Extolling the virtues of social media as a marketing channel for your business is the dishonest fantasy of social media mavens. Social media is essential to online business success, just not in the way you thought.
That is the Social Media Myth, and I’m here to debunk it.
In this article, I’ll define what social media really means, describe your challenge in social media as a business, develop a framework for you to create your own social media strategy, then show you some examples of what social media success looks like.
I make the assumption that you are familiar with what some social media platforms are, just not how to use them. If you haven’t heard of a social network or blog, you should conduct some brief research before continuing.
1. Defining Social Media
It’s common for my clients to request a “social media strategy”, but I always have to ask for clarification. Most people lump together social networks, forums, wikis, social bookmarking, blogs, articles, audio, video and other terms and call it social media. The problem is: lumping them together isn’t helpful.
Social networks, forums, wikis, social bookmarking, and blogs are platforms. We might refer to them as social media in the same way we refer to television networks and newspapers as the media. Articles, audio and video are also social media, but in the way we refer to their offline equivalents as forms of media, and only if they display certain social characteristics.
This can be confusing. We often use social media to describe a wide array of subjects, or interchangeably with it’s subcategories. To make matters worse, popular online services rarely fall cleanly into one specific category.
For example, Facebook is a social network, but users micro-blog using their status updates. YouTube is a platform for web video, but it’s also a social network since users create profiles and befriend each other. WordPress websites are blogs, but they’re also like forums in that conversations occur in the post comments.
What you really need to know is social media is an extension of offline word of mouth, with three key differences:
1. Online, people can take immediate action on recommendations. A purchase is one click away, not a drive to the local store.
2. Online, an individual is louder, has a larger network, and making a recommendation is less costly. You don’t have to go see your friends to make the recommendation, and you can tell them all at once.
3. Online, data can be aggregated across various separate groups of individuals to generate recommendations from the masses. You don’t need to know someone to get their recommendation.
Or another way, social media = media + a social platform + technology.
Why media? Without words, images, videos, and sounds, you can’t convey a message.
Why a social platform? If you create content without a means to communicate, you’re just having an internal monologue.
Why technology? Your local church group is a social platform, and you can spread media there (like a handout announcing a garage sale), but the difference is in the immediacy and distance by which the media can travel. It’s only what we call social media if the media is instantaneously transferable to every person who is connected to the platform, regardless of geographic area.
Television is not social media because you cannot give it to your friends, find out what others think about it, or create your own content in response to it. It isn’t social without an additional set of tools (YouTube). Adding tagging, social networking, search, ratings, and more, traditional media turns into social media.
The most exciting thing about social media is that it broadens the reach of the individual. The implication for brands is that every one of your customers is empowered to spread your word of mouth message at a level unprecedented in human history. Conversations happens quickly, with more people, and are easier to immediately follow through on.
2. Your Social Media Challenge as a Business
Let’s use Facebook – the largest social network with 115 million unique monthly visitors, having surpassed Myspace in April 2008 – as an example for the challenges you face with social media.
A Facebook user spends an astronomical amount of time to connect with friends, and no time at all to listen to your brand message. Anything you do that does not fall exactly in line with the user’s motivation to connect with friends is interruptive, unwanted, and ineffective.
There are some businesses that do fall inline with user needs. People use Facebook to set up parties, so it’s a good platform for bars. Invite a bar’s profile to the event you schedule to get a drink special. Check out the bar’s pictures from Saturday night to see what you missed on your camera. This is the exception to the rule.
So if Facebook is a platform for friends to connect with each other, and it’s a bad business move to interrupt their communication, what room is there left for a brand? None, actually. But there is room for your brand ambassadors, the people who love to talk about you. Social networks are a way for your brand ambassadors to talk to your brand prospects, since your ambassadors have friends (ideally).
Who are your brand ambassadors? Hopefully, your parents are. Any customer whom you impress with exemplary customer service could become one. Your employees should be (why else are they working for you?). Even you are, Mrs. CEO, Mr. Freelancer, or Sir Small Business Owner. But your brand, that amorphous entity, is not.
Your task, as a business, is to make life as easy as possible for your brand ambassadors. This is the fundamental objective of a social media strategy.
The power of social media is that regular people are empowered to say what they think (a lot louder), and more people are listening. It’s not a brand platform, and it’s not a channel like television, print, or direct mail.
The strategy for a brand that wants to explode through social media is not too different from that of a brand that wants to explode through traditional word of mouth. Do something that is worth talking about and people will talk about it.
