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strategyAs American consumers spend more and more of their online time interacting on social websites, social media initiatives have become a high priority for businesses large and small.  Social media is a booming industry, but it’s also the new Wild West.  The landscape is constantly changing, the technology is continually evolving, and consumer behavior is an endlessly moving target.  Unfortunately for businesses, there isn’t a clear cut path to social media success.  Even more unfortunately, there’s no shortage of self-proclaimed experts claiming to know the way.

I’ve spent the better part of the last decade researching consumer uses of social technology, collaborating on the development of social software platforms, cultivating and managing a large online community, and developing social media strategies.  I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not even close to having a silver bullet solution, and the more I learn about social media, the more I’m convinced such a thing does not yet exist.  As a community, social media “experts” are working diligently to define best practices, to cultivate effective techniques for engagement, to develop accurate metrics, and to discover comprehensive solutions that will deliver on the elusive promise of success.  It’s an on-going process, and anyone that tells you something different isn’t someone you should be listening to.

Among the social media “experts” that are worthy of the term (and there are many, to be sure), there is currently a good deal of concern about the meaning of social media “strategy.”  As Tom Webster recently pointed out, what usually passes as strategy is actually tactical advice: be human, be authentic, be helpful.  Great advice? Yes.  Strategy?  Not hardly.  In a tweet this morning, Scott Gould wondered “how many ppl talk about social media, and how many have an actual strategy…”?  I think this is one of the most pertinent questions we so-called “experts” should be asking ourselves, and each other.  Here’s a short version of my answer.  Consider it an introduction to what will become a series of posts dedicated to each of the major points.

A Strategic Guide to Social Media Engagement: 10 Steps to Success

1.  Define goals: Before you undertake any social media initiative, take a step back to consider the view from 50,000 feet.  Why social media?  What exactly are you trying to achieve?  What does this new fangled technology offer that traditional media channels don’t? Although many businesses and social media advocates tend to view social media primarily as a marketing tool, the benefits of social media engagement are in fact much more far reaching.  Social media can enhance your public image, augment community outreach, improve customer service and increase customer satisfaction, provide new sources of market intelligence and information about your competition, and help improve products, streamline processes, and boost organizational performance beyond the marketing silo.  Define the goals of your social media initiatives with these broader benefits in mind.

2.  Audit existing efforts: Budgetary constraints may require that social media engagement trade off with other expenditures, but wise investments need not be zero sum.  Social media initiatives should complement rather than supplant existing efforts, whether your goal is to improve marketing, customer service, product development, or organizational efficiency.   Before you implement a social media strategy, take stock of your existing efforts to figure out how to maximize your current resources and expenditures.  This audit will also help you establish baselines for performance against which to measure the results of your social media engagement, and to figure out how best to integrate those results to improve organizational performance.

3.  Establish baselines for performance: You can’t get where you want to go if you don’t know where you’re starting from.  Social media may offer any number of potential benefits, but they’re impossible to quantify if you don’t have a firm grasp on the successes and shortcomings of your current efforts.  Whether your goal is to convert leads into sales, increase customer satisfaction, or reduce product returns, establishing baselines for performance is the first step in demonstrating a quantifiable ROI for your social media initiatives.

4.  Identify your audience’s social profile: All social media is not created equal.  One of the first questions you should ask before undertaking any social media engagement is where in the world of social media is my audience? In other words, who are you trying to reach, and what social media sites, applications, and platforms are they using? Don’t waste your time and money chasing an audience that doesn’t exist.  And notice that I’m using the word “audience” here, rather than “customers.”  Social media allows you to engage customers, talent, industry experts, community leaders, and other individuals who can positively impact your business.  Don’t let the marketing aspects dominate your focus.

5.  Identify applicable social tools: Once you’ve figured out where your audience is you can determine the best social tools with which to engage them.  Should you be building Facebook Pages or Groups, Twittering, blogging, creating mobile apps, sponsoring contests, socializing on MySpace, engaging the LinkedIn community, or joining Orkut, Friendster, Bebo or any of the dozens of other social networks popular outside of the U.S.?  The options are staggering, and figuring out which ones work best will inevitably involve some trial and error, but you needn’t be shooting in the dark.  Thinking strategically about the ways you engage through social media will maximize your returns and minimize your expenditures.

6.  Develop an action plan for implementation: To achieve the full benefits of social media, you have to develop a plan for implementation.  This plan includes tactical considerations, such as the timing and targeting of initiatives, defining roles and responsibilities, training personnel, developing monitoring and accounting procedures, and most importantly, determining how to integrate the fruits of your labor into your organization.  As the goals of social media engagement differ, so will organizational responsibilities.  Within larger organizations, social media engagement will involve marketing departments, customer service teams, HR, product design and manufacturing, and product delivery systems, just to name a few.  Even if these departments aren’t directly involved in social media efforts, the information gleaned from these initiatives is only useful if it’s integrated into the appropriate operational context.

7.  Establish engagement metrics and deploy tracking tools: Measurement is the key to success in any corporate communication effort, and social media is no exception.  Developing accurate engagement metrics will allow you to discover which of your efforts are most effective and which are falling flat.  One of the primary advantages of social media engagement is that it offers opportunities for measurement that aren’t as easily accessed through traditional media channels.  Thanks to a variety of tracking software, the digital footprint of social media users is highly visible, and the mountains of data they churn up allow you to revise and retarget your efforts to maximize effectiveness.

