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What 4 years of editing SmartBrief on Social Media taught me about social media marketing

5 min read

Brands & Campaigns

Today is my last day at SmartBrief. I’ve been editing this blog, along with the SmartBrief on Social Media newsletter, since the summer of 2009. During that time, I’ve read countless news articles, reports, case studies and opinion pieces about every major development along social media’s path from business oddity to business essential. I’ve also spent a lot of time talking to readers, both online and off, about their successes and challenges in putting social tools to work.

I won’t pretend I know everything there is to know about social media marketing. Anyone who says they do is not to be trusted, especially if they have a goofy job title. But I have noticed that successful social media campaigns tend to have things in common. These themes show up again and again in successful case studies, regardless of the type of organization or industry involved. Even more telling, failed social media efforts overwhelmingly exhibit the exact opposite of these traits. Embracing these ideas won’t ensure your success — but there’s no way you’ll get where you’re trying to go without them.

Here then, are four constants of social media marketing. Think of them as my little going-away present.

  1. Empathy is everything. Organizations spend untold amounts of time trying to figure out how to communicate their brand to the world. They’d be better off spending that time trying to understand their audience. What do the people you want to reach care about? What do they fear? What do they hope for? What do they need? When you really understand your audience — a process that takes a lot of time and careful experimentation with content and close listening — then you can start to empathize with them, which means you can think the way they do. Once you can do that, you can stop wasting time on the question, “How do I get people to understand my brand?” and start asking the only question that matters: “How do I make my brand relevant to what I know my audience cares about?” It’s only then that you can really engage your audience in a way that drives your organization forward.
  2. You can’t win if you don’t keep score. Almost anything I say about social media return on investment will most likely lean shamelessly on Olivier Blanchard’s book, which remains definitive as far as I’m concerned. But I will add one little wrinkle. A lot of my approach to social media marketing is informed by my dieting history, where I’ve found metrics to be essential to long-term success. Finding a way to link social media efforts to business outcomes is hard and it has to be essentially re-invented for every organization’s specific needs. It absolutely worth doing and worth doing correctly. But I’ve seen way too many companies reason that until they can perfectly measure their ROI, they don’t need to measure anything. Or that since their metrics are imperfect, they don’t need to be collected and analyzed in a systematic and thorough fashion. This is akin to saying, ‘I don’t know how many calories were in that chocolate souffle, so I won’t put it in my food diary; I’ll just try to be ‘good’ tomorrow.” That kind of thinking ruins diets and it absolutely undermines promising social media efforts. Don’t wait until you have it all figured out. Go ahead and launch a pilot social effort. Do it cheaply. Keep your expectations in check. Measure what you can — just the act of tracking something will bring mindfulness and discipline to everything you do. Then once you’ve studied up and you’re able to connect actions and outcomes, you can revise your metrics and begin tracking ROI in earnest.
  3. Training always trumps technology. Content management systems, analytics suites, multimedia content software and collaboration tools are all wonderful things and they are essential to your social media success in the long run. But they’re not the most important ingredient. You can buy all the fancy tools you want, but they won’t do you a lick of good if they’re not being used properly — or at all. To use any tool effectively, first you need buy-in from staff and leadership, then you need training and finally you need metrics and accountability to make sure it’s used properly. If you buy a license for an expensive piece of social media software without then going through that three-step process, you’re burning money.
  4. Failure is an essential ingredient of success. This is the hardest pill for most people to swallow. Social media failure is inevitable, no matter how hard we try to avoid it. No one is immune. And that is totally OK. Failure doesn’t have to be embarrassing or brand-damaging or even especially public. Failure today doesn’t preclude success tomorrow; failure is a prerequisite for success. Failure is your best teacher, if you’re willing to learn from your mistakes. Smart brands understand that not all of their ideas will be good ones. They make small bets, measure their results and then do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. Swallow your pride and get it over with.

What have you learned about social media marketing during the past 4 years?