I have been thinking and studying about social media for some time now in an attempt to wrap my brain around the most effective way to think about it as a branding channel. It is a frustrating area because there are so few real success models (outside of direct selling) to learn from. And, there is a general resistance in the community that evangelizes social media to embrace the need to calculate a positive ROI. Instead they advocate a series of new measures that have not been statistically correlated to business success (e.g. the data on “Likes” in Facebook is decidedly underwhelming). In 2011, BloombergBusinessweek reported only 8% of marketers surveyed indicated that social media actually drove their business, and I haven’t seen a newer report that suggests the number is markedly higher now that the channel is 2-years older.
The thrust of my past posts has been that this is, and should be viewed as, an experimental media. My advice has consistently been, and continues to be, that you should by all means test the impact potential of social media – just don’t bet the farm on it. With the exception of direct selling, my gut continues to say social media is best used as part of a holistic branding mix and not to be relied on too heavily to drive results.
Here are some previous posts on the subject.
Marketing In The Groundswell
I just finished reading a book authored by Chalene Li and Josh Bernoff titled “Marketing In The Groundswell”. It is the first book I read about social media that provided guidance I felt was well worth listening to (code for it aligned with my preconceived notions). And, if you are serious about leveraging social media as a branding tool, I would encourage you to read it as well.
The authors created an acronym for a 4-step planning process to help you think through how to effectively use social media. Their process is called the POST method.
Here is the POST method in a little more detail and (as always) translated into the world of economic development.
P – People. The fundamental question is “What is your target audience ready for?”. Not everybody is going to engage well with social media. You can get a handle on how well your target will engage by creating a technographics profile of the people you are trying to communicate with. I used the tool to assess people aged 45 – 54 in the U.S.. I picked that cohort because I felt was a reasonable approximation of key site selection decision makers and consultants. The profile data suggest 71% of people in that cohort will be spectators (they might read but are unlikely to engage). The results suggest it might be a stretch to see these people as “social”. Just as another data point for reference, Global Corporate Expansion published an article about a panel discussion of site selectors use of social media. The panel sentiment was less than encouraging about social media being an effective channel to engage them (or their colleagues). So the bottom-line is to start with an understanding if your target audience is likely to be involved in social media before going any further.
O – Objective. Assuming your target audience is likely to be involved in social media, then you need to clearly and concisely articulate the business objective on your investment. What do you want to have happen? The authors suggest there are 5 plausible answers: 1) listening to understand your target better, 2) talking as a way to share the reasons why your community is a good choice for a capital investment, 3) energizing your target so they help you spread the word about your community, 4) support the companies in your community so they maximize the benefit of being there or 5) embracing your target audience so they can help you design a more attractive business environment. When you think about your current social media efforts, which of these 5 objectives are you focused on?
S – Strategy. Basically how do you want the relationship with your target to change and what is in it for them? If you can’t explain what the differences are between your current and desired relationship, then you haven’t thought it through deeply enough. For example, do you want them to get more information from your website and interact with your staff less? By the way, this could be a very valid goal if speed of getting information is a key competitive advantage you’d like to leverage. Or, do you want them to pre-determine which incentives their company might qualify for so the conversations with your staff are more productive and you have to say no less often? What ever the relationship change is, you need to be clear in describing it and your community leadership needs to be aligned to the value of the new desired relationship.
T – Technology. Only after you have thought through the first three steps are you in a position to determine which social media channel is best suited to achieve your objective. The social media world is in constant flux, so selecting a technology base and then answering the other questions makes no sense. You should also try and get a sense for emerging technologies and how easy or hard it might be to migrate your effort.
What I really like about the book is that it is a clarion cry for discipline in thinking through the most sensible use of social media. Like any communication channel, the choice of social media may or may not make sense depending on your target audience and your business objectives. But, since you have been asked to be the steward of donor funds and often taxpayer dollars, you have an added obligation of ensuring the discipline has been instilled in the process rather than simply investing in social media because “everybody else is”.
I still think I will be counseling people that social media is yet an unproven branding channel, but a channel that they need to understand and continue to explore the possibilities of. I hate being the “party pooper” by demanding evidence of impact. But, that is exactly what I demand of every branding channel so I don’t feel like I am being exceptionally tough on social media. Just to illustrate that I really would live for social media to be a driver for capital investment, here is a list of positive evidence I have found and my commentary on each.
Social Media Works For Business, Study Says; 2010 – My problem with this study is it reports on intent to purchase (or recommend) rather than correlates to actual purchase behavior.
Show Me The Sales, How Does Social Media Impact The Bottom Line?; 2012 – This article is interesting because it dances around the question and then tries to convince you it is the wrong question to ask (Hmmmm).
MediaMeasurement; no date – The article talks about the impact of social media on buying intention But, intention doesn’t always translate to purchase.
Social Media’s Influence In Purchase Decision; 2008 – This is a PDF of a slide presentation authored by Professor Rajeev Kumra. Despite the title, it never really delivers on answering the question. But, it is a good read anyway.
If you have causal evidence that social media works in economic development, please share it in a comment. If you are a brand builder in the private sector and have evidence that it works to build business (with the exception of direct online sales), please share what you can. Even though your example will not be in economic development, it might provide insight that can be reapplied. Thanks in advance for sharing, your insights will help everybody improve their game.
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