How Should Firms Frame Their Social Media Strategy?

Formulating the social media strategy for any business involves answering quite a few ‘whys’, ‘hows’, ‘whats’ etc. This article explores the intermediate decisions to be taken by a firm in its social media journey right from conceptualization of entry to launch.

Customers are bombarded with messages from various newspapers, TV channels etc. It is quiet natural for a typical consumer to be exposed to the same brand’s message, through the newspaper, radio jingles and the outdoor hoardings.

How Should Firms Frame Their Social Media Strategy?

The only mantra that firms earlier seemed to believe was to create a presence wherever possible to ensure that customers were exposed to the message and it helped the ‘top of mind recall’ for the brand. This probably further helped to generate an intention culminating in purchase of product or service. However, in social media, no matter on how many social media channels a firm creates its presence; it’s the end customer who decides whether he/she wants to “follow” the brand on that particular channel.

The customer’s power to be selective in receiving the messuge has increased considerably compared to the earlier firm’s message broadcasting power. Moreover, the social media industry is also competitive enough, i.e. each social media channel is competing with the other to gain as many unique users as possible. One may relate the social media industry to a TV industry where there are multiple TV channels which can be classified into groups – news, songs, movies, family series, reality shows etc. Each group, more or less broadcasts the same kind of programs targeted to a particular audience with similar interests. Similarly, the various special media channels are offering unique value propositions (like relationships, photos, videos, documents, bookmarks, etc.) which need to be mapped with a firm’s objective to go social.

Almost any firm on a given day would be having presence on any one of the traditional media. So the big question a firm needs to answer is “Why should I go for social media, when i am already spending huge money on other media?” If a firm just embarks on a social media campaign because its competitors are doing it, or it’s a ‘trend’ and Therefore had to be followed, it may lead to a disaster. If this social media strategy is not well thought, it might result in an extremely risky situation. It needs to be clearly understood that unlike other media channels where you can stop advertising or remove banners, any content floated on social media may remain on the web for lifelong. So, even if firms stop using it, people and competitors can dig it somehow and may misuse it, creating problems for the brand.

It’s therefore emphasized, that before using social media, firms need to have a clear strategy and a well thought out plan on what are they expecting to achieve through social media. The purpose could be varied – to engage with customers, to source new ideas from customers, to create brand image, to fuel word of mouth of a lesser known brand, to raise funds for a cause etc. Unless a firm has framed its strategy it won’t be worthwhile to go with social media.

What are the risks involved?

Customers

It is very common that when firms make a move like launching a new marketing campaign, it creates lot of expectations in the customer’s mind. So, It won’t be wise to create a social media presence and later on not participate or engage with customers. The fact needs to be realized that a firm won’t be able to control all the conversations, which customers have about their brand. Also it wouldn’t be always a red carpet welcome for the brands, when they enter social media. It might turn nightmarish, if customers start venting out their anger and their bad experiences with the brand. The firm should be well prepared to tackle customer feedback. There should be a well-framed strategy to handle all queries and pacify the customers at the earliest to avoid any further damage. Active engagement should be done to ensure that this risk of not meeting customer expectations is minimized.

Employees

The second source of risk would be internal to the firm – employees. The employees might be either reluctant to support social media, due to their myopic view on social media strategy or might happily adopt it and see it as an entertainment activity rather than professional activity and cause damage to their productivity.

The first issue (reluctance) could be easily tackled with adequate and appropriate briefing, but the second issue (performance) needs to be carefully handled. Some firms might think that only certain people should be allowed access to these social media sites and others not, well on paper it might look a rational decision, however in practice it might create a rift between the two set of employees. This entire phenomenon is dependent on a trust building exercise. A firm needs to trust its employees and employees shouldn’t let the firm down. This would take time, but gradually it would be possible to bridge the gap. Sensitizing (by way of briefing/training) and trust building can be the key factors in mitigating this risk.

Support

The customer may pose query on any aspect of the brand – installation, usage, repeat purchase, financing, pending order, promotions etc on the social media channel. The person who is handling the community (commonly known as ‘community manager’) needs to be connected with every other department. There should be continuous interaction facility between the online community manager and the functional mangers/departments so that he can extract information at his requirement and use it to engage customers.

Standard Operating Procedure needs to be worked out while contacting the different departments when needed. This will set a clear chain of communication and ensure the faster and adept response. Also, it will help tackle the odd cases when the online community manager is not clear about which department to contact for a query when a query which involves more than one department. The risk of an inadequate support can Therefore be tackled by working out the various cases possible and having a process centric approach.

How much should a firm open up?

Firms should be crystal clear about how much information they are going to share about their brand and firm while formulating their social media strategy. A note should be taken of the fact that even competitors might be following your brand closely and monitoring all the conversations you have with your customers. So, when you receive some queries from enthusiastic customers about your new product launches, the firm should decide to what extent the details will be shared. It might be a competitively dangerous move if some information is shared which gives intelligence to your competitor about something (may be a product feature) which your firm wants to keep confidential. In another case, if the firm is small and privately held, some stakeholders might be eager to know about your business model or your performance. You may not disclose the entire information and at the same time, it won’t be wise to avoid answering those queries outright. It would require creativity to adequately handle the queries where you cannot share the information and at the same time not let the anger prevail from your customer who raises it. Therefore this risk could be addressed by thinking through well about the information that can be shared on an open channel and clear cut instructions need to be given to the online community manager.

Should firm outsource or have an internal team?

This will be a crucial question for many firms. Firms that are outsourcing may cite one of the key reasons as being unaware of how to manage the firm’s account on social media. Ideally, firms should have an in-house team to manage their social media activity. This is to ensure that a dedicated pool of resources is continuously working on maintaining firm’s social media presence, who develop an in-depth knowledge about the firm’s products and services. There is a lot of learning which will take place as time progresses and this dedicated pool which be adept to resolve complicated issues at a faster pace over a period of time.

