Monday, December 21, 2009

Social Media Marketing 101 - The New Fountain of Youth

I was recently asked to opine on what makes a social media manager and his (or her) strategy successful in today's market. Having dabbled in the field for a little while now (perhaps what can be considered a long time in this emerging medium) it forced me to stop and reflect on my own trials and tribulations in the realm of social media marketing (SMM). The first thing I pondered is how to even define "success" in social media and community management. It's not something that can be pinned down easily like an engineering project where criteria are clearly defined. Namely, does the product work as expected, is budget under control, and are the customers happy? Managing a brand or product via social media channels is more akin to wine making or political campaigning. It's something that takes considerable time, involves a myriad of tools and tactics, and, quite honestly, more than a little bit of luck. And it also takes a special kind of personality.

So first off, what is "social media"? It is a set of web-based communication channels connecting a brand with existing and potential customers. These typically include a website, Twitter, video channels (YouTube or Vimeo, for example), several social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, or LinkedIn, maybe some IM services, throw in a couple photo sites like Flikr, and perhaps some opt-in email or SMS push channels. Social media marketing (SMM) and social media optimization (SMO, a subset), is the art of juggling all these channels simultaneously to build brand recognition and increase customer acquisition. The reality is in fact a bit more complicated, but those are the basics. 

Note that I called this SMM endeavor an "art" - and purposely so - because to the best of my knowledge, there are no clear well-defined best-practice recipes for success in this business and most companies tend to fly this bird by the seat of their pants. Some better than others. Yes, there are numerous self-proclaimed social media experts and consultants out there. People like Brian Solis, for example, who clearly know what they're doing and contribute substantially to educating the community about what works and what doesn't but in reality, no one really knows what works for sure. There are no magic formulas or guarantees. Just lists of obvious pitfalls to avoid and generally-accepted best practices, but that's about it. So here are my distilled two cents on SMM strategy based on personal and vicarious experiences of the past couple of years.

You know your SMO strategy is starting to pay off when:

1. Your web analytics indicate growing popularity and visit stickiness.

2. You see increased public participation in all your social media outlets.

3. You start getting unsollicited interest from the press and industry influencers.

4. You find it easier to establish relationships and partnerships with distribution channels.

5. You start getting attention from competitors.

6. Customers start evangelizing your product to their peers.

7. Your brand awareness starts spreading outside your targeted segments.

8. You start seeing measurable and sustained growth in customer acquisition.

9. You start seeing repeat orders from customers.

10. You pick up positive comments about the experience of doing business with you.

What does it take to become successful at this game? A couple of tips here:

1. Do not profess expertise on topics you know little about. Eventually, it will show.

2. Always remain honest. Never lie. Your most important asset is credibility. You can fix almost any mistake except credibility damage.

3. Be genuine. Maintaining a special "online" personality is not genuine.

4. Be obsessed about customers. Walk in their shoes. They're always right.

5. Do not let fear of mistakes (or failure) paralyze you. It's OK to make mistakes. What's important is quick admission and correction.

6. Be either loved or hated. Middle ground is not compelling.

7. It's not a job, it's a way of life and a mission. Understand the expectations. It's a marriage, not a date.

8. At the end of the day, it's all about the "story". Understanding show business is crucial.

9. If you suck at building relationships in real life, you will suck at it online. The inverse is not necessarily true.

10. Question everything, keep an open mind, but be wary of "experts" (the field is too new).

I've had my share of SMM boo-boos in the past years; online successes and failures. Stuff I thought would never work (that did) and things I knew for sure would take off (but never did). There's nothing like this new media to bang some realism back into one's ego and topple pre-conceived notions. That's why I love it. The beauty of this new "frontier" is its never-ending capacity to change, evolve and teach. Try it. It'll keep you young :)

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