8.  Develop social media content and engagement tactics: Social media isn’t just another channel through which to push a corporate message, and companies that treat it as such are going to be sorely disappointed.  The conversation about your brand and market is already happening, and if you jump into it without considering the value of your contribution, you’ll either be tuned out or you’ll take a beating.  Giving the people what they want means developing content that informs, entertains, and engages your audience.  And content is only the beginning.  To capture the value of social media, you have to be social.  That means listening, understanding, responding, and incorporating the conversational feedback into your products and processes.  This is where that tactical advice comes into play: be human, be authentic, be helpful.  Successful social media initiatives require a commitment to engagement over the long-term, and an effective strategy will include a sustainable plan for monitoring, responding, and reacting to conversational feedback.

9.  Incorporate feedback: This part of the equation is probably the most difficult for organizations to put into practice.  What you learn from social media engagement can help you improve your products and processes, discover hidden markets, and get a leg up on the competition, but only if you’re prepared to change the way you do business.  Being a good conversational partner requires a willingness to change your beliefs based upon your interactions with others.  The same is true for businesses engaging customers through social media.  Only those organizations that internalize feedback and adapt accordingly will reap the benefits of engagement.

10.  Measure ROI and revise engagement tactics: A common misconception about social media is the difficulty of measuring effectiveness.  If you’ve established pre-engagement baselines, identified appropriate metrics, and deployed tracking tools, accurate measurement is far from impossible.  Crunch the numbers to determine the real, bottom-line value of your social media investment, and revise your engagement tactics accordingly.

I’m sure there are things I’ve left off this list, and I know some of this requires elaboration.  As I said at the outset, this is my contribution to a much broader conversation, and a brief introduction to a more in-depth discussion of each point.  I hope you’ll share your thoughts, point out my glaring lapses, and point me in the direction of any resources you think might be useful.  And please pass this along to anyone you think may benefit from or contribute to the conversation.  Thanks!

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rubelstreamWhen Steve Rubel closed the doors on the popular blog Micro Persuasion and set up shop on Posterous.com, the move was hailed by many as a landmark moment for lifestreaming, which Word Spy succinctly defines as the recording “of a person’s daily activities, either via direct video feed or via aggregating the person’s online content such as blog posts, social network updates, and online photos.”  Rubel explained the motives for his move this way:

“Blogging feels old. Publishing today is all about The Flow. Posterous, my new home, feels more like flow and where the web is going so it’s time for me to do the same with my publishing, which will become daily once again!

This concept of “the Flow” is taken from an article on Stowe Boyd’s /message blog  (irony not lost here), in which Boyd argues that blogs and associated comments are an outmoded form of online communication.  According to Boyd, “conversation is moving from a very static and slow form of conversation — the comments thread on blog posts — to a more dynamic and fast form of conversation: into the flow in Twitter, Friendfeed, and others. I think this directionality may be like a law of the universe: conversation moves to where is is most social.”  Boyd suggests two competing metaphors for thinking about how we converse online:  the Web of Pages, according to which users stumble around in search of information; and the Web of Flow, according to which information comes to users via social applications.  Although Stowe concedes that blogs will still serve an important function as “the place where we archive our posts, so that people can find them when they need to search, which still is a necessity,” they will never be the central hub of our online lives – the locus of the lifestream. 

So, Rubel opts to go with the Flow, so to speak, and moves his publishing enterprise to Posterous.  That’s all well and good, but is Posterous really a Lifestreaming technology?  Well, sort of.  Mark Krynsky offer his thoughts on Posterous as a Lifestreaming platform, arguing that it’s not a “true Lifestreaming service,” and I tend to agree.  Krynsky makes an important methodological distinction between “true” Lifestreaming technologies and Posterous:

“Using the Lifestreaming method you post to various web services and then aggregate the content generated at each of them on your Lifestream. Your Lifestream can be located at a service like FriendFeed, Storytlr or many others, or it can be self hosted using WordPress, SweetCron or many other options as well.

Posterous uses a different methodology in which you post all your content to their service first via email, bookmarklet, or a custom form and then optionally autopost that content to external services such as Twitter, Flickr, Delicious, and Youtube. The options for posting by email are flexible and powerful. You can specify which of the external services you want to autopost to on a per email basis by using  specific settings.”

Essentially, while Lifestreaming theoretically allows users to publish from any external source with an RSS feed or API access, Posterous limits users to publishing with the tools native to the site.  Because Posterous doesn’t allow importing from external sources, Krynsky doesn’t consider it a true Lifestreaming tool.   That’s not to say that he doesn’t find Posterous useful, nor does he deny that it can’t serve a limited Lifestreaming purpose.  However, the distinction he draws is an important one.  As long as Lifestreaming platforms rely on native tools, they will be limited utility hubs.  And this goes back to Boyd’s post.  The only difference between traditional blogs and Posterous is the ability to publish to external sources.  As WordPress and other blog services begin to incorporate these external publishing applications, the differences between blogs and Posterous will dwindle.

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More goodness from the CommonCraft Show and Lee Lefever.

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