5 Rules for Effective Social Media Marketing

I had lunch today with Ryan Beckland, Co-founder of Motivation Science, one of the amazing start-up companies from the 2012 class at Tech Wildcatters, the award-winning technology innovation incubator in my hometown of Dallas, Texas. He wanted me to meet one of the candidates he is considering for the all-important marketing management slot in his fledgling company.

That gave me the chance to hear  from a talented young woman who’s currently spearheading digital media for a major brand.  Over Indian food, she mentioned that she’s majored in philosophy in college.  That structured thought pattern was soon evident in what she said about digital and social media marketing.  Classes like philosophy, critical thinking, and history teach us how the greatest minds in human history have solved problems – and solving problems is critical for success in business.

When I got home after lunch, a friend called to tell me that someone she’d interviewed for a job managing social media at her company had commented that the thing he liked most about social media was that there are no rules — and he is leaving his current job because he doesn’t like the restrictions the legal department puts on his social media postings. (Surprised he didn’t get the job?  I’m not.)

It’s true that social media doesn’t have hard and fast rules.  But there are definitely guidelines — they just change rapidly, sometimes in surprising ways.

The truth is that what works today in social media may not work tomorrow – and it almost certainly won’t work next year. Social media evolves and changes quickly, so a marketer who wants to be effective needs to base strategy and tactics on solid marketing 101 lessons. I hope that my five “rules” will help – but they certainly aren’t carved in stone, and are subject to change without warning.

Don’t Be Pushy

They call it “earned media” – and one of the first things you’ll learn in social media marketing is that you have to win the right to be heard. At its heart, social media engagement is a kind of conversation and participation is the required currency.

If all you do is “push” your own content – without ever retweeting, responding to, or commenting on other people’s thoughts and content – you’ll quickly find that you don’t get the results you’d get if you were a more, well, social participant.

My personal pet peeve here is people who send me emails when I follow them that contain some variation of “Thanks for following. Visit my website for …. (promotional offer). And don’t forget to “Like” us on Facebook, too!” It tells me that the person I just followed is new to social media and is likely to be a content pusher.

One of the lessons we all learn quickly in social media is that traditional forms of marketing don’t translate directly to social media. New communications channels and marketing tools require new rules, different tactics.

In her book, The Zen of Social Media Marketing, best-selling author and social media guru Shama Kabani talks about the idea of generosity and sharing in social media. She isn’t talking about online fundraising and crowd-sourcing to raise money (although both those ideas work).

Shama is talking about the basic fact that social media communications is two-way street. Sharing other people’s ideas, being friendly, approachable, and positive are among the traits that set a social media master like Shama apart from other marketers online.

Deliver Content People Want

Sounds pretty basic, doesn’t it? But a lot of marketers act as if they have no idea that the power base has shifted from the days when Don Draper and the “Mad Men” controlled the media. Back then, they told us all the wonderful things that their client’s products would do for us – and we listened, because we had no choice.  Today’s consumers have the power to block most marketing messages – and they aren’t going to give that power away.

So if you want to use social media and digital marketing to reach an audience, the most important thing is to deliver well-written, informative and entertaining content in all its forms. Blog posts, tweets, status updates, videos, podcasts, photographs, infographics, webinars, white papers – and dozens of other kinds of information. New content matters – Google and Bing love frequently updated content, and nothing else has the power to move people like great content.

I’ve written about this topic often, and it bears repeating. Content really is king. If you doubt me, take a look at actor and social activist George Takei’s Facebook page, or at the way content marketing masters like J.K. Rowling and Peter Jackson control the flow of information about their new “products”.

Remember What Your Mother Said

I’ll bet you heard at least one of these three rules of behavior from your mother — I certainly did!

  • “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
  • “People don’t get upset because you lie to them. They get upset because they can never trust you again.”
  • “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

Mom was right, especially in the context of social media. Nothing will ruin your reputation in social media faster than misrepresenting yourself, treating other people badly, or delivering false information. Many, many companies have learned the hard way that creating a fake persona to post online reviews may be easy – but it’s very, very costly when you get caught.

