Why has social media secured a firm hold in our personal and professional lives? One of the main reasons involves the role that online communication tools had played in the past and the expansion of that role over time. Online communication tools such as email, messaging services, and social networking sites were originally designed to keep friends and family in touch with one another. Over time, businesses began using these tools to communicate with customers and peers. Social media, while offering the immediacy of email, also allowed businesses to maintain a public dialogue with existing customers, new customers, suppliers, and the competition. For customer-oriented businesses, social media can provide businesses a progressive, proactive edge in developing customer rapport. The marketing role that social media provides, therefore, must be treated seriously and that a thorough, well-thought out social media plan must be put in place so that businesses make the most of their time and effort. The previous blog, “The Social Media Evolution – Part 1: Understanding Social Media”, dealt with understanding social media regardless of technical background. This blog deals with the concerted effort to design and implement a social media plan once everybody in a business has been educated about social media. If management or your employees have varying degrees of experience with social media, I highly recommend reading Part 1 first.
In order to make the most of social media marketing, companies must create a social media plan, tailor-made to the organizational culture of the company as well as its industry. Social media marketing plans should look very familiar in language and tone to marketers who write marketing plans for their companies. When business owners, managers, and employees create a social media plan, they should treat it as an extension of the current marketing plan. There are 14 things that companies must consider when creating their social media marketing plan:
Identifying the marketing needs the business would like to address with social media
Simply put, businesses exist to make money, so they must consider if investing additional time and money to create a social media campaign would help them generate even more revenue. They should understand the tangible business goals that social media can help the company achieve, which include:
- Building brand awareness and reinforcing it
- Building and strengthening relationships with clients, prospects, and influencers
- Better understanding of the buyers
- How to improve customer service
- Identifying new product ideas
- Promoting offers
- Increasing website traffic
- Improving search engine rankings
- Driving traffic to trade show displays at events
- Generating leads
- Generating sales
Generate a timeline
Pushing business owners or employees to create a social media plan should not take an indeterminate amount of time. Management will let everybody know that. In order for a business to achieve measurable results with their social media plan within a reasonable amount of time, they should create a timeline of activities that will give management a better idea of what activities will be done and when. This timeline should include how much time it will take to:
- Define goals, objectives, and strategies
- Train the company on social media
- Determine if either an internal social media team, external social media consultant, or both, are necessary
- Setup accounts on social media websites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter. Depending on the size of the company or purpose of the account, more than one Twitter account maybe necessary.
- Find existing communities of clients, prospects, and influencers on the aforementioned social media websites, niche social media sites, and established industry blogger sites.
- Setup the company blog
- Listen to each online community
- Develop a following
- Create content, such as an ongoing blog, videos, articles, podcasts, and others
- Learn time-saving tools such as RSS feeds, Technorati, HootSuite, bit.ly, and others
Regular, pre-scheduled progress reports will inform management that the company is staying on track or, at least, help them better understand what is involved. Progress reports should explain any or all of the following:
- How much of the social media plan is completed
- What part of the plan is currently in progress
- What work remains to be done
- What problems or unexpected things have arisen, if any
- How the plan is going overall
Plan the resource requirements
Social media marketing is an extension of the company’s current marketing plan, so the company must be prepared to invest additional resources such as time and money. They must address the following issues:
- How much time can the company afford to dedicate to building a social media presence?
- How will the company respond to feedback, whether it is positive, negative, or just an enquiry?
- What tools can the business use to monitor their presence effectively?
Companies should realize that social media marketing is dynamic, communicative, and, often times, visual in nature, so they may require a host of additional resources such as:
- Additional help such as training, people’s time, or a budget to pay for consultants
- Additional tools such as web hosting, a digital camera, video camera or webcam, or web applications
- Additional communications tools such as a laptop with broadband access or a smart phone with an unlimited web access plan
A word to the wise: If possible, a company should do a casual inventory of its own resources (as opposed to doing full-fledged inventory) before making any social media-related purchases. Businesses may save hundreds or even thousands of dollars if they already have some of the requested resources on hand. Additionally, asking management to share their buy-in with a proposed social media plan can help gain more cooperation from the rest of the company.
Who should be involved in coordinating the social media plan for the company?
As stated previously, companies must decide whether to deploy an internal social media team, hire an external social media consultant, or both. If companies have not engaged in the activities to introduce social media to its employees as described in Part 1, social media consultants may help straighten the learning curve by training the company’s employees and help identify online communities where potential clients already gather. However, I would recommend that the business owners, management, and employees engage in social media activities as described in my previous blog so that everybody in the company who has learned about social media together can create the social media plan together and give the company’s online presence an authentic voice.
