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The Role of Social Media In Your Marketing Mix

Social media is hot. But - let's face it - its not new at all. Word-of-mouth marketing, as it used to be known, has been around for as long as there has been verbal communication. Personal recommendation has always been the strongest and most effective form of obtaining willing buyers, no matter what the product or service. Why isn't social media the same thing?

What is new about social media?

What's new is the technology as an enabler of word-of-mouth. The ability to share thoughts widely through tools like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn has moved the conversation from the back yard out to the world. But has it retained its full strength and power in the process?

When you sit and talk with a good friend, consider the total experience. If your life is similar to most established professionals, just finding the time to talk with friends in person amid the chaos of work, kids, travel and stress can be daunting. When it does happen, it is already slightly magical — and memorable for its rarity. Now think of the flow of conversation that winds between you and your friends during these fleeting moments. It often centers on topics that are most relevant to your life — often your career, children, past and future exciting events in your life like travel. Perhaps any specific challenges you are facing with family, health or basic daily life. All of these are fertile grounds for comparing notes and sharing knowledge with those who you feel a strong bond of trust. This foundation of trust - built already by selecting those with whom you wish to spend your free time - is critical.

Trust matters

As friends mention things that work for them, you evaluate their potential to help you as well. You are more likely to try them because you now have someone to continue to benchmark your progress against. You are no longer flying blind. Your experiment will have a control. You will not be going through this test alone. And you can trust that your friend will share their candid comparative data without bias so that you can both benefit from a solid evaluation of the product or service that you now share. Doesn't this translate directly online?

Social media is more like "social, diluted"

Let's compare a "real" social encounter, as described above, to the online version. Instead of working hard to plan time to talk with your closest friends, you sit down at your computer...or more often check Facebook on your smart phone...and see what's going on with your "network". Your network probably does include your close friends...and the 300 people you graduted high school with...and quite a few of your coworkers...and those from the prior two jobs as well.

You are now about to have an intimate, soul-bearing chat with 200-500 friends? Not a chance. At worst you are just spectating their latest status updates and photos. At best you are posting some sort of item meant to spur a comment, a "like", or maybe a decent conversation among a few people who have to choose to join in on the topic on their own. And not in real time. Their comment may come back to you days from now. Maybe never. Quite a few of your friends likely won't post anything just due to not liking social media enough to do more than "stalk". Is this the same as having a decent conversation in your home over a cup of coffee? Not even close. Its not that social media can't be used in the same manner. Its that it most often isn't. Social media just isn't the same as being there. It certainly is better than nothing. And that's where the business case comes into play.

The business case for social

If social media is so bad, why is it so hot? There is strength in numbers. And the social media property owners have a financial stake in making their advertisers money - so the advertising dollars continue to flow in. With all the great minds working hard to figure out what works, good ideas have and will continue to pop up. Billions of people are spending quite a bit of time in their social channels each day. Far more time than they spend watching TV. Perhaps even more than listening to the radio. The social sites certainly have the eyeballs. Social media properties also have data and demographics information. They know where you live. Where you have been. What you like. As much as you are willing to give them. And sometimes they know even more via data sharing partnerships and slightly opaque tracking mechanisms. They may not be trying too hard to make it personally-identifying information (PII), but it gets easier to do so each day.

The idea that you can find a highly targeted interest group for your product or service is higher online than it has ever been for more traditional media. Instead of buying customer lists from interest-specific magazine publishers and the like, you can now check some boxes when putting your ads into Facebook and you can theoretically reach the same segments - and even track your success. Its a slam dunk for advertisers, right?

Social is no free lunch

If we go back to the example of chatting with your good friend over coffee about your life for a moment, let's see if we can equate it to a social media encounter. You mention a problem you are having a group of friends you are with. In social media, most of them ignore you completely. One of your friends jokingly responds that they had the same issue a couple years ago and to "hang in there". Another friend mentions a religious intervention they recommend. Awkward. And finally a distant friend mentions a service they really like that looks promising to you. Not knowing this person that well, you look them up and find out they are a sales person for the service. There goes their credibility due to a conflict of interest. Then someone you don't even know at the next table jumps into your conversation and tries to sell you a somewhat related service but not something you are in need of right now. But you did get 37 slap-on-the-back "likes"...that are effectively not a conversation at all. Sound like a comedy skit? Well, it isn't far off most days.

Why the interest in social from advertisers? Its a numbers game. When you can accept that 0.4% of your messages will find the right person at the right time, being in the social channel makes sense. For items with broad appeal, social makes reasonable sense. Credit cards and basic banking products. Car brands. Soap. Yogurt. And funny enough, on the other end of the spectrum there is some light as well. For a mega-micro-niche product where finding your buyers will be like finding hens' teeth, tapping into a person who can connect your product into a club or small group may well be exactly what you need to succeed. And in between, you may discover that finding the right audience will move the needle, depending on many factors that are beyond your control — but certainly nothing will happen at all if you aren't there. Unless your brand is hijacked.

How to succeed in social

The way to succeed in social is to recognize these limitations of social media, accept them, and commit if you are going to jump in. Social is not a quick fix or an easy route for marketing. It can actually be much harder than traditional display advertising from an effort perspective. You need to craft a highly relevant message - and you need to work with a relatively new and constantly-changing toolset to deploy it - in order to reach your target audience. And then you need to keep doing it, with subtle changes that attract attention without diluting the message, long enough for your audience to notice and opt into the next step of engagement. You may need to put skin in the game with promotions or coupons to attract more fans/followers/likes.

You will need to keep at it until you reach "the tipping point" where your fans become part of your marketing team and promote your product or service with you. Brands like Red Bull and Doc Martin's are the classic cases of successfully riding a wave of social marketing into (or back into) relevance and to great profit. What's often not understood is that Red Bull, for example, had a long-term strategy based on building strong word-of-mouth brand equity before employing more traditional mass-marketing techniques. Red Bull marketers understood that an early stance of pseudo exclusivity and "buzz" would fuel their brand growth well into the future if they could afford to wait. It could have easily failed if they stopped mid-stream.

Critical Success Factors for Social Media

To summarize important considerations for social strategy:

  • Don't expect too much from social media - the trust isn't that high and the engagement isn't that intense
  • Accept that social media is a long-term project - you may find earlier success and be surprised but that is a good problem
  • Experiment with targeting - finding the right niche for your product/service can be harder than you think and the tools are not as precise as they would lead you to think
  • Don't expect great numbers - click-through-rates (CTR) in social can look quite dismal (>0.4%) and still be considered good by comparison. Almost like direct mail if you still remember what that is. Consider brand awareness value, though, and you'll see more value in the work
  • Don't stop. Once you are in, you really can't pull out. The fans you have will expect some ongoing information. If you stop paying attention to this channel once its running, fans will assume you are not paying attention elsewhere and are in decline. Its like not answering your phone anymore. If you can't afford to have someone answer the phone, regardless of how busy you may get (or not), you may not want to list your phone number
  • Don't abuse your fans. Sending too much information can be as bad as too little. Pushing the limits of their patience by sending offers from partners with only mild relevance is a sure way to gain quiet scorn. Your audience chose to listen to you to know more about your specific world. Reward them with more of it. But carefully...