Most early failures of new marketing techniques follow distinctive patterns. Fortunately, there are some clear characteristics of smart social strategy that can help you break in, rather than break down.
Social media may seem ubiquitous, but it is still a fledgling industry. Much like in the earliest days of television or the internet, brands are still trying to figure out how to connect with customers on an appropriately personal level. Many marketers are simply throwing money at things they aren't sure are working -- trying everything from posting viral videos about their brand on YouTube, to tweeting about new products, to buying ads on Facebook.
Consciously or unconsciously, many marketers are missing out on the true opportunities afforded by social media. As is often the case, failure follows patterns. Fortunately, success is not random either.
Pitfall 1: Box checking. Experimentation implies an active learning loop -- a sustained commitment to continuous improvement. Marketers who do not have an active learning loop are dabbling, not experimenting -- they're just checking the proverbial boxes: A Facebook fan page; a Twitter account; a couple of interns blogging; maybe some "listening"... PHEW! Social Media -- done... now that wasn't too hard... now I can get back to search, display, and traditional media (where the big money is).
This pattern is pretty easy to spot and is a recipe for missed opportunities -- if not outright failure.
Pitfall 2: Cramming. Cramming is as old as the industry and is the predictable response of established businesses to new technology. Rather than leverage new technology to do new things, established leaders "cram" new technology into their pre-existing business models. For innovators who can avoid the pitfall of cramming, huge opportunities abound, often giving new players an advantage over established leaders.
Social media is no different. In this case the established business model is traditional broadcast advertising based on 1) aggregating large audiences, 2) centralized pipes of distribution, 3) controlled content and context, and 4) impression-based metrics.
Perhaps the most common incidence of social media cramming is the reduction of Facebook to just another broadcast media outlet, using the same process for its execution: produce content, aggregate an audience, count impressions. Following this model, social media strategy degenerates into little more than posting content and counting friends, fans, followers, retweets, and posts. Again, while the result may not be abject failure, cramming carries the risk of failing to make the most of the unique attributes and opportunities of social media.
7 steps to success
Eager to avoid "biggest loser" status? The path to success is open. And, without suggesting a one-size-fits-all folly, there are some clear characteristics of smart social strategy. Here are seven.
Step 1: Listen. This has nothing to do with social media, inherently. Word of mouth has always been the big daddy when it comes to influencing brand preference and purchase intent. Social media amplifies the conversation and facilitates the listening. Lots of capable suppliers (including BuzzMetrics, Visible Technologies, and Radian6) can help with this activity.
Step 2: Track shared links: The DNA of earned media. The cool thing about "keywords" in search is that they enable targeting that can be more effective than run-of-network ad buys. Shared links are far more powerful because the content in a link not only reflects your interest but also the relevance to members of your social graph -- confirmed by a click on the link. All of this sharing activity is measurable and effectively reveals the DNA of online earned media: Who are the influential brand advocates, what is the content that engages users and drives traffic/conversion, and where/how content travels -- the dynamics of influence. (Disclosure: Meteor Solutions provides earned media measurement and activation technology and services.)
Step 3: Create content worth sharing. This step often lives in a mystical space, and I have a hunch that some agencies perpetuate the smokescreen (pointing no fingers, of course!). Ultimately, engaging content does one of a few things for an audience: 1) entertains, 2) educates/informs, and 3) enables. Paraphrasing the adage of Digitas CEO David Kenny, "Good advertising performs a service for consumers."
Step 4: Activate the content. Buying media is great, but in today's marketplace media can be earned not just bought. Social sites, blog outreach, syndication services, sharing widgets, and even a good ol' reward can induce users, partners, and fans to energize your campaign.
Step 5: Integrate. The essence of social media is that it connects -- people with people but also people with content and brands. Similarly, social media done right is not execution in a silo. Social media can enhance its closest neighbors -- display and search advertising. Social media also improves brands' owned media value by generating site traffic and stimulating conversion.
The noble idea of integration is often misinterpreted to mean that everything needs to link to everything. This is not realistic -- or even desirable. Purposeful integration is more analogous to the coordination of an orchestra -- each instrument has a distinct role such that the whole is not only larger, but different and better than the sum of parts.
Step 6: Measure and optimize. This is not a fresh concept unique to social media, but it is nonetheless striking, in our data, how often explicit learning loops of improvement are not designed into campaign processes. The stakes are high here for a number of reasons, chief among them is that social media is highly measurable and measurable data -- such as shared links -- correlate powerfully with relevance and engagement. In other words, if you take time to measure and learn, it's not hard to apply and benefit. Marketers have adopted site analytics (such as Omniture and Google Analytics) as standard equipment to measure consumer interaction with content on the marketers' websites. Similarly, marketers looking to optimize earned and social media are discovering the importance of measuring consumer interactions with content off their websites -- tracking and analyzing shared links.
Step 7: Sustain the effort. Success is not a "go-for-broke" Super Bowl ad or a Subservient Chicken Hail Mary. Success depends on developing an authentic presence, sustaining meaningful engagement, and delivering value to customers.
Social media is not magic. It does challenge marketers to do different things rather than merely doing the same things (i.e., advertise) differently.
Let the learning continue!
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