Not exactly helpful advice, I know. But tactically, the difference between success and failure lies in how you facilitate the online conversation and follow through on your success.
3. A Framework For Developing Social Media Strategies
A successful social media strategy requires four important parts:
1. Be Listening
Like any customer behavior, you need to be watching even if you’re not ready to participate. Pay attention to everything people are saying about you, especially the loud people.
Sign up for Google Alerts. According to Google, “Google Alerts are email updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, news, etc.) based on your choice of query or topic.” Brainstorm the keywords that you associate with your business, and sign up for those alerts (Hint: If you already do search advertising, you have a head start).
Search Technorati for bloggers that write within your niche. Subscribe to all of the ones that have a decent level of authority (and don’t forget to subscribe to my blog). As you get more familiar with which blogs are the niche leaders, unsubscribe from the “me too” blogs until you reach a tolerable level of noise.
2. Be Great
This may be a hard pill to swallow, but you can’t squeak by on being pretty good. With the internet opening localities to national and international competition, no one is going to talk about your pretty good product, your adequate customer service, or your fair prices.
There are too many other things competing for our attention, so only the cream of the crop spread. And, in case you were wondering, it’s impossible to fake greatness. Not in the long run.
If you can’t be great, you might think word of mouth marketing offline and social media online are not right for you. I don’t believe that. You’re just trying to be great at the wrong thing. It’s better to be the biggest fish in a small pond than a small fish in the biggest pond. This is called the Long Tail.
3. Be Available
If you make the best stuff in the world but you never show it to anybody, you’re never going to be noticed. In social media, there is no “build it and they will come”.
Post every video on YouTube, every picture on Flickr, every thought on Twitter, every announcement on your blog, every answered customer question on your knowledge wiki, whatever. Then, tell everyone you know.
If you don’t make yourself available and easily cited, people won’t talk about you.
People don’t want to download a video from your website; that’s too inconvenient. We expect your video to be on YouTube, because that’s our preferred method of sending videos to our friends. Your job is to get your message in our hands and get the hell out of the way.
Do not horde your content. Do detach and distribute. Put your content where the people are.
4. Have A Conversion Engine
What if you succeed? Better make sure your viral video closes with a call to action and a product link in the about section.
Like word of mouth offline, social media success doesn’t automatically make you a business success. This is the point opponents of social media latch onto. It doesn’t matter how “internet famous” you are if you can’t leverage it to take the next step.
Social media is just another part of the larger puzzle, and nothing replaces a business model. People can talk about you all you want, but you better have a model in place to convert talkers into buyers.
People express interest in your content for a reason. They believe you have something valuable to offer them. They want to hear more about it (but not about anything else). They’ve given you permission to talk to them.
Read Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends Into Customers. The title says it all. At the core, social media is great for making friends, not customers. So you need a friend strategy and a customer strategy. Include an engine to convert friends into customers.
4. What Does Social Media Success Look Like?
Our first example is only a partial success. This is the most viewed YouTube video of all time, with over 88,240,000 views and 168,000+ comments.
Judson Laipply’s Evolution of Dance video spread because it was so damn funny. Every friend you showed the video to thought better of you for it.
So why a partial success? Judson’s video leads to his website, where you can book him for appearances. I’m sure his schedule is packed, but the scale of his conversion engine doesn’t match his social media success.
He should have had an extended version for sale as a DVD.
With a mention in the video’s sidebar, or a 6-second sales pitch at the end of the video, a modest 0.1% sales conversion on a $15 DVD would have netted him a cool $1.3 million. So have a business model in place!
Guitar Master Pro
If Judson Laipply had done it right, his video might have been more like this one from Guitar Master Pro.
Shared user-to-user, and featured on blogs about guitars and composition, this rock rendition of the classic Canon spread like wildfire.
That’s a lot of free communication with friends and customers. Their approach inspired a Harvard Business Review piece on filling your company with memorable people.
Zappos also has customer service so far above the norm it’s worth telling you about. Besides free shipping (buying or returning), they also have a 365-day return policy. They promise 4-day shipping, but usually ship next-day to surprise customers.
In 2007, their “I Heart Zappos” slogan grew out of a story posted on a customer’s blog.
After a 4-week training program, including 2-weeks in their call center talking to real customers, they offer $1,000 for new employees to quit. That’s how you know the people who stay care.
Their social media successes propelled them to expected sales of $1 billion this year, up from $70 million in 2003.