Strategizing Social MediaBy Louise Felsher, CMP, CMM

A step-by-step approach to help you create a formal plan

You may think you have a fully functional social-media solution. You have a Facebook page, Twitter account, LinkedIn groups that you promote and advertise to, and even an occasional YouTube video. But do you have a formal social-media strategy?

Looking more closely, do these solutions languish in under-attended silos without being integrated into the messaging of your overall company branding? Are they utterly distinct from your overall marketing plan and unfettered from the burden of defined analytics?  Unless you formalize your strategy with comprehensive integration and quantifiable measurements of achievement, you will never be able to maximize the results of your social-media efforts.

So where do you start, and how do you take it to the next level? It is so easy to procrastinate formalizing all of this new media. There is a daunting learning curve and a seemingly infinite number of choices. In addition, there are so many questions to answer. How do you introduce social networking into your overall marketing plan? How will you project the cost? What percent of your budget should go to social media? How much time should you commit per week?

How will you decide what platforms to leverage?  How do you develop key performance indicators?  And perhaps most importantly­­, how do you adapt social media to turbo-power the most social player in the entire marketing mix—your events? Assisted by some of the nation’s new media thought leaders below, you can tune out all of the hype and hone in on a practical five-phase plan to activate a measurable, integrated, formal social-media strategy.

Take Inventory

First, determine the resources you can allocate—specifically time, people and budget. Next, ascertain what you hope to realistically get out of your plan.  For example, brand activation, audience acquisition and lead generation may be realistic, but building a new community or your own mobile event app may be cost, labor and time prohibitive. During the inventory phase, define the target audience or audiences you wish to reach, so you can establish your initial measurable objectives.

Jill Okawa Fletcher, social media and communications manager for Burlingame, Calif.-based Virgin America Inc., an airline defined in part by innovation and user-friendliness, advises planners implementing a new strategy from scratch to be patient. “Building a social-media presence requires a long-term commitment, so it’s important that you tackle it with a targeted and well-thought-out approach based on your target audience, your resources and your objectives for what you want to get out of it,” she says. “I would start off by identifying which social networks are attracting your target audience and determine which ones you have the capacity to focus on.”

By conducting an insightful, thorough inventory or audit, your audience ultimately becomes the guide with regard to platform choices, objectives and key performance indicators. In addition, Fletcher cautions, “In the early stages, I would advise not to jump in too fast. Take things slow, listen to your followers and engage with them rather than just pushing out a marketing message.”

While it is hard to dispute the convenience of modern social networking, one of the downsides of using e-mail, texting and Twitter is the tendency to foster limited, one-directional communications.  Unilateral exchanges may fly with your friends and family, but in a professional setting these exchanges can frustrate, insult and subsequently erode your social constituents. To avoid this, Fletcher advises, “Good social media strategies require a two-way dialogue. If an audience feels that you aren’t listening to them, they’ll tune you out entirely. “

Determine Investment

How much time and money should you spend on your social media? Can you get away with reallocating funds from other channels? The general consensus on social-media budget allocation for events, especially for an inaugural strategy, is to commit at least 25% of your marketing budget with reallocated funds (if necessary), justifiably siphoned from your budget for direct mail, printing and e-mail blasts. In addition, most social-media strategists emphasize time investment discipline.

David Perry, CEO of San Francisco-based David Perry & Associates, frequently consults companies on social-media time investment. He runs a strategic communications, Internet/social media, public relations and fundraising firm, and is the founder of the seminar series New Media Made Easy.
Perry teaches that “fifteen minutes per day is sufficient to maintain a business social-media strategy. However, that ‘15 minutes per day’ is based on spending a good many hours proactively setting up your Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, etc. profiles beforehand. It’s all about the profile.”

Drive Integration

An expert in driving social-media strategies for events, Elizabeth Houston, social media and marketing communications manager for Cisco Systems, explains how social media should fit into marketing and simplify the integration process. “Social media is another channel within the overall marketing mix. It uses different strategies and tactics but is not usually best used as a stand-alone channel. Especially in regards to events, social media should be used to augment marketing messages, create calls-to-action and, most of all, develop interactions,” Houston says.

