Social media marketing: a guide for business

Social media marketing is an umbrella term, just like social business, of which it is a – be it popular – part and like content marketing, with which it is increasingly connected from an integrated and customer-oriented marketing perspective, revolving around the connected customer.

Social media marketing can strengthen or initiate many potential marketing goals using several tactics social media can be used for. Social media (without the marketing part) is an umbrella term as well. In fact, there are probably more definitions about social media than social media. So, let’s keep it simple. Social media stands for a range of websites, online platforms, Internet technologies and digital tools that at the very least enable people to:

  • Connect with others and participate in online communities around shared interests on the Web.
  • Share information, content or opinions with others in a public way or in closed groups and networks.
  • Engage in conversations, co-create and participate online.

Social media marketing is the use of social media and social tactics in an (integrated) marketing perspective whereby several marketing goals can be fulfilled, other marketing efforts can be strengthened and the interactions, signals, opinions and voices of target audiences of social media users are taken into account to improve marketing (listening and acting).

Social media marketing and related business functions
Social media marketing and related business functions

Social media can be used for many business goals, including marketing but also including business functions that are closely related with marketing and are essential in having a customer-centric and connected or integrated marketing approach.

These marketing-connected business functions include:

  • Customer service, often called the ‘new marketing’, especially in a social context.
  • Market and customer research, designed to better serve the business and customer.
  • Collaboration: internally but also with customers and partners (social collaboration).
  • CRM: social CRM plays an essential role in having a good customer view and improving marketing.
  • Sales: CRM is one link between sales and marketing but sales people can also use social media to…sell (social selling) and contribute to social media marketing.
  • Etc.

In the end, the definition again doesn’t matter. By the time everyone will agree on one, we will not talk about social media anymore. It’s an evolution that will not go away but will merge into other ‘new’ media and evolutions. Social media can also be defined by the changes they have caused or speeded up regarding behavior, society, business and even culture.

There is a technological dimension to social media as well. Most social media are based on what was once known – again an umbrella term – as “Web 2.0 technologies”. These include Rich Internet Applications (RIA), AJAX and more.

Social media marketing: goals before channels

Social media allow people to connect with each other in more ways and in a more personal way than ever before.  They come in many forms such as social networks, blogs and social bookmarking services, to name just a few. While the platforms that are grouped under the umbrella term social media are important, the dynamics underlying them are even more so. However, it is important to know how these channels work, even if you’re not a marketer. After all, your employees and customers use social media tools too. Given the inherent characteristics of social media, the ways people use them and the evolutions they brought, its clear that social media marketing plays an important role in the overall digital marketing and social business reality when taking the ‘user’ and specifics into account.

Before choosing a mix of the right platforms to achieve your goals, you need to define the goals, the target audience, what it needs at any given point in time to solve its’ challenges and how you will gauge success. It’s pointless just to start somewhere without knowing what your goal is or what you want to achieve with it. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all best social media marketing mix.

The art of customer engagement

Customer engagement, connection, interaction and integrated conversations driving various possible business goals are what social media marketing is about. Rather than looking at people as passive receivers and “consumers” of messages, modern marketers understand that customers should be actively involved in the production and co-creation of marketing programs. That is customer engagement in the true sense. Marketing tactics that overlap with social media marketing, such as content marketing, also seek to engage the customer. It’s all about providing the right touchpoints, content and social interactions, while being responsive and pro-active. Customer engagement revolves around the customer and the customer experience. The connected customer is at the center of social media and integrated marketing. More about customer engagement.

Some business areas you can focus on regarding the use of social media marketing:

  • Engagement marketing: having customers actively participate in the brand and driving them to take action.
  • Creating awareness and increase credibility by storytelling via relevant content (where social media once again meets what is known as content marketing).
  • Testing new offers or detecting needs by involving communities and even co-creation or crowd sourcing where applicable.
  • Lead generation and management.
  • Selling by focusing on the buying process and the touchpoints leading to the actual purchase.
  • Maintaining strong relationships with your best customers in order to up-sell, reduce churn and even turn customer loyalty into brand evangelists through social proof.
  • Understanding in real-time what drives social engagement and how customers in the broadest sense engage and what keeps them and their connections busy, regarding and beyond your brand, industry or category.
  • Community marketing: identify and nurture online communities of people with shared interests and/or traits.

As social media allow people to connect, they also allow us to connect with – prospective – customers in more personal ways and build stronger and smarter relationships.

Social media marketing basically is simply about relationships in various connected degrees:

  • It allows you to add personality to your business and stop being the faceless corporation many people feel disconnected with.
  • Social media marketing allows you to reconnect and build more valuable relationships through personal voices.
  • It goes in many directions so it’s certainly not about communication in one direction, on the contrary.

While all this may sound simple, the possibilities of social media in marketing and business are really endless and can serve many business and marketing goals. Social media can be used in a stand-alone way to initiate marketing initiatives but thrives best when used in an integrated way to strengthen other initiatives.