Understanding the customers’ needs and how social media can address them
Beyond the purchase of merchandise or services rendered, companies can reach out to their customers with social media and provide added value to the overall service they received. For example, customers may need easier access to product information or better after-sales service. Companies need to determine what their customers find interesting about them and engage in conversation with them, steering clear from broadcasting sales pitches. Customers contact a company because they have questions about a product or service and social media gives companies the chance to become an interactive knowledge base. Some products or services may produce more discussion than others, so companies must act accordingly and add more specialists about the subject or expand the company’s knowledge base as needed.
Where can companies find their customers in social media?
Companies must spend the time researching where they can find new and existing customers by going to social networking sites. Consumers and business customers probably use different platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn, respectively. Successful businesses invest in social media platforms that actually reach their customers.
Is the competition using social media to market their business?
Business owners and managers should evaluate their competitors, especially those who are using social media as part of their marketing, and determine whether or not they are doing so successfully. A lot can be learned by studying the businesses that used social media marketing and succeeded — and failed.
The social media platforms that address your customers’ needs
Once companies develop an understanding of their customers’ needs that social media can address, they must determine the most appropriate social media platform to reach them. The social networking culture is developed by none other than its users (e.g. professionals or business owners on LinkedIn vs. a virtual gathering of one’s social life on Facebook), so companies should take the time to understand the culture first and develop a plan accordingly. Even though social media marketing uses a wide range of communication tools to promote a business, management must decide which types of social media would work best for the company. Some trial-and-error maybe necessary to determine what works best for the company and whether or not the communication tools used helps the company address their customer’s needs. There are five types of social media to choose from:
Twitter, a very popular microblogging website, allows businesses to broadcast instant, public, and succinct 140-character messages (or “Tweets”) with links to websites, pictures, or videos. Due to the public nature of this form of social media, people who receive the Tweet have the chance to respond publicly as well, thereby, engaging in a dialogue with the business or even joining an online conversation with other people who also received the Tweet.
Writing a blog is similar to writing a diary or journal entry. An extension of microblogging, writing blogs allows a business to write longer entries and for specific, business-related reasons. The CEO, for example, may write one blog entry at the end of the month to discuss how well the company performed during the month. A manager, on the other hand, may focus their blogs on customer service and write one or two blogs per week. Readers are particularly responsive to blogs that have a personal touch and offer compelling opinions. The ROI of management’s time to write a thoughtful blog is high: many blog websites are free. The freedom to write longer, however, does not mean that a company’s blog writers should write long. Bloggers within a community should grab the target reader’s attention and keep them interested with short blog entries.
There are many social networking websites online. Some were created for a particular country, professionals, or demographic. As I noted in the previous blog, Facebook is, by far, the most popular social networking site with about 500 million users. Even though Facebook started out as a social networking site for consumers, businesses have created successful social media campaigns on the site, as well. The previous blog also noted LinkedIn, a social networking website geared towards white collared professionals, and has over 70 million users. The choice of social networking sites that a business joins depends largely on whether their target audience or business contacts is present on those sites.
Internet forums, or message boards, are online discussion sites. They provide people a place to give feedback about a business’ products or services. Well-structured and controlled forums allow businesses the opportunity to reach out to their customers and encourage them to use the forum to ask questions, make comments, or voice complains. Forum moderators well versed in customer service can direct a company’s forum towards generating positive word-of-mouth recommendations for the business. They must steer clear from using the forums for advertising or overt sales pitches or else, forum users will turn against the business.
If a business needs to create a “buzz” about a new product or service launch, social bookmarking and information-sharing tools, such StumbleUpon or Reddit, can help. These services allow users to mark web pages that they consider “interesting” and would like to recommend to others. The number of recommendations is aggregated by the service in real time, allowing users of the service to see what their peers considering noteworthy at any given moment. While company websites by themselves should not be promoted with these services, companies can announce new products or services with these tools.
Social media’s immediacy and flexibility allows companies to use it for a variety of marketing purposes such as:
- Promoting time-limited special offers, especially through microblogging sites such as Twitter.
- Carrying out market research by inviting and encouraging feedback, especially through blogs.
- Providing direct access for customers to the company’s PR, particularly through microblogging sites.
- Establishing a reputation as a customer-focused business, committed to service and/or communication with customers, using a forum to accomplish this goal.
- Taking a proactive and vocal role in the company’s industry, participating in profile-raising, industry-wide debates and initiatives, by posting regularly on industry-wide forums or blogs with constructive suggestions.
- Cementing relationships with existing suppliers, creating referrals for those who earned your goodwill, and reading other business’ referrals to build relationships with new suppliers.
Companies must understand that the medium and message go hand-in-hand. Effective marketing starts not only with sending the right message to the target market, but using the correct channel to reach them, as well. For example, the use of Twitter in a target market that does not use it would render the marketing campaign ineffective. On the other hand, companies that aim to make connections with other companies should take their marketing campaign to professional-oriented social networking sites such as LinkedIn. Successful businesses take the time to learn which demographics use which social networking sites and create marketing campaigns geared towards each target audience.