Even if firms outsource the activity to any agency, firms need to ensure that they have good communication and co-ordination with the agency on a regular basis. The one key aspect of social media communication is the promptness with which the customer is attended. It may happen that when firm’s account on social media is handled by an agency, it is actually handled by a community manager who most often handles more than one brand at a time. In such a situation, one of the challenges faced is that the interaction with community members is not an instant activity. It needs to be done on a continuous basis. If a community member poses a query, which the ‘multi-tasking’ community manager couldn’t reply instantly, due to lack of knowledge on that query, it may lead to a dent in brand’s image.

The tough part in outsourcing the activity is to maintain ‘seamless’ communication between the agency and the firm. There are tools available in the market which might assist in the journey, however at the end of the day, only the mother knows better what a child needs and not the day-care aunty! This needs to be realized, sensed by the firm. Firms might think it would be difficult for brand managers to interact with customers when they have other responsibilities to handle. The answer to this would be – change in roles and responsibilities of the brand manager. Probably have an additional brand manager who would maintain the online branding activity, but is in close association with the main brand manager. The risk o mismanaging due to outsourcing is to make sure that the terms and conditions are outlined clearly to the outsourcing firm and the communication process should have well defined SLAs (Service Level Agreement) in place.

Which social media channels should the firm be present on?

instantShift - Which direction to choose

Given the hundreds of social media channels presence, it is always going to be a tough choice for firms to decide where to create their presence. However, the key parameters which could be used to reach an optimum decision are listed below:

  • Deciding their target audience: Before deciding on the social media channel, it is important to be clear about the target audience. The social media channel should be suited to the likes and interests of this particular target audience. The social media channel should be popular amongst this target audience and also should be prominent in that part of geography where the firm intends to target. Not all social media channels are used universally. For instance, Linkedin is considered to be very prominent in India, while Xing is very popular in countries like Germany, Spain, Portugal etc.. Similarly QQ is a famous social networking channel in China, in spite of the Facebook’s dominance across the globe. Next to the geographical presence, firms should evaluate the type of target audience who are member of these channels.
  • Value proposition: Value proposition to be offered by the firm. A simple criterion could be informal vs. formal. Firms should appreciate the fact that certain social media channels do have a very professional image, wherein only formal discussions would yield results and not the informal ones.
  • Features/positioning of the social media channel: Not all social media channels offer range of features. Every channel has its own differentiation and certain key features of engagement are unique to that particular channel. For example videos for YouTube and Vimeo; presentations and documents for Slideshare and Docstoc; short messages (140 characters) for Twitter, photos for Flicker; music for MySpace etc. Depending on which is a suitable format (mode ,format, length etc) of communication appropriate social media channel needs to be chosen.
  • Content generation process: The decision is to determine what type of content could the firm generate on a sustainable basis to ensure sufficient customer engagement? This content could be generated from within the firm or in some instances be sourced from professional content writers. The frequency of the posts should be maintained to keep the readers (customers) engaged.
  • Uniform Messaging: It’s extremely important to ensure that the consistent message is delivered across all channels. Hence, key features across the prospective social media channels should be identified on which the firm seeks to create presence and modify their content generation accordingly ensuring that the message that the firm wants to deliver is the same across channels and the consumer does not get confused.

What art the key factors in ensuring an effective communication?

With reference to the fact that social media is not a broadcasting medium firms should devote due efforts to listen. In this interaction medium there may be suggestions, complaints, and appreciations about the firm/brand on the social media. Even though the firm may not have presence on any of the social media channels, people on the media may be discussing about their brand/firm. Firms should first try to have a sense of all those conversations and understand on what aspects are customers discussing about their brand. This would help them in positioning their social media strategy. Also, after having created the presence on social media channels, firms should regularly direct efforts towards listening. This could be facilitated with use of various tools available in the market, but should be practiced religiously.

How do I measure effectiveness?

After creating presence on appropriate social media channel. firms would be eager to judge the efficiency of a particular channel. However, judging the efficiency of a particular channel in generating engagement with customers is a tough task. It is not as simple as pagerank or number of hits received in the SEO domain. In this domain, what matters is the extent of engagement a firm is able to build with its customers and more importantly sustain it over a period of time to reap long term results.

It is very common in the industry for agencies to charge firms on number of fans/community members accomplished on the brand community, number of likes received; number of comments made by community members, number of times the content was shared further by the community members, no. of times the content was downloaded etc. Agencies use these tangible criteria to pacify firm about their social media efforts. However, firms lose the ultimate target of the social media activity, i.e. ‘engagement’ and ‘connect with the customer’. Social media is a powerful medium to have two-way interaction with the customers and ‘positively influencing’ them should be the primary output of implementing the Social Media Strategy.

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5 Comments

  1. Great article for firms that are ready to commit and invest in social media marketing, but are unsure about which direction to take. As you stated, companies must strategize their presence before jumping in head-first.
    I think social media marketing provides an excellent “trust building exercise”, as you said, for employees and employers. Our online identities continue to grow in fluidity with our “real” selves, and company CEOs should learn to embrace mistakes, transparency, and the personality that comes through when cracks show.

    Thanks again,
    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  2. Good article…

  3. Excellent Article. I understand about strategies that when a company “claims” their business listing in the directory or adds a new listing, in addition to getting an ample business description field, a linked thumbnail view of their website and contact information, they can also add links to their blog, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and other social networking resources. This comprehensive listing package also includes a Google map showing their business location. As a result of these innovative additions, a common business listing virtually becomes a mini website.

  4. post seems to be interesting and informative..

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