How To Build an Effective Social Marketing Strategy

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In the 20th century, nearly every marketing problem had one solution—the 30 second TV ad. If you had a product to sell, you could reach everybody you needed to with a powerful, highly polished message in a very short period of time.

Yet marketing in the digital age is different. Building awareness is no longer sufficient. In fact, it may even benefit your competitors more than it does your brand because once consumers react to your message, they will be retargeted using digital methods.

So the basic function of marketing promotion has changed. It is no longer enough to grab attention, you need to be able to hold attention and that’s where social strategy comes in. The age of catchy slogans and massive ad campaigns is over. Brands in the 21st century need to become more like publishers and strategy needs to follow from that.

Clarifying The Mission

Content strategy has become a popular specialty in marketing lately. The problem is that very few content strategists actually know what they’re talking about. They tend to approach content as if it was just a longer version of an ad and therefore double the usual amount of psychobabble about the “consumer mindset.”

In truth, a publisher’s first loyalty is not to the consumer, but to the editorial mission. That doesn’t mean you should ignore consumers, trends or anything else that’s going on. What it does mean is that great publications stand for something.

Apple stands for design. Harley Davidson stands for friendship and camaraderie. Red Bull stands for an extreme lifestyle. These brands successfully engage consumers because the brand’s mission supersedes whatever they happen to be selling at any given time.

So the first thing you need to do to create a successful social strategy is figure out what you stand for.

Identifying Analogues

There is probably no greater peril in marketing than the misplaced compulsion to be original. Originality, after all, is not a virtue in itself, but only has value if it’s meaningful. Try to be different for difference’s sake and you’ll accomplish nothing more than being weird. That might thrill the guys in the office, but it will fail in the marketplace.

So the best way to start formulating a social strategy is to identify others who share your mission. What are they doing? What succeeds and what doesn’t? What can we add? What can we subtract? There’s no reason to try to reinvent the wheel.

When I was a professional publisher, we would insist on 3-5 analogues for any development or editorial brief and we found that practice absolutely essential. It not only helped us adopt best practices and avoid poor ones, it also helped everyone visualize exactly what we were trying to accomplish.

Focus on Structure

Law and Order was one of the most successful TV shows in history. Running for 20 seasons, it not only ruled the ratings, but was a critical success as well.

Regular viewers of the show became familiar with its clear structure. First, a crime, then an investigation leading to an arrest and prosecution. Somewhere along the way a snag would be hit, creating tension that would drive the story. You could almost set your watch by it.

Every successful content product has a clearly defined structure. TV shows have plot formulas, radio stations have clocks, magazines have brand bibles and web sites have usability rules. These are rigorously followed.

While this may seem boring in concept, creating a clear structure is absolutely essential in practice. Any cognitive energy your audience uses up trying to navigate your content lessens the amount of energy they can spend on what you’re trying to tell them. A standard format is also helpful in setting the constraints under which creativity thrives.

A legendary editor once told me that a great content product delivers two things: consistency and surprise. I think the same is true with social marketing. You should set expectations, but also feel free to break the rules now an then. However, without consistency, there can be no surprise, you just make a mess.

Create A Community (Not An Audience)

Up till now, I’ve focused mainly on content. That’s deliberate, because without compelling content that informs, excites and inspires, social marketing doesn’t have a chance. It simply will not be effective. However, the mark of a great social marketing program is that it builds more than an audience—it builds a community.

This is where things often go wildly, wildly wrong because social marketers mistakenly equate the strength of their community with the size of their following. They establish fans on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks as key performance indicators and then blast them with brand messages.

The truth is that the strength of your community has much less to do with how consumers are connected to you than how they are connected to each other. That’s how great social brands, like Apple, Harley and eBay built devoted followings long before anyone even heard of social media.

The bottom line is that we are now in a post-promotional age where brand messages are only half the battle. To build a great brand today you need to build great brand experiences and the best way to do that is to build a community around shared values with content that holds attention.

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