesses. We monitored companies as diverse as Alberto-Culver, Boston Scientific, Gucci America, Pioneer North America, and Walgreens. The goal was to determine if social success could be predicted and to learn what social strategies work.
The study revealed that companies can run successful social campaigns by mixing good business-school savvy with an understanding of anthropology and sociology.
Companies were throwing spaghetti on walls and seeing what stuck regarding social strategies back in 2009. Whenever you have that kind of experimentation in that short a timeframe, patterns will emerge. You learn exactly what you need to do to get spaghetti to stick. And (surprise!) it has little to do with the spaghetti or the wall. You can stop reading now if you're looking for a "step one, step two, step three" solution. There are strategies that win, but not universal methods. But if there are no universal methods, what strategies insure success?
Nine strategies emerged over the three years and more than 400 companies. All top performers had at least one and usually more of these strategies in place as part of their social business plan. These nine strategies -- four are pure business, three are pure anthro-social, and one is mixed -- always led to successful social campaigns, increased social sales, grew brand networks, and so on.
Here they are, rated last to best and with the percentage of top performers that used the strategy.
Business: 69 percent compared apples with apples
Everybody goes to conferences and a must-do is to find out how your efforts compare with others. That's a wonderful thing to do provided there's a level playing field. You may be comparing the 0-60 mph accelerations of a Ford F150 pickup and a Lamborghini. Easy, the Lamborghini wins. But if you compare carrying capacities or even mpg, the pickup wins.
Comparing your efforts to another company's without having all the details is a loser's game unless both businesses are using the same "out of the box" campaigns, and less than 0.5 percent of the businesses monitored were successful with out of the box solutions. These are not good odds. It's not that all the top scorers had custom designed efforts; it is that all of them customized their efforts according to their needs, goals, timelines, and budgets.
While everybody compared their results to their peers, 69 percent of the top performers worked to keep their eyes on the prize, and it paid off handsomely.
Social: 79 percent recognized that the bad was good
Red Skelton said, "I might as well love my enemies. After all, I made 'em." This philosophy held true in more than three-quarters of the most productive social efforts; let your detractors have their say, even if it's on your property.
There's a reason to this madness. People who share negatives on your site are doing it where you can see it and easily address it. The rest of your audience will see you responding and being proactive toward your detractors. This wins lots of points, especially among the undecided. You might even win over some of your detractors.
There have been several studies demonstrating that sites with only glowing comments lead to fewer conversions than sites with a mix of positive and negative comments. As in cooking, if you want something to taste sweet, add a pinch of salt.
How many pro and con comments are enough? The most successful efforts had a ratio of 4.6:1 pro to con. That ratio only considers the number of UGC. It doesn't consider size, author, audience, or any other factors.
Business: 80 percent didn't waste budget on shiny-object technology
One social marketing director told me, "We only added technology that our audience accepted. You can design your property so that it's completely whiz-bang or that it's very 'yesterday.' What matters more is, 'Will your audience accept it and use it?'" This marketing director had managed several bleeding-edge properties and learned that they get a lot of traffic but not necessarily business. People were coming to play, not to purchase.
Your audience is coming to your online properly to meet its goals, not yours. One of your purposes is to design your property so that the audience achieving its goals causes you to achieve your goals. Does your audience expect the latest whiz-bang? Then give it to them. Does your audience not care about the presentation provided that they can do what they want to do? Then make sure they can do what they want to do. Don't give them whiz-bang if whiz-bang stops or even slows them down.
Wise use of technology involves consistent use of technology. Don't fix what's working, just make it work better. This means, let people do what they want to do the way they know how to do it. Changing the rules midgame caused consumers to leave the field more often than not.
Eighty percent of the businesses that used technology wisely were successful. Seventy-seven percent of the businesses with failed social marketing efforts used technology because it was whiz-bang but didn't serve a recognizable marketing purpose.
Business: 80 percent chose tools that met their purpose
I first wrote about social marketing in 2006, back when it was called "WoM" and "Viral." There have been more social measurement tools on the market since then and definitely since this study started (2009) than there have been engagement tools in the past seven years. The one exception is -- you guessed it -- social engagement tools.
The most hilarious one of these (my opinion, this) was sent to me by a friend who asked me to comment. The company behind the tool defined engagement as, "People talking about this as a percentage of 'likes,'" then defined "talking" as a function of "the number of unique users who have generated a story about a page over the past seven days…" But we don't know the number of unique stories or if these generated stories were purchased by the company to promote their product/business/efforts/etc.
