The new standards for strategy and social media success

social media success

By Mark Schaefer

I was recently interviewed for an international business magazine and offered my views of digital marketing transformation, social media success and the skills needed to succeed today. With permission, I’m providing this content to you today. 

You’ve worked with a range of international businesses, government organizations and news organizations. Despite their differences, where does the diagnosis for strategy begin when you meet with them?

Remarkably, the diagnosis begins well before content or a Facebook page. It begins with the organization itself.

The biggest predictor of success is not a strategy, budget, or even talented resources. It’s the company culture. So the first step is to take a rational look at what is possible. What is the current strategy, if they even have one? What are the obstacles to success, both real and perceived? Is the organization ready for a public social media presence? Are they a conversational brand, meaning, is this a natural fit for the company or will it take extraordinary creative effort?

If you don’t assess this carefully, you aren’t looking at the primary factors that can derail you.
As an adjunct marketing professor at Rutgers University, you teach to the marketing leaders of tomorrow. What are the skills they will need most to make an impact in their chosen profession in the decade ahead?

Since I teach at the graduate level, most of my students are already marketing professionals looking to up their game and this is a wise choice! Certainly digital transformation is at the forefront today.

My view is that leaders don’t need to have all the right answers. They can surround themselves with people who can set up a social media account or create Facebook ads, for example. But they do need to have the right questions to know what is possible, to know what is ideal for their organization.

In my view, the ideal marketing leader would know enough to ask the right questions about:

  • The role of Big Data and analytics
  • The skillsets needed to lead to the next level of marketing proficiency
  • Megatrends on content, social media, ecommerce, etc., all of which require ongoing education
  • Generational changes in consumer behavior
  • Shifts in digital platforms relevant to the business
  • Emerging technologies like virtual reality

You speak specifically about creating practical or reality-focused strategies. Have you seen too many marketing strategies that are unrealistic? How might companies avoid this pitfall?

A challenge for companies is becoming intoxicated with the shiny new thing. It’s only natural that you don’t want to be left behind, that you want to understand and master the latest platform.

But the fact of the matter is, most new platforms don’t make it. If you look at some of the hot ideas over the past couple of years, it proves my point—Meerkat, Blab, Foursquare, Quora, to name a few. A couple of years ago, Ello was so hot people were selling invitations to the platform on eBay. Where are they now? These platforms may have a place in the marketing eco-system, but it is a minor one and if you had a goal of becoming the Ello-master it was a giant waste of time.

Let others make those mistakes. It’s more practical and realistic to be a fast-follower in most cases.

You wrote in a LinkedIn post about companies only being concerned with building an audience, but not dedicated to moving people from being involved with the brand to being committed to it. Who is doing this well and how?

It’s easy to find the companies doing well on social media. Look at the best-managed companies in the world—they tend to do everything well! The challenge is to achieve a change of mindset. For decades, we’ve been conditioned to sell, sell, sell. But if you try doing that on the web you will usually fail. People are sick of being advertised to, marketed to and sold to. They don’t go on social media to learn about your new line of adhesives; they go to see pictures of babies and Grumpy Cat. That’s your competition.

On the surface this is going to sound like a weird example but I would say Coca-Cola is managing marketing transformation in a brilliant way — a company with a product that never changes.

This company pulls off the miraculous achievement of re-inventing itself for every generation while holding on to its core customers. Coke has been a relevant, youth-oriented product for more than a hundred years. Nobody else comes close to that track record. The key to their success is deeply understanding trends, culture, and technology and taking advantage of every weapon at their disposal. They are among the best story-tellers on earth.
When you think about it, they need to break through in the way they present the brand every month, every year, without exception and without end and never mess it up!

So what should brands be doing?

The new challenge is to help, help, help … and to do it in a patient way. Many companies expect social media to work like advertising. It doesn’t.  A better analogy for social media is a networking meeting or industry conference. You go there to build relationships and it may take months or years to pay off. As they begin to know us and trust us, they are more likely to opt in to our content and begin more of a two-way exchange. Ultimately you want this to lead to a buying relationship.

You managed a highly successful e-commerce team at a Fortune 100 company. If you were to give our readers actionable advice on growing e-commerce, what would those be?

Number one, treat people online like you would treat them offline. If somebody walked into your store, you would not demand an email address before talking to that person. And you wouldn’t try to trick them into subscribing to something through a “pop-up.” So the first piece of advice would be: act like a human in everything you do. Make technology a tool to take down barriers with your customers, not build them.

