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[Note: This post picks up the discussion of social media strategy introduced a couple of weeks ago. In this post, I elaborate on the first step – setting goals for your social media initiatives – but in the following two posts I’ll skip ahead to step 6 – establishing engagement metrics and deploying tracking tools (and those follow-up posts are coming very soon, I swear).]

An effective social media strategy begins with clearly defined goals. Social media hype, and the myriad success stories that spawned it, have proven an irresistible temptation to many businesses, and more than a few have ventured into this mostly uncharted territory without a map and compass. What was initially perceived as a cheap (free!) and easy path to customer adoration has turned out to be a meandering, uphill climb over treacherous terrain. Now that the real costs of engagement are coming to light as the result of some of the more disastrous social media expeditions, deflated expectations are forcing a more sober assessment of what it takes to succeed, and what success really means. Goal setting is a way to manage expectations, align social media initiatives with broader organizational values and objectives, guide strategic and tactical decision-making, and measure success.

Manage Expectations

When you decide to engage your stakeholders (customers, communities, shareholders, employees, suppliers, vendors, and others) through social media, the first question you should ask (or, if they’re worth their salt, the first thing your social media consultant should ask you) is why social media? What do you hope to accomplish? What do you think social networks and social media tools can do for your business? In short, what are your expectations of social media engagement? Before you answer that question, there are a few things you should consider.

First and foremost, social media isn’t just another marketing channel. Sure, social media engagement is a great way to reach customers and build brand equity, but it’s also a way to improve customer service, reduce returns and trouble tickets, enhance your products, discover new markets, size up your competition, attract top talent, and tap into the hidden potential of your employees’ personal networks. Before you establish goals of engagement, first know how far you’re willing to go. Is this primarily a marketing effort, or are you looking for across the board results?

It’s highly likely that the social media push within your organization is being led by subversive elements within your marketing department, and that’s OK. The fact of the matter is that the lion’s share of social media initiatives to this point have been marketing efforts. Social media marketing has garnered significant support from within public and private enterprises, and the bulk of the attention of academics and independent analysts and consultants. It’s likely that the majority of the case studies you’ll rely on for strategic guidance will be examples of marketing-driven social media engagement. Again, all OK. There’s nothing wrong with dipping your toes in the water before you dive in, and given the complexity of this new communication environment, marketing is as good a place as any to start. By applying the lessons learned from a marketing initiative, you’ll be able to set goals and determine appropriate engagement metrics for other social media efforts.

With that said, from a business perspective, social media engagement may serve a variety of purposes (and this list is far from inclusive):

Second, social media engagement isn’t a one-and-done campaign. Effective initiatives require a long-term, sustained commitment. The novelty of social media is that it affords you the opportunity to build more meaningful relationships with your stakeholders, to observe and engage in organic conversations, and potentially to transform your customers into your strongest advocates. But none of that happens overnight, and businesses that are looking for a quick fix, or that enter the social arena half-heartedly, are bound to be disappointed.

Third, while it may look like another messaging channel, social media is as much (if not more) about listening than talking. Independent of your involvement, social media allows consumers to share product recommendations and reviews, applaud or complain about customer service experiences, discuss desired features or design flaws, and talk about other things they like or dislike about your company, your products and services, your competitors, or your market. There is a wealth of critical intelligence already circulating through social media channels, