If you’ve been testing the waters of social media marketing lately, you are not alone. In a survey conducted by Constant Contact in fall 2011, more than eight in 10 small businesses reported using social media in their overall marketing programs, up from about seven in 10 just six months earlier. And if you are at least a bit unsure about this 21st Century marketing channel—what exactly it is, how it’s different from traditional media, how best to leverage it, what benefits it can actually deliver—you also have plenty of company.
Assessing the social media programs of all types of businesses, large and small, Steve Goldner, senior director of social media of both MediaWhiz (a digital media agency) and Ryan Partnership (a social marketing practice) based in New York, estimates just five percent represent real business value, and 95 percent are wasted effort. “Regardless of size, most businesses simply don’t understand what social media is about—which is building relationships and having appropriate metrics that align to your company’s KPIs (key performance indicators) and core business objectives,” he declares.
There are notable differences between marketing via social media channels and traditional channels, the most glaring of which is the prevalence of two-way communication in social media, something that was never supported to a meaningful extent by traditional media. “People talk back,” says Natalie Henley director of marketing and analysis at the Findability Group, a Denver-based Internet marketing firm. While traditional media is based on the concept of outbound communication—talking “to” your audience—social media is about developing a community and having your audience “talk back” to you.
“This can be scary for a lot of companies,” she says. “For the first time, you can’t control absolutely everything said about your business in social media. But the reward is building an excited, engaged community and crowdsourcing some of your marketing to your biggest fans.” Daniel Ladik, associate professor of marketing at Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business, says the bottom-up approach to marketing inherent in social media (as opposed to the top-down approach of traditional media) means, “You are not in control anymore; the crowd is in control. They decide to participate via a ‘like,’ a tweet, a forward, a blog post, a comment, etc.”
Goldner notes that many companies stumble over the “tremendous need” to listen first and market second in social media. Effective business use of social media starts with listening to key conversations in and around your industry and target markets, building trust with those communities and slowly working your way into those conversations. “Trust within those communities has to be there first, otherwise consumers will tune you out,” he warns.
Two other ways social media differs from traditional marketing channels are in measurability (good for your business) and transparency (a potential challenge). Any marketing you do online is highly trackable—much more so than conventional print and broadcast ads—with tools like Google Analytics. However, traditional advertising allows you to create the best “version” of your messaging and your company, Henley points out. “With social media, your company and corporate culture become much more transparent.”
The basic components of building a strategic social media marketing program should include:
Realistic goals for social media programs include community building, driving traffic to your website, and increasing awareness, consideration, loyalty, and advocacy. The exact numbers you set as targets for community building will differ based on business type and budget, Henley says, and the programs do best when they are run internally. “Even though we have an agency that does social media marketing for businesses, we always recommend to clients that they make plans to bring social media in-house at some point,” she says.
In general, social media is not a highly effective channel to directly drive transactions, but its ability to increase levels of customer awareness, consideration, and loyalty is a powerful tool to “tee up” conversions. “Social media provokes these behaviors, and these behavior changes drive transactions,” Goldner says. He adds that social media marketing programs are most effective when the right tools are used, enough time is allotted for the programs to build momentum, and you are committed to delivering value to customers as opposed to selling to them.