“Social media strategy”.

There are a great deal of agency practitioners selling, and corporate clients requesting, social media strategy. It’s a line item on reams of involved proposals and quotations. Type “social me…” into Google and the first autocompleted result is “social media strategy”. Same goes for search results on Slideshare, and when you select “social media strategy” you get 201 478 results.

But what is social media strategy, other than a buzzed up phrase that results in a heap of expensive slideshows and zero business value?

BusinessDictionary.com provides us with an elementary but undeniably practical definition for strategy. It tells us that strategy is a method or plan chosen to bring about a desired future, such as achievement of a goal or solution to a problem. It offers the alternative take that strategy is the art and science of planning and marshalling resources for their most efficient and effective use. Not rocket science, but useful nonetheless as we attempt to understand exactly what a social media strategy should be.

Social media is a little tougher to define though. The concept is still in its infancy and most opinions on what social media is and isn’t are divided into two distinct schools of thought. The first looks at social media strictly as a set of platforms, technologies, applications and or websites that facilitate a new way of connecting and communicating online. The second school of thought speaks to social media as more of a behaviour, trend or ethos. I speak about this in a little more detail in this post. For the purposes of this conversation we will focus on the former definition and assume that the people requesting and paying for social media strategy are for the most part marketing, advertising and communication executives.

I find that when we have failed our clients from a strategic perspective, or when I am party to a plan of action developed by another service provider that hasn’t worked, the common denominator is a lack of measurable objectives or deliverables. In fact most verbose, 100+ slide decks dedicated to social media strategy could be reduced to a few paragraphs that talk about available resources, the target audience and the glue that holds them together; objectives. At Cerebra we divide our client’s social media strategy objectives into four main stages – Growth, Engagement, Sentiment and Leads – that are progressive in nature:

Growth

The first stage refers simply to expanding your audience and acquiring likes, fans and followers. There are a number of ways to achieve this, all well documented, ranging from purchasing “fans” unscrupulously through to acquiring them organically. If your only end is numbers, then how you acquire likes, fans and followers is all but irrelevant.

Unfortunately, many clients decide to invest in social media for reasons of fear or jealousy. If motivated by fear they invest in reducing risk and increasing “control”. If motivated by jealousy, they invest in numbers purely to overtake their competitor(s). Neither of these motivations or approaches is particularly sustainable, and the latter holds about as much business value as a database of competition entrants’ email addresses.

Increasing the value of a social media audience requires moving strategic objectives to the next stage, engagement.

Engagement

Again, much has been written and said about how important engagement is and I’ve written a number of posts on the subject. There is also a wealth of content on the subject on the Cerebra blog and our We Are Community eBook is a definitive resource on the topic. In context of this post and the four stages I’ve suggested, where Growth focuses on acquiring a social media audience, Engagement speaks to increasing the percentage of that audience that speaks with or about the brand. Facebook’s Talking About This ratio on company pages is the simplest and most popular example.

While the importance of high levels of engagement is undeniable and a significant measure of the efficacy of social media service providers and practitioners, it is not in and of itself an indicator of business value or success. For example if a telco has a network failure they will experience dramatically high levels of engagement during that period but it’s highly probable that the bulk of the replies, mentions and comments will be negative and therefore more likely to be detrimental to the business than to add value.

To guarantee business value, we need to move the bulk of the conversation with and about our brand into a positive realm. This brings us to the next stage of objectives in social media strategy, Sentiment.

Sentiment

If Growth is about acquiring an audience and Engagement is about giving that audience reasons to converse and share, Sentiment is increasing the percentage or ratio of that conversation that is positive and therefore beneficial to the business. Fortunes are spent on improving metrics like Net Promoter Score which speak to the level of positive association customers have with brands and products and social media now plays a significant role.

Many of our clients have reached a level of maturity where they realise Growth and Engagement, while critically important as precursors to Sentiment, become less important in the long term. Having laid the foundations for organic Growth and scaleable Engagement, clients soon realise that maintaining and improving Sentiment has a ripple effect and spurs on Growth and Engagement as a byproduct.

But the ultimate goal for any marketing or communication channel is to drive sales, right? And that’s where most social media strategies crash and burn. There is little to no impact on the bottom line, and as such social media remains the preoccupation of a few enthusiasts in Marketing and never reaches the consideration of board level decision-makers (until there is some horrible PR nightmare that breaks on Twitter and then it’s too late!).

We believe that an investment into Growth, resourcing for Engagement and putting effort into increasing positive Sentiment must result in business Leads, or some commercial benefit, or there really is no reason whatsoever to have a social media presence as a corporate brand. Sure, “brand awareness” and “social PR” are all well and good, but they allow social media practitioners to shirk the responsibility of showing tangible monetary benefit. To change this, we must show in the course of designing strategy, how commercial benefit to the business will the demonstrated and measured.

Leads

There are a variety of opinions on how and when to commercialise social channels. Most revolve around timing, maturity and technological integration. While one company would consider a flood of sales due to a unique coupon code released to a Twitter audience a success, others would look to more complex transactional integration in social channels as the definition of successful commercialisation.

To apply the same metric or approach to all clients and or products is narrow-sighted. No two companies or audiences are the same. But we believe that social lead generation and social commerce can and should be better defined and are committed to unpacking the topic as a company. Watch #CerebraInsights for some interesting developments in this regard in the next few months.