Key conditions for success in social media marketing

To be successful in social media marketing, you need to:

  • Have an integrated, holistic and cross-channel vision
  • Be, work and think customer-centric
  • Understand that people decide where and how they get in touch with you
  • See that the sales process is shifting from ‘selling’ to ‘buying’
  • Have a strategy, goals and a plan
  • Make a business case to have the necessary resources (it’s not a free lunch)
  • Understand that social media marketing strengthens other forms of marketing
  • Look at marketing as a dialogue
  • Drop the broadcasting mentality
  • Know that all social media and networks are different and have a different way of interaction: focus on those that work and matter for your business and customers
  • See “users”, “followers”, “subscribers” and “consumers” as people
  • See everyone as a customer and vendor: your employees included
  • Listen, measure, monitor and act
  • Inject what you hear by listening in your overall business strategy (data and Social CRM)
  • Define the right metrics and Key Performance Indicators to measure success
  • Prepare your employees
  • Understand the role that social media can play in all parts of the customer life cycle
  • Speak the language your customers speak
  • Think in terms of value, relationships and conversations but certainly also ROI and bottom-line
  • Be committed
  • Reach out to your customers
  • Move from connections to relationships to business
  • Move beyond the traditional influence sphere
  • Be human: be you and focus on the people in your company
  • Provide value
  • Be data-driven

How the connected buying journey and online behavior have changed: 10 shifts

To understand social media marketing, it’s essential to see its potential role in the overall marketing picture. Before getting to that, it’s crucial to understand that the interactions people have with a business, regardless of the stages and channels used in their journey, consist of multiple touchpoints. These can be direct (personal contacts with your business and interactions with your content, website, blog, social networks, sales reps, etc.) or indirect (talking with their peers, etc.).

Social media marketing can play a role in improving all these touchpoints. To understand how, let’s look at how the connected buying journey and behavior have changed. Note that many of these changes apply to other relationships than the strictly commercial ones as well.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of buying and behavior changes and their impact on marketing and business.

1.   Media proliferation and multi-channel behavior

One of the obvious consequences of social media is that people have more channels than ever before to inform themselves, share, buy and seek support. People display a multi-channel behavior across their individual journey, whether it’s for buying or achieving other goals. They jump from one channel to another. This also has an impact on how we reach people and how we build and maintain relationships with our ‘best customers’.

A decade ago a few ads and emails often sufficed to reach the majority of – prospective – customers. Today a brand needs to be where people and its customers are: across multiple channels, including social. The same applies in PR, for instance: the days of the simple press release and only traditional media relationships are over.

2.   A shift from selling to buying and from passive receiving to active seeking

It’s increasingly difficult to get a foot in the door and sell the way we once used to, just as it’s increasingly difficult to gain the attention of journalists or even partners. Time and attention have become scarce and people control it. They don’t want to be interrupted unless you have good reasons or…strong relationships. They don’t like to be sold or marketed to like before. They want to seek and discover themselves. The challenge is to capture their attention during these activities and enter them in dialogues through processes of lead generation and management.

Building and nurturing relationships – and thus also leads – is a task for other business functions, such as product marketing, HR and PR as well. People control their buying journey and other decision processes, across all phases and channels simply because they can. In a commercial context, today’s buyers prefer to inform themselves, buy and interact on their terms and in connection with their circles of influence. The key challenge is to be top of mind and simply there when they seek information and decide to buy (or write a story in the case of media relationships, for instance). Social plays an important role here, certainly regarding a more personal approach.

3. The perception of a brand

It was once thought that a brand was just a matter of positioning and branding. However, the role of perception and reputation plays a more significant role in defining what a brand and business really is. In that regard, all touchpoints play a significant role as they define customer experiences that are shared. A brand is really a promise of meeting the needs and expectations of prospective customers and other stakeholders. Although branding and PR obviously remain important, many rules have changed and the public dimension of social has even strengthened this evolution. The value of a brand is in the eye of the beholder and revolves around credibility, personality, trust, openness, transparency, relevance and the level of participation that is necessary in social media.

Having more personal relationships and putting the preferences of the connected customer in the center is essential to succeed. In the end, it’s a very human and emotional approach in all aspects, one of the reasons why nowadays we often talk about people-centricity instead of customer-centricity. People want to buy from people and know who they are buying from. They want to know who will answer their questions and experience the personal approach they had in the good old local grocery shop, being able to talk to a person instead of a corporate building. They want authenticity.

4. Omnipresence, omnichannel and omnidevice: welcome to the real-time economy

People use many channels but also employ many devices to interact with business on their. The mobile Web, the always online evolution and the increase of digital and social channels all result in media consumption, buying patterns and communication behavior that is less bound to limits in time, space and scale.

We increasingly live in a real-time world where the omnipresence and availability of a business, 24/24 and 7/7 becomes important. The expectations of people have changed and are now harder to manage. While it’s important to take into account resources and costs, and to prioritize where we spend our time most, this demand for omnipresence is growing, while online and offline channels and experiences to meet it, are converting.