She recommends three steps to integration:

  1. Evaluate the program goals, objectives and marketing plan to see where social media can augment efforts.
  2. Identify the audience, and understand role levels and where their “watering holes” are within and outside of social media.
  3. Outline the team’s bandwidth to take on social media before jumping in.

She adds, “Remember, it’s an ongoing approach, different from traditional marketing.”

Define Success and Refine Metrics

Articulating success and committing to metrics for an unknown terrain can be intimidating. What precisely should the key performance indicators look like? Houston breaks them down, “Social-media metrics for an event are similar to product and service campaigns. The social-media metrics we focus on specifically for events are: number of tweets, retweets, mentions, sentiment across social media channels/tools, amount of interaction, types and numbers of posts made by influencers, participant levels in activities such as contests, geo-location mobile applications and other social-media-related items.”

One way to more effectively measure social media results is to add tracking codes to URLs used in the calls-to-action. As for specific key performance indicators, “Metrics guidelines are dependent on frequency, audience awareness, audience following, brand recognition, tone and ways social media is used for an event. I’ve seen smaller companies create big social-media campaigns and grow audiences greatly, and I’ve also seen larger companies use social media more as an augmentation channel without large metrics,” Houston says.

What does social media success look like? Perry gives this example: “Just last month we were approached to do a Chinese New Year’s promotion and party for a new restaurant, Pudong. We were hired on a Saturday and needed to generate a crowd of 50 people—politicos, media, business leaders—by the following Thursday. Our solution: a Facebook, Twitter and YouTube campaign utilizing my firm’s ‘fans’ and my personal ‘followers’ and those of colleagues. We even got our client, The Wax Museum at Fisherman’s Wharf, to loan us their figure of Yao Ming, the famous basketball player from Shanghai. The result: With four days’ notice, we generated a crowd of 120 people at the party, which resulted in a full house for dinner that night and dozens of online photos with Yao at the restaurant, which serves Shanghainese cuisine. Campaign cost: $0.”

Houston describes a different sort of social-media success at Cisco. “Cisco Live has had a lot of successes around using social media,” she says. “The planning team is very open to trying new ideas and remains patient throughout the program cycle. They not only leverage social media to broadcast calls-to-action and gain more followers, but they make a strong effort to create two-way dialogues with Cisco customers on an ongoing basis.”

Underscoring the significance of brand activation at the core of social-media strategies, Houston cites another example. “Along the lines of piloting new ideas, the team was open to a suggestion I made last year to start an ongoing Twitter chat series in which customers could speak directly with Cisco subject-matter experts over Twitter using a specific hashtag. While these types of activities take a while to cultivate, they can really help brands become more human and approachable,” she says.

Revere Failure; Cultivate Community

Failure is rampant in such a new, rapidly evolving mode of interaction. Accepting this certainty, communicating risk to stakeholders and working it into your realistic measurement framework is crucial. Similarly, to stay current and competitive, you must regularly revisit and adjust your formal strategy based upon campaign learnings.

Perceptive to the role of failure in social media, Houston makes it clear that “there are programs and activities we try that do not perform as well. And it’s important to note that this is all right. It’s really the nature of social media to pilot and try new ways of doing things.”

Houston warns of common missteps: “Broadcasting rather than trying to interact, being closed off rather than open to new ideas, treating social media like a traditional marketing channel, not leaving enough bandwidth for follow-up and nurturing, creating unrealistic expectations, and not varying the approach pre-, during and post-event.”

Cisco has become a brave leader in new media and values risk. Houston recalls a recent challenge and how failure led to success: “Some of our events had tried using FourSquare and other geo-location applications previously. We learned a lot from these external pilots and decided to create our own Cisco Events mobile app. Working with a company called RateItAll and a product called DoubleDutch, we have been able to develop a very unique mobile experience,” she says.

