Let’s do ourselves a favor: Let’s step back from the glitz and glamour and buzzwords for a bit and consider social media in terms of old-fashioned business fundamentals. I see it as making three important changes to the business landscape:
1. Reach is earned, not bought. Your reach in this new media depends much more on the quality of your content than on the amount of money you spend. That’s different from what media used to be. Most of us grew up in a world that sold audiences to advertisers. You bought as much audience as your budget allowed and your strategy called for.
2. Traditional gatekeepers matter less than quality of content. This new media gets around the gatekeeper system. If that isn’t immediately obvious to you, think of newspaper and magazine editors and television producers as gatekeepers. It used to be that you could get an audience for free if the gatekeepers liked your content. Now you can get an audience free if the audience likes your content.
3. This new media amplifies word of mouth. It’s happening whether you like it or not, and whether you participate in it or not. Word of mouth has always been a critical factor in business success, and now it’s more so. You don’t necessarily get the luxury of avoiding it.
When you put it in these terms, social media offers us the potential benefit of interesting new media opportunities that weren’t there before, and the potential benefit and threat of more powerful word of mouth. While you can choose not to play proactively in the new media opportunities, you don’t get to fully choose how that word of mouth factor affects you; that’s something others do, that affects you, whether you like it or not.
Here are my suggestions on how to deal with this new business landscape in the most business-like ways:
First, understand strategic options
You don’t have to do it at all. There are lots of successful businesses that don’t. Yes, I think it’s an attractive opportunity because of the fundamentals I summarized above. And I think the word-of-mouth risk argues for at least watching out. But if your restaurant, limo service, or landscaping business is doing fine without it, so be it.
I will, however, add this: if you do it at all, do it well. Success in this new field is about authenticity, consistency, and quality of content. Forget the myth that you can do this in your spare time. It takes effort. If you’re going to do it yourself, allow time and resolve to stick with it. If you’re going to hire it out, find somebody you can work with, who you trust to represent you, and who you can afford over the long term. The Web is littered with people who started and gave up. When that happens, it leaves an inactive remnant presence that’s probably worse than no presence at all.
Second, set realistic strategy
Define your social media goals. Are you blogging to establish your expertise, for example? To help close deals that might otherwise not close? Are you trolling Twitter for mentions of your business, or are you offering links to your content in Twitter to increase traffic? Are you using Twitter as if it were advertising, shouting your slogans at people? If so, while that could (I doubt it) boost sales, it would also hurt your marketing because people won’t like you for it. Not many companies can serve marketing, sales, and customer service goals at the same time.
This is about business planning. Define those goals so they work with the larger business. Is the social media presence about spreading your net wider, generating new leads? Then how many, over what period of time, and how will you tell? Is it about having antennae out so you can see what people are saying about you? Then set the process to make that work, and start tracking incidents. Is it about building blog traffic? Then track the traffic by source. The planning at this point enables the tracking results and adjusting things that comes in the next one.
Whatever you do, synchronize with the rest of your business. Don’t let it be haphazard. What happens to the leads? Where does this fit into your total marketing mix? Can you locate it in the marketing-sales funnel? Just as an example, think of what happens when a high-end expensive restaurant starts pushing discounts through social media. That’s a mixed message.
And for heaven’s sake, don’t do it haphazardly. Have you read about the Kenneth Cole Fiasco? The lessons there are obvious.
Third, make it happen -- and manage it right.
With this, like in just about every other phase of business, you make things happen by setting expectations, with realistic objectives you can track and measure. And then you follow up by tracking results and rewarding good results and revising bad results.
Your second step included setting metrics. Whether it’s klout score, leads, customer service incidents, Web traffic, or whatever else, set up a schedule to review those results on a regular basis and react to the plan vs. actual differences. The original plan was just the start. Use it to manage and steer the effort over time. Make it happen.
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