And even more have learned that mistreating your customers, employees, or even competitors can destroy years of painstaking and costly brand building. Need some reminders? How about United Breaks Guitars, Facebook’s Terms of Service Changes, or Kenneth Cole’s Twitter disaster during the Egyptian uprising?

The most important thing to remember in social media marketing is that if you want people to trust you, you have to treat them with respect – and that includes responding to negative posts or customer inquiries instead of just deleting anything except your own specials and promotions. More importantly, it means avoiding treating others with disrespect.

I recommend using your photo as your avatar and your name as your handle. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have an identity tied to your brand. It’s just that people would rather relate to and build trust in other people than with corporations. A number of the most effective social media marketers use their full name for their personal social media, and a short version with their brand name for company messages.  For example, you might use @janedoe for personal tweets, but @WidgetMakerJane for marketing messages.

A side benefit of that strategy is that it makes it clear and easy to tell who owns what.  This is important as the number of lawsuits filed by employers against former employees over social media continues to increase.

Avoid Magpie Marketing

New social media sites seem to crop up every week or so, and even the best multi-channel scheduling applications can’t keep up with them all. Some marketers are like magpies, moving from one shiny new marketing tactic to the next.

Personally, I think it’s nearly impossible to maintain an active presence on every social network. Luckily, most brands don’t need to try. For some brands, Pinterest is vital – for others, it’s just another chore that probably won’t add to the bottom line. And that’s true for nearly every social media site.

The key is to be on the social media sites where your customers are. How do you know that? Well, you could always ask. Or you can use a low-cost and powerful service like FlipTop or Socialyzer — I’m a satisfied customer of both, and went so far as to invest in Socialyzer. These and other emerging tools deliver the kind of essential campaign intelligence that turn an ordinary social media marketer into a management’s latest superhero, capable of delivering measurable bottom-line results in record time.

We can’t afford to forget that social media is just one more communications channel — it can’t replace spending and activity in other channels.  Combining traditional communications tools with social media is far more effective than using any communications channel on its own.

Also, all of the basic rules of marketing still apply.  One basic rule of marketing that’s easy to forget in the rapid-fire world of social media is that marketing communications is a marathon — not a sprint.

Drive-by posters make the common mistake of pushing content…and then sprinting on to the next message, group, or communications channel, without stopping to engage with the people who responded to their original message. I admit I’ve been guilty of it myself. I get excited about a LinkedIn group or social channel, and post diligently for a few days or weeks. And then I get busy, and forget….until I have another message I want to share there. I even took a hiatus from this blog, and all kinds of social media, thanks to a woman texting and driving who rear-ended me on the freeway awhile back. (I found it hard to type with two broken thumbs and a separated shoulder!)

Many years ago, we used to warn PR clients that no single story – even if it was on the Nightly News or the front page of the New York Times – was going to make a product a success. (The converse – a really bad story – can spell the end of a product, however.) People need to hear a marketing message over and over before they accept and act on it. So don’t start a blog if you aren’t going to keep it up for at least a year, and don’t expect social media to replace spending in other areas.

Test Messages, Channels & Tools

As I said at the beginning, what works in social media today may not work tomorrow, and it’s nearly certain that it won’t work a year from now. So test your messages, your communications channels, your landing pages, your link shortener, your writing style, and the tools you use to deliver your message. Run A/B tests frequently.

Social media isn’t free – it consumers the most irreplaceable resource of all: time. But the costs are reasonable, and the rapid response allows plenty of room for experimentation.

One trick I use to make testing easy and quick is to write the social media messages at the same time I create new content, landing pages or campaigns. I may write 20 tweets, two social media bookmark site abstracts (these are the forms you fill out on Reddit and StumbleUpon that describe the link you’re posting), a press release, and a blog post for any given piece of content I want to post – on top of the new content and its supporting marketing materials (emails, newsletter article, landing page, etc.).

Once the content is written, it’s simple to schedule it, distribute it, and compare the results across multiple communications channels, different times and days, and different audiences. I suspect that anyone who runs a series of tests will be as surprised as I was the first few times I tried it. But if you act on the information you gain from your tests, your results will get better. Just keep testing, and keep tweaking your tactics.

Cartoon credit:  The amazing Australian cartoonist Scott Hampson created this image, which he made available under a Creative Commons license on his website.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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