Get SMART and create a measurement plan
In order for businesses to measure the success of their social media plan or return on investment, they must create SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound) objectives and make sure that any marketing activity is tied to at least one of these objectives, separating hard targets (e.g. sales) from soft targets (e.g. creating new relationships). Companies should setup tools such as web analytics, customer service, or call centers, in order to help measure the success of each criterion on each social media platform.
Create an integrated communication plan
Companies must come to an understanding that social media marketing is not meant to replace existing, traditional marketing plans. In fact, social media may encourage businesses to reevaluate existing market channels. When businesses use social media, they should determine how they can promote conversation and sales-oriented messages through their existing marketing channels. A company’s social media presence may complement existing marketing channels and conflict with others. It maybe tempting to think that social media marketing can replace existing marketing activities completely, but companies that do so could miss out on targeting a demographic that chooses not to use social media at all. However, social media marketing can replace existing marketing activities if and only if the business targeted just social media users.
Create a strong profile on the chosen social media platform
Creating a strong social media platform includes conveying essential information about the business as well as an image that they want to promote, particularly any existing visual branding. Brand ambassadors and key contributors can add to a company’s profile significantly. Businesses that identify these types of users early should engage with them, one-on-one if necessary, talk to them, get to know them, and encourage them to promote the company’s brand, providing them with tools to share the company’s content across their networks.
Content is king
The Internet’s commercialization and the number of companies that do business online means that companies must have some kind of online presence in order to survive. However, websites cannot be treated like a washer or dryer, where a person sets it and forgets it. Businesses should include in their social media plan a schedule for providing relevant website or blog content that is updated regularly. Websites such as affiliate or e-commerce sites, or graphics intensive sites, require fresh content periodically. On the other hand, the content from public discussion forums, news sites, and blogs is generated by its users or writers. Companies should integrate the content with their website so that both traditional and social media-oriented customers can benefit from it, taking great care to apply search engine optimization (SEO) practices to maximize the visibility of the website in organic search engine results. Since the content sells the company and its products and services, the company must make sure that the marketing messages delivered to their customers are informative, engaging, and relevant. If businesses share their knowledge and expertise outright, they can avoid making persistent, unsolicited broadcasts or hard, pressing sales messages.
Respond to all feedback
Despite following the best business practices and receiving an A+ from the Better Business Bureau, companies should realize that some critical, negative, or even controversial feedback is likely from some customers. A company’s social media plan should outline how to deal with any and all types of feedback from its customers. Companies that respond promptly give them the chance to build their profile and credibility. On the other hand, companies that respond slowly or just as critically, brush aside or suppress a complaint, or worse, edit or delete a negative or controversial comment, can damage the company’s profile significantly.
Monitor, evaluate, respond, adapt, and evolve
Social media has been and will always remain dynamic. Companies must keep that in mind as they roll out their social media plan, so they must monitor their social media use, measure their progress, and make changes to their approach if it proves ineffective. Communities and the people in them evolve every day according to their needs and desires, so companies must keep in touch with them. A target audience may move from one social media site to another, so companies must be willing to move with them. Companies should perform a progress report every month, quarter, or semiannually and evaluate the performance of the social media plan against the objectives and goals set before the plan’s implementation. With the use of available measuring tools, keeping an open ear to customer feedback, and using all sources of information available to them, companies should be able to identify ways to improve their engagement. Most importantly, the company must monitor their brand and act when there is conversation happening that they can add value to and influence.
When a company decides that they can reap from the benefits of integrating a social media marketing plan into their daily operations, they must not lose sight of why they are around. Companies exist to do business with other companies and consumers. Their success is due in part to following sound business practices and sticking to carefully laid-out plans that brought the company prosperity over the years. Even though social media has been around, integrating it into a company’s daily operations is relatively new and, as such, fraught with peril. Business owners, managers, and employees most likely have different levels of casual experience with social media and its communication tools, so putting them on the same page about social media (vis-à-vis , Part 1: Understanding Social Media) was necessary before setting out to create a formal social media plan. Everyone in the company would play a part in creating the plan: managers, creating a timeline of activities that must be done; marketers, identifying the marketing needs that social media can address; employees, proposing resource upgrades that can help the company follow through with the plan successfully. The customers whom they are serving can tell the company what they are doing right or wrong and make changes accordingly. The company can turn their most ardent or vocal supporters into brand ambassadors and push forward the company brand. In order for a company to experience continued success with social media, they must be willing to move with the ebb and flow of its customers. Successful social media plans are not set in stone; they never stop listening to the customers or the company that created it.