The 6 critical questions guaranteed to drive your social media strategy

social media strategy

If you made ladders for a living and sold them to big chain stores, how much of your budget should you spend on social media marketing?

Should you step it up? (Sorry, I can’t help myself sometimes).

This was a real question posed to me by a reader last week and as I walked her through the six key questions that lead to social media strategy I thought this would be useful information to share with you.

Undoubtedly, most companies should have a social media presence today.  I recently wrote about these solid reasons in a post called why you need to be  in social media even if the boss says no! I also covered some scenarios where you actually don’t need a social media strategy (featuring Pee Cola no less!).

But let’s assume you’re like 95% of the businesses out there: You need to do it. You want to do it. You don’t know where to start.

When I’m working with new clients, the roadmap basically boils down to following the line behind six essential questions. These are not easy questions, but if you really work it, your social media plan will become self-evident.

Here we go …

1) Can you finish this sentence? “Only we …”

This is the most difficult task in business. It forces you to figure out why you’re distinctive, why your customers love you, and how you fit in your marketplace.

Are you the fastest, cheapest, highest, lowest, most convenient, most colorful, most … what?

Are you unique because of your experience, your location, your service or your flavor?

Do customers keep coming back because they love you, they’re obligated to you, they emotionally relate to you, or they have no other choice?

The surprising thing is, I rarely have a customer who can easily answer this question in our first meeting. Do the work upfront. I guarantee it will help!

2) Can our culture sustain a social media strategy?

I’ve written about this extensively and will conclude this section with blog posts for further reading if you are interested in this. But the short explanation is, budget, content, resources and vision will not determine your success if you don’t have a company culture to nurture and sustain this change.

Is your company prepared to publish? Take the heat of negative comments? Entertain and inform?

The tone of your company will show up in your social media presence. Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or a disaster waiting to happen?

Other blog posts on this topic:

The Social Media Minefield: Five Factors Blocking your Success

Five steps to establish a content-creating company culture

3) Are we a conversational brand … or could we be? 

Here is the business case for Facebook in one sentence: “Come waste time with me.”

Nobody HAS to be on Facebook. People pile on there to play Farmville or see pictures of cats. Why in the world would they pay attention to you?

If you work for Disney, Nike, or Coca-Cola you have nothing to worry about. You have a beloved, conversational brand.

But if you’re selling ladders? Maybe not so much … unless you can MAKE yourself into a conversational brand.

There are many famous examples of this, most notably the Blend-Tec “Will it Blend” video series. Yes, they actually made blenders conversational. And you could probably do it with step ladders, too.  But let’s be real here. That is not easy, and it’s probably not cheap so you have to weigh the risk and investment with your other marketing options.

4) Where are our customers and competitors?

This seems like such a basic question but it is often overlooked. Doing just a little market research can be extraordinarily revealing.

I am working with an awesome new medical center. Their competitors can brag about their great equipment, compassionate doctors, and beautiful facilities. So how can they stand out?

A careful analysis of competitors showed that there was a wide open opportunity to create an effective social media presence. They can actually use their marketing platform as a point of differentiation.

Your industry structure and terms of competitive engagement almost always have a powerful impact on your marketing strategy. It makes sense to analyze this area carefully for potential leverage.

5) What is our source of rich content?

Many companies are generating social media activity for the sake of activity. This is rarely a good idea. It means you’re checking a box but probably not creating any real value.

Here’s what I mean. If you’re going to create value, solve problems, establish a leading voice of authority, build new business relationships, and engineer opportunities for massive reach, you’re going to have to do something more than tweet now and then or update your company’s LinkedIn profile. You need to have a consistent source of “rich content” that fuels your social media presence.

Rich content is in-depth, searchable, quotable and evergreen (meaning it can be relevant for months or years). Generally this means you need a blog, a podcast or a video series. How will you consistently, effectively fuel your social media strategy with content?

6) What does success look like?

My friend was lamenting that the owner of the ladder company was growing impatient because he wasn’t seeing any financial results from the social media activity so far. He is correct to be asking that question, but a good plan would have set forth the expectations and metrics ahead of time.

Activity might be generating conversations, but to what end?  Engagement is not a strategy.

When you are starting out, ask your sponsor … “If we sat down a year from now and this was a great success, what would have happened?”

Are the expectations realistic? Achievable? Focused? Or, do you need to step back and consider if you are on the right path?

As you consider your measurement alternatives, don’t overlook the importance of simple social media milestones to provide momentum, as well as qualitative measures.

So now what?

Whew.  That is a lot to think about. But I believe thoroughly considering these six questions will lead you to success, or at least point out the problems you might face with a customer or with your organization.  How does this land on you?

Illustration: Shinkyo Bridge, near Niko, Japan photographed by Mark Schaefer in 2013

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  • Fab post (note Beatles reference:), and one that I’ll be directing all of my clients to read! Cheers! Kaarina

  • Thanks Kaarina. That’s boffo. : )

  • The Fab Four has morphed into the Fab Six here 🙂

  • Holly McIlwain

    Every business owner should asks the questions number 1, 4, and 6 with or without the consideration of social media. Re-examining who we are, customers, competitors and employees, annually (or how often?) is key to success. It is human nature to get away from what works, so introspective contemplation and planning keeps business focused on what works and weeding out or improving what doesn’t. Since market conditions change, the frequency of this check up may depend on the industry. Can you think of any type of business that absolutely would not benefit from social media and the time/cost just wouldn’t be worth it? Great post, always enjoy reading grow. Thank you for the step up this morning, I love puns too.

  • Thanks Holly. I actually did think of some businesses that could probably get by without a social media strategy:

  • Tara Geissinger

    Really valuable ideas here Mark. I often wonder where the “sweet” spot is for some of my clients — and myself! There is a lot of value that comes from adding social media to your online marketing, but only if you’re committed to creating and sharing quality, thought-provoking content.

  • Holly McIlwain

    Great sense of humor. Excellent post and thank you for helping me so promptly.

  • Thanks so much Tara!

  • In my experience working with people, I think #1 not being answered is the most common. People have a great idea but then can’t tell me why I should care or want to buy their product. I have asked people, “Why do you want to do this, or sell this product, or target this audience?” And then I would get a deer in the headlights looks. This it the first thing that people should figure out and often it is the hardest thing to figure out.

  • Steve Woodruff

    The starting blocks for any branding, any marketing, any go-to-market strategy is answering question #1. It’s amazing how few people (or companies) can give a clear and compact answer to this. Back in the day, FedEx did this so well with the saying, “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” BOOM – differentiation.

  • modza

    Excellent questions, and I agree with Steve Woodruff and everyone else that #1 is the most difficult for most companies. However helpful an answer to it is to us marketers, it’s not essential for all thriving businesses. Sometimes being “the most convenient” at the moment you’re passing and have the impulse or need is all that’s necessary — for a gas station, espresso or shoe shop, etc.

  • I agree. Pretty shocking isn’t it?

  • That’s a great one. Another favorite is Wal Mart. Their point of differention is so strong it is now captured in just one word: Always. A thing of beauty for a marketer!!

  • Location is a legitimate and powerful point of differentiation.

  • Very smart list Mark. We work with a lot of small businesses who first got into social media simply because they thought they “had to”. Very few have clear strategies on the tactics they use or what goals they actually want to accomplish using social media.

    Being distinctive is appropriately at #1 in your list. If you’re just going to be like all of your competitors on Facebook you may as well not even bother. Businesses need to choose a niche and run with it.

    One great example of this is Petplan Insurance, which sells pet insurance. They made their Pinterest account the ultimate source for tips and advice on how to keep their pets healthy. Within just 4 months this led to an 87% increase in website traffic and 12.5% increase in insurance quote requests! (Source:

    Just like you mention above, you need to take what you’re selling and make it converstational. For our clients who have struggled with making themselves conversational, we provide them with a number of formulas for creating engaging posts on Facebook and Twitter. These are 8 of the formulas we’ve found work best:

    Have you tried any of these? Are there any you would add to the list?

  • Hi Mark,

    I was hoping as I was scrolling down that what is covered in #3 & #5 would be there.

    Branded content, in my opinion (and something that I feel will prove to be self evident as brands begin to create what I refer to as branded content purposed for an eventual “brand channel”), is and will continue to be the “outstanding factor” of successful social media interactivity & brand recognition.

    We are working on several unique and definitely out-of-the-box branding projects for a couple of clients that will open up opportunities for cross-branding scenarios that can be applied on scalable geographic campaigns – even to the point have having interchangeable cross branding partnerships in various locations.

    Definitely some useful information here… must have been the Scotch and Hemingway! 😉

  • This is an ad for your company thinly veiled as a comment. I’ll let it go this time but I don’t want my log to turn into an infomercial OK?

  • The scotch probably helped, but I did notice a few typos this morning! Good luck with your projects.

  • Hi Mark,

    I’m sorry it came off like that. I was trying to speak from my point of view and experience, but I can see how it came off as salesy.

    I’ll be more thoughtful before posting any future comments. Thank you for the fair warning. Cheers.

  • modza

    It certainly can be, but it looks weaker when it’s “Only we are on the southeast corner of 5th & Main, No need to wait for the light to get to the northeast corner!”

    Walgreens in the Phoenix suburbs and Starbucks in so many cities can say “Only we are never more than a block away,” but the fifth independent dry cleaner within 10 blocks…it’s tougher. But somehow they survive. Maybe it’s the personality of the owner, or loyalty or micro-geography, but I still think that there are plenty of me-too businesses small and large that get by without a strong differentiator. There’s (sometimes) enough business to go around.

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  • CheryGegelman

    Great tips! Thank you Mark!

  • Thanks Nick.

  • True in an expanding economy anyway! Thanks for the great comments sir.

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  • Hehehehe… thanks!

  • Great post, Mark! As many of the commenters pointed out, #1 is so important, whether you are using social or not. And ye, it is shocking that so many business owners cannot answer that question. If they can answer that question, I ask if their employees can answer that, most cannot.

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  • All of the above tips are essential to have a good social media strategy. Great insights shared. Thanks!

  • Stephen W. Hiemstra

    This is an excellent article of the benefits of social media. As a former financial regulator, however, I am curious also about the risks of social media presence. What does the short lists of potential pitfalls look like?
    I learned this week, for example, that at least some federal agencies put out strongly worded guidance to dissuade employees from using social media. In a nutshell, in a one-strike your out environment, social media can be a risky bet for employees who may not know the ropes of our quickly evolving, political culture. This is the reason, for example, that government researchers have been dissuaded over time from publishing in referred journals.
    In a private sector environment, similar concerns may be warranted. What if you business involves a high level of confidentiality? Would you really want, for example, to hire an attorney or a firm who, so to speak, wore their prejudices on their sleeve in the public domain?
    Inquiring minds want to know….

  • This is a complex question that varies by industry and even by company but I think that most companies worry way too much.

    I have a friend who is in the wealth management industry an his employer wold not even let him have a LinkedIn profile. In my mind that is just dumb. I asked him if his employer allows him to go to networking meetings and he said yes. I asked him if they give him a script before he goes and he said “no.” And then I asked him why there is such a difference. There isn’t. His company’s social media policy was “our employees are idiots.” Most employees aren’t. Certainly most lawyers aren;t either. They would be foolish to wear their prejudices on their sleeve in a face-to-face meeting right? Why would they do it online?

    People just have to use common sense.

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  • Stephen Hiemstra


    Thanks to Google Alerts, I found your response to my comment.

    These government policies effectively censure employees who cannot defend themselves easily against inane managers. Often, it is not even clear how to appeal a stupid decision because the manager in question may have moved on.

    People seem more comfortable with LinkedIn than Twitter, in part, because there are fewer wild-haired stories going around about LinkedIn and it seems more overtly to have business purpose. Ironically, I seem to have more followers on LinkedIn than Facebook.

    One concern that I have become sensitive to lately is that social media tends have more pushers than readers. I catch myself doing this. I have tried lately to be a bit more social in social media, but my life has speeded up rather than slowed down over the past year.

    Thanks again for the insights.


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