I must be the only one who's been approached to buy "likes," and recent research indicates that consumers know when a business is purchasing "likes," followers, and so on, and it's hurting businesses more often than not.
Determine what things are measurable that you can directly attribute to the campaign you designed. Now and only now, go find tools that can reliably, repeatedly measure those things.
Business: 90 percent had pragmatic approaches
All top social performers started with a well-thought out, well-reasoned pragmatic approach. They all had specific goals and knew how much leeway they were willing to give to achieve those goals. This was very important; they knew what their goals were -- they all had definable targets going in -- and how much slippage they'd allow themselves.
This planning gave some companies the ability to quit their campaigns before they were buried by them. You'd be surprised how many businesses decided to go social without doing sufficient research to know if a) it made sense for them, b) how they should do it (not every business should go social the same way), and c) when to pull out.
The best approaches had evidentiary trails that were defendable. An evidentiary trail is like a business plan in reverse. It explains where you've been, why you went there, and what caused you to move on. Evidentiary trails provide forensics, so you'll know what to do and what not to do in your next efforts.
"Defendability" means there were rational decisions, not gut reactions, for each step. Some approaches may fail, and defendable, evidentiary trails let you know how and why they failed, as well as how to avoid failure in the future.
Business: 90 percent thought "likes" were a fake metric
Every successful social effort involved rigorous, accountable metrics. When you consider the success of pragmatic approaches, you understand that successful efforts had to have reliable, undeniable, accountable metrics. You can't figure out when things are going sour without them.
Likewise, reliable daily snapshots allowed social marketing managers to do micro-adjustments. Micro-adjustments are like little, tiny course corrections you perform when you're steering your car down the highway.
These little, tiny adjustments keep you where you need to be at any given moment while you're on your way to your goal (social marketing success). Performing these little, tiny adjustments also helps you make smooth transitions from lane to lane or highway to off-ramp when the time is right. There are no violent adjustments that panic everybody in your car and in the cars around you. You get where you want to go safely and in good time.
Social: 95 percent trusted their communities
This is a sure-fire social marketing must-do that frightens marketers. It's easy to understand that fear if you're a marketer who delivers more hype than serviceable product.
But businesses that respect their social members and listen, respond, and act on worthy suggestions made by their audience are gold.
That gold comes in many ways and the most obvious is known by anthropologists and sociologists as "village elders." A synthesis of influencer and police, village elders are much better at recognizing unwanted voices and personalities and silencing them than any social marketing maven could be. The elders apply the network's power to keep people in line. If a business silenced antagonistic voices, they'd lose their audience in an internet heartbeat.
A recent study also indicated that trusted brand communities perform altruistically with the greatest efforts going to perpetuating the network. Given the current economy, this is understandable. Everything individuals traditionally place their trust in no longer seems trustworthy.
But people must trust to survive so that trust goes to like-minded individuals and where they gather becomes a safe place that must be protected at all costs. Brands providing trusted communities are filling that "safe place" need with a vengeance.
Social: 98 percent involved their audience in Q&A sessions
Management needs to engage the audience proactively periodically. It's great that you're reachable by your audience. How many times have you opened the door and solicited their feedback, their thoughts, and asked them what's working and what's not?
This used to be handled by companies that specialized in community development and product testing. Not so much anymore. Consumers like being valued much more than they like being handled. Your audience is out there and waiting. Make use of them and they'll love you for it.
It used to be that such proactive conversations were done once a year or so and were highly targeted to groups within the greater audience, a technique known as "pulsing." What we learned from pulsing in social networks is that regular, proactive conversations involving active, core groups kept the good vibes going through the entire network for much longer (3:1 factor) than the same conversations involving randomly selected audience members.
Business/social: 99 percent had everybody in the business participate
Companies may hire social teams or even chief social officers, and what keeps consumers coming back is the knowledge that there are real people -- people who mean something to the business, not just people assigned a role in the business' social effort -- on the network at given points in time. These can be "Chat to the CEO" sessions, "Ask R&D," brand sponsored "tweetups," and the like. Ninety-nine percent of the businesses that made their employees, from interns to management, accessible and (dare I say it?) vulnerable scored well in this three year study.
There are a lot of reasons for businesses' social efforts to fail and far fewer reasons for social successes. In the end, a good mix of social savvy and business sense generated the best performing social marketing efforts from 2009-2012.
Joseph Carrabis is the founder of and chief research officer for NextStage Evolution.
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