What the Cisco team learned catalyzed revisions to the company’s strategy. “The main takeaway we learned was that there is interest in a social-media geo-location mobile app for businesses,” she says. “In light of our learnings, we are launching a much more robust Cisco Events mobile-app version this month that incorporates participating in social-media geo-location tagging and interactions, networking among peers attending a specific virtual or on-site program and playing games for prizes—all from within the app. This is truly a unique tool we are now providing to our attendees.”

To appreciate how Cisco maintains such robust social-media relevance, Houston explains, “Cisco has a very proactive policy around social media and truly encourages our participation. Providing comprehensive guidelines and making best practices available to all employees helps to demystify social media. Without these types of policies in place and the open-minded points of view, our events would not be able to incorporate social media as much as we do today. We make concerted efforts to share our best practices, tools and learnings among our teams to help support social-media efforts. In fact, we just launched a centralized internal online community where we can post, share and interact with social-media practitioners across Cisco.”

Houston adds an essential, but often overlooked, factor when analyzing the key elements that should be incorporated into your formal strategy. “It’s really important to be as collaborative as possible. The more we share with others and help them to understand social media, the more successful our events will be in the future.”

One objective formal social-media strategies should aspire to include is the cultivation of an online community. This can be one of the most difficult missions to pull off, however.  Ultra-qualified to speak to this challenge is David McKnight, CEO of Omnipress and founder of Engage365. Engage365 is a knowledge community owned by Omnipress, powered by Conference 2.0 and considered by savvy event professionals to be the premiere community for event-specific social media.

McKnight says that the decision to build, or the ability to build, an event community—or any community—depends on three things: 

  1. Reason: a clear definable reason to bring people and ideas together.
  2. The participants: a group of people, who are usually dispersed over a large area and who value networking and the sharing of information. 
  3. Content: something to share, talk about and create–lots of it (usually by the participants)–but organized and findable/searchable.

Equally vital is the distinction between public versus private community. McKnight explains that planners can accomplish either using a free platform like Facebook or LinkedIn, and for many groups that is the right choice; however, for a private community, you need to value:

  • Branding: It’s important your community has the look and feel you need.
  • Content: If your community is a learning community, then you may need ways to collect, organize and share content.
  • ROI: This is necessary if you place value on tracking and measuring success.
  • Experience control: If you want to integrate with other systems (registration, member database) or want features not available on free platforms.

When queried on staying ahead of the curve, McKnight cites a blueprint methodology. “Social media, in my view, is a new set of tools to connect people at a conference event. Like any toolbox, without a plan, your house may not turn out like you want or be as good as it could be. Social media for events is just the start of adopting innovative ideas to bring greater value to events. ”

McKnight stresses the necessity for ingenuity by offering a truism: “We all understand the power of face-to-face meetings…the challenge and opportunity is how do we increase the experience and how can we bring that to a greater audience? Innovation for events is a combination of technology and new ways to learn. Technology is integrated together by event suppliers and conference organizers working together for the benefit of conference attendees and others wanting to connect and learn,” he says. “Technology is not enough. We also will need new nontraditional learning formats to take advantage of the many different ways we learn and facilitate the power of collaboration and the intelligence of the group. Today’s problems and tomorrow’s aren’t getting any easier—we need to think differently to solve them.”

Perry adds this insight to enhance your formal strategy: “The personal touch is key. Social media is more about being social than being a modern reflection of ‘media.’ We’re all the media now, each with our own personal brand. Find your voice for each of your platforms. The way you speak should be uniquely suited to your voice on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, etc. I like to say that my personality in social media is personally professional—a mix of who I am as a person, which should be a reflection of who I am in my business. Social media, when used correctly, should save you time, not waste it. Read other people’s posts, watch their videos and comment, re-post and ‘like’ with abandon. The most important addition to any social-media platform is video. Use that Flip camera and iPhone copiously. Video is king in social-media search. Photos are queen. And good content will always be a good ace or trump card.”

Louise Felsher is a San Francisco-based writer, event marketer and messaging/brand activation consultant, as well as interim director of marketing for the urban winery Treasure Island Wines.