5.  Growing expectations and the need to listen and respond

Whether we like it or not: people have become more demanding in their expectations from businesses. It’s a key reason why businesses start paying ever more attention to the customer experience and even the social and digital customer experience. It’s also the reason why we see many evolutions in contact centers and customer service departments. They are not easily satisfied, even if there are differences depending on the individual and demographic. They not only want to manage their time and control their journey. They want to be served fast, in a perfect way and on their conditions; impatient and with high standards. Social media is not the cause of this but it certainly has made this evolution clearer and more pressing.

Again, prioritization and resources are important in defining how businesses deal with this but the grown expectations are real.  Furthermore, both positive and negative experiences travel fast so this evolution can’t be taken too lighthearted. It should not scare you either though: in the end, the behavior and preferences of customers and other stakeholders have always been essential for business success, as has the ability and agility to meet them. Making the journey of customers in the broadest sense worthwhile is a task for everyone in a business. The desires of the customer are not always sacred, there are limits. However, it’s crucial to respond in an open and authentic way to impossible requests and try to make the impossible possible.

People want us to listen and respond and in many cases have become allergic to overtly promotional messages and corporate speak. They want us to speak their language, understand their pains and needs, focus on them and interact in a personal way. It benefits everyone to do so and listening is the first and crucial step in every social media marketing program, as it should be in all marketing and even business processes.

6. The educated customer

The explosion of information and communication channels, combined with the desire for control and actual empowerment of people across their journey, has resulted in a more educated buyer and customer. In this connected world that’s filled with information and opinions everyone can see, we all have to stretch the limits of what we do. People simply have more choices. They are smarter about the way they buy and are better educated since they have more ways of informing themselves, including what they can find by tapping into social conversations. This evolution has been going on for years. Just think about how people used to walk into a computer store and ask the sales rep to tell them which computer would be best suited for their needs. Today they often know more about the computer they want than the sales rep does and step into the shop, exactly knowing what they will buy (if they don’t buy it online).

Obviously, this self-education does not only rely on social media and digital resources alone. People still ask the opinion of peers offline or inform themselves in private ways as well. With social media, they even trust the opinions of some perfect strangers more than brand messages. This has important consequences in all kinds of relationships: buyers are more educated but so are journalists, potential future employees and everyone else in the social ecosystem of our business.

7. The explosion of word-of-mouth

People have always talked about businesses, products and customer experiences. With the arrival of social media, word-of-mouth has grown at an explosive rate and opinions can get shared in an instant. What people say and share on social media regarding products and customer experiences can have a tremendous impact. Responding to it and actively participating is a must for brands that want to be respected, credible and trusted. Not listening and simply letting things “happen” without at least being present and answering is a recipe for distrust and criticism, especially when the shared experiences or opinions are ‘negative’. Furthermore, as all good sales people know, ‘negative’ comments and even disgruntled customers can offer an excellent opportunity when properly dealt with. The best customers often have been the most dissatisfied at one point or another. In the social space, solving public discontent can turn out to be a benefit.

However, we shouldn’t focus on the downsides too much. The fear of a negative reputation is often exaggerated and a hurdle towards building more valuable relationships through social technologies. Whether we participate in social media or not, negative opinions will always exist in this social space. By being present in an active way, we can channel them and respond to them in a better way. This requires us to understand where we have to be if, as social media participants we are confronted with such negative comments: processes are important in this regard, as are policies. Not everyone should start responding, it’s a clear role for specific people who know the rules of engagement.

Last but not least, the power of word-of-mouth also goes for ‘positive’ customer experiences and opinions. The reason for this is the fact that word-of-mouth is perceived as a reliable source and thus shortens the buying cycle through endorsement. This is so powerful that word-of-mouth marketing is a specialism as such.

8. The rise of the social buyer

Some consumers use social media very intensively and rely on their social networks in making purchasing decisions. They are known as the ‘connected consumers’ and are often so-called digital natives who grew up with all the new technologies, without asking too many questions about it all. They are buying differently than other consumers. As social media evolves and eventually becomes a part of something more encompassing, these generations grow up and become the young adults and adults that are the decision makers of tomorrow.

Just as we see the emergence of this connected consumer, there is also a new breed of B2B buyers, relying more heavily on personal and public social networks, peers, communities etc. during the B2B buying process. They are known as the social B2B buyers and their number is growing as well.

9. Lengthening buying cycles

One would imagine that, as people have more control and information than ever before, the length of the buying cycles would shorten.
However, the opposite is true. The educated customer takes his time. It’s one of the consequences of an overabundance of choices, resources and opinions.

10. Customer service and customer experiences are the new marketing

Marketing, sales and customer service are growing towards each other, with omnichannel customer service (including social) as a key driver to keep customers but also to acquire new ones (word-of-mouth).

Social experiences and interactions increasingly shape the overall customer experience as it’s connected, influenced and based on more personal interactions and perceptions than before. Along with content marketing, social media marketing is all about experiences and the customer experience is the holy grail in all forms of connected and digital marketing as it happens today and will continue to happen tomorrow.