Effective social media—as easy as herding cats

From a marketing perspective, social media is a moving target—a potentially profitable channel that’s both fickle and elusive. Many businesses are opting to put more of their marketing dollars into this broad and ever-changing medium, hoping to hit the “viral” jackpot. Yet others, having seen limited sales or poor ROI from their social media efforts, are disenchanted and have decided to cut back or pull out altogether. Neither response is altogether right or wrong, because leveraging social media for business results is complex and unpredictable.

Defining social media

At its core, social media is community-generated content that is shared, where community is defined as a group of people with similar interests. For the purposes of this discussion, we are talking about the niche sites and blogs that compete for social traffic. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, et al, represent some of the sites that currently dominate the social conversation. Social media also extends to email marketing, blogs and paid online banner advertising as well as paid links (search engine marketing or SEM) that rise to the top of a web search—but these avenues are topics for another conversation.

The key: Matching audiences, strategies and objectives

Social media can be effective when there’s a perfect intersection of the social interests of your target market and the content you offer. When the resulting social conversation supports your business objectives—creating awareness, building your brand or generating sales—you’ve hit the sweet spot. But this is a tall order, subject to the whims of social media participants and their growing appetite for the next new thing. More than with other marketing channels, social media successes do not predict the future, and a million “likes” don’t always translate to ROI. What worked last time may fall flat the next, making it harder to strategize success than with other marketing strategies.

What you offer—your product, service or even your brand attributes—and how your prospects and customers interact with social media will determine which strategies are most effective for your business. For example, in the consumer retail space, where sales are more discretionary, emotional or impulsive, social media has obvious and immediate advantages.

The deal.

This strategy seeks to provide immediate gratification on a spontaneous discretionary purchase—a “loss leader” if you will. Think $5 off pizza or oil change and $2 Caribou coffees. Using Twitter, for example, to distribute a deal like this may generate traffic and volume sales on the day of the offer, but won’t necessarily translate into increased volume at other times. Regular and expected sales may negatively impact your margins as customers defer purchase in anticipation of the next discount. Perhaps this is why our $2 mochas went away?

Peer pressure.

Great reviews—especially from like-minded peers—promoted via social media can inspire confidence in customers as they evaluate your product or service. This can get you in the consideration set, especially when looking at purchasing durable goods such as an outdoor grill, vacuum or even a car.

In the business or service space, where sales are protracted or cyclic, it gets a bit more complicated. When the sales cycle takes months to complete, the customer has the luxury of reviewing potential vendors and create a shortlist for consideration. In the case of long-term enterprise capital investments, the decision to purchase often belongs to a senior group of executives versus a lone individual. Social media can be an effective tool when you have time to create multiple touch points and can help impact the final purchase decision.

Brand building.

Awareness is first and foremost. Social media can be a great outlet to demonstrate your client successes and claim a position in your marketplace. Because it allows you to create conversations, there’s potential to engage your customers and really let them know who you are. At the same time, businesses need to decide how to manage “the haters” who like to openly share their dissatisfaction. Keep in mind, how you respond to complaints and praise will dictate how others view your brand.

In-bound marketing.

Here social media is used as the front-end communication channel to promote and share a white paper, case study or topical point of view. These resources are usually offered free via the company’s website, but require completion of a form for tracking by sales and marketing as they follow and score the lead through the sales cycle. Ongoing ‘intellectual offers’ demonstrate the company’s or executive-level’s thought-leadership and awareness of the industry and client needs.

Monitoring.

Social media can be a great place to monitor customer reactions, test a product or introduce a service, or provide quick insight into viability and market need before product launch or service roll out to a larger audience. A recent, successful example of this was done by Draftfcb and Kmart for direct-to-home merchandise shipping with a campaign called “Ship my Pants”  The online success led to a modified commercial being placed on selected TV/cable channels.

A word of caution:

You can’t limit or control the size of a test in the social world—once you’ve handed control over to the public, going viral and getting out of hand is a real possibility.

So there’s a lot that goes into social media that determines its ability to move the needle for your business. It’s important to know where your prospects and customers “hang out” and reach them where they are, today. As a marketing medium it demands fresh thinking … what worked for you last quarter won’t necessarily work tomorrow. It comes down to being RELEVANT and therefore part of the social conversation.

Lastly, recognize that response to social media is unpredictable and depends on your customers. There are no guarantees on sales or ROI, even when your campaign goes viral. Close to 55 million views of the online Unilever-Dove ad campaign created by O&M, Brazil is one measure of success. The though-provoking campaign re-started a debate about beauty, and perhaps that was the original intent. But the question remains, has it sold product or increased the brand value?

So social media is a tricky medium, with exciting potential. It’s wise to start small, test your ideas—throw something out there, and see what sticks. Look at the results and next time, try to beat it with something new and fresh. Soon you’ll have a formula that works for you.