Number two, just because you CAN do something with consumer information, doesn’t mean you SHOULD do something with it.

I’ve sat in meetings and have been literally blown away by the clever (sneaky?) things companies can do to track behavior, link emails to sales, and even determine incredibly intimate details of a person’s life from their online behavior. Consumers are resigned to the fact that they are trading privacy for some value. The keyword here is “resigned” to it, just like they were resigned to seeing ads to receive free content.

Most marketers assume this is a fair trade. It’s not. Studies show consumers do not like it. So breaching their confidence even once will have a severe backlash. I’m concerned we live in an age where we can hack together some software utility so quickly and so cheaply that we will be implementing without testing, without thinking through unintended consequences. One mistake will become a PR nightmare.

Your book The Content Code is a real break-through. It discusses the “psychology of sharing.” Can you give us a bit of insight about that and what people could expect to learn if they get your book?

My book suggests that we need to build a third marketing competency based on six strategies to get our content to move on the web.  In fact, I argue that social sharing drives the economics of any social media marketing effort.

Yet most businesses don’t know the people who share their content the most, and these people are the bedrock of the business. Social sharing creates advocacy. It also drives sales and affects purchasing decisions. The data are clear on this. It’s time to wake up and focus on driving real value by igniting your content. My book tells you specifically how.

It takes a certain understanding of the audience and the best formats to make your content move. How do people determine that?

In my book I outline six different strategies to get your content to move and you touch on two of them in your question. Absolutely there are small things you can do to your content, and your website, to assure that you give your content the best chance possible to ignite.

Similarly on the audience side, there is a lot we can do to understand the elite group I call the Alpha Audience and nurture them. These are the people who share your content the most, and it probably makes up less than two percent of your online followers. The key here is to connect to these folks in a human way that builds an emotional connection between you, your content, and your audience.

Should companies be hiring content creators internally, such as writers, video experts and photographers?

I think that depends on a lot of factors. The strategy and analytics should be in-house. The advantage of in-house content creation is stability, expertise, access to internal experts, and the ability to sustain a relationship with readers. The advantage of out-sourcing is access to more creative treatments and keeping headcount low of course.

Content and social media marketing doesn’t mean anything if companies can’t find their audience. Any tips on how brands can realistically and practically find them? 

There are lots of ideas for that in my book but let me hit on two of them.

The first is by connecting with influencers in your marketplace. Who are the people who already have an engaged and trusting audience? Is it possible to partner with them so you can “borrow” their audience when you are just starting out? This emerging field of “influencer” marketing is critically important as we try to cut through the noise in an information-dense world.

A second idea is paid promotion. That is just a fact of life these days. The social streams have just become too crowded with information and there’s a good chance you’ll need a paid component to build an audience early on. Facebook ads, for example can deliver an extremely well targeted audience.

They key to “leading them up the curve” as you say, seems to be establishing that emotional connection, but what do you tell brands who think they sell products that no one can have an emotional connection to?

Well, they may be right!

I think you have to be humble in these situations because, after all, these marketing professionals are experts in what they do and know their market better than me. Marketing dollars for a company that makes ladders, for example, might be better spent on a point-of-purchase coupon than a long-term content effort aimed at building an emotional connection to their product.

Still, having said that, we do see wonderful examples of brand-building content for appliances, hand tools, leather goods and other seemingly commodity products. I think you need to take a realistic approach and think, “Are we a conversational brand … or could we be?” Then allocate dollars to social media accordingly. Social media and content marketing does not solve every business problem as some of the gurus might have you believe.

We still need to look at the fundamental drivers of the business and spend our marketing dollars in a way that has an impact.

Finally, what one trending or current marketing topic would you like to expand upon for our readers that we haven’t covered?

When I decide to write a book it is to answer a big question on the mind of my customers and students. Marketing is becoming more challenging every day. I addressed part of this problem in The Content Code. How do we stand out as a company and get our message through?

I think the next challenge, and where I have been spending a lot of my time recently, is thinking about how we stand out as individuals. If you have a goal of writing a book, beginning a speaking career, embarking on “social selling,” or building a reputation in your industry, it all boils down to building a profound personal, digital brand. It boils down to becoming known. Is there a process to do that? I think there is and that is my next project. I will codify the process of building an optimal digital self.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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