The single most important thing to realise about social media is that it is different. Almost all of the mistakes being made in social media occur because organisations do not fully appreciate this and simply look to drag their existing marketing and communications ideas, campaigns and ways of thinking into the social media space.
Strategy is no exception to this. A social media strategy is different to a marketing communications strategy for the following, simple reason. A marcoms strategy has as its output a piece of communication (expressed as an ad, a press, release, a brochure, a campaign - essentially one single 'thing' that is presented to the whole target audience). However, a (successful) social media strategy has as its output a form of behaviour or a process.
The best way to understand this is to imagine that you are in a room with 100 people who represent your target consumers, customers or stakeholders. If the only way you have to engage with this group is a two minute (or 30 second) slot on a podium, what you will need is a speech - a very carefully crafted piece of communication that conveys exactly what it is you want to say about yourself. This situation is analogous to the communications and marketing environment we have been operating in to date. We have very limited (by time, expense or relevance) opportunities to state our case and the only way to do this effectively is through the projection of single, short messages designed to be seen or encountered by all of our audience, often repeatedly. As a result, our entire approach to strategy has been harnessed around the need (now seen as an unquestioned assumption) that this is the output.
Social media is different in the respect that you are in the room with that same group of 100 people, but this time you are in a social situation. There is no podium, people are talking to each other. If you want to engage productively with these people, simply bringing along a speech or a predetermined set of responses to anticipated conversations, is not going to work. Preparing any fixed pieces of communication, in advance, will be a waste of time. Success in this situation will depend on your behaviour - your ability to understand the dynamics of the room, join the right type of conversations and, critically, say the right thing at the right time.
This is why social media strategies have to be based around the creation of forms of behaviour and thus harnessed to defining the management processes that lie behind this. This sort of strategy will look very different from a strategy that is designed to deliver a thing. It also has to recognise that when you are in a social situation you can't talk to everyone, all at once. Social media is actually very bad at doing what traditional mass communication does well. The benefit from social media (as with conversations) comes from ability to talk to exactly the right people at exactly the right time. Social media is not about large numbers (Facebook likes, YouTube hits, Twitter followers etc), but the ability to target very specific groups with very specific information.
This means that the elements of a social media strategy should revolve around two things: training and focus. Training, so that people understand and are motivated, to behave in the right way; focus, so that activity is linked to very specific situations. Having broad objectives, such as increasing 'engagement' or improving brand reputation scores, are useless for social media. Social media activity is rarely going to move the needle on these in a timeframe, or with an impact, that is likely to be acceptable. Interestingly though, social media can be used to measure how the needle moves on these objectives - if people like your brand, your Facebook 'likes' will go up, but this is not necessarily because of anything you are doing 'in' Facebook. The tool you use to measure something is rarely the tool you use to generate something - but many fail to appreciate this as they chase Facebook 'likes' believing that by inflating this score they are having a significant impact on improving the reputation of their brand - when all they are doing is skewing the numbers.
An effective social media strategy requires objectives that are focused on very specific business issues (increase business with X customer, sign Y deal, recruit xx individuals, improve Z product or service). This is where social media can really work and it is why I now base my social media strategies on five elements: Business Objectives, Priorities (people / topics), Human Resources, Tool Selection, Operation and Management Process (perhaps more of these in separate post).
Funnily enough, it is only relatively recently that I have had this insight. I have long realised that social media strategies are different from conventional marketing strategies, but I haven't been able to nail this difference as one that stems from a fundamental difference in output - from pieces of communication to forms of behaviour - until now. I think the reason for this is that I have recently done a workshop with a former colleague, Paul Burns, ex Saatchi & Saatchi.
Paul does a very good module on how to produce a creative brief and we spent a lot of time discussing how to apply this process to social media. We realised that the process could be adapted to social media, but only when we fundamentally changed our assumption of what output we were seeking - away from creative things to creative behaviours. It also resonates with a conundrum I encountered a few months ago, when attending a gathering of creative academics - that is people involved in the teaching of creativity rather than academics who think creatively. The biggest 'criticism' these people had of social media was that they couldn't see 'the creative idea' in social media campaigns.
And the conundrum stemmed from the fact that there is never, in social media, a creative idea that relates to what the people we have come to call 'creatives' actually do and thus the uncomfortable conclusion that there is no point in teaching a traditional creative director how to operate in social media, because traditional creativity (expressed as tangible outputs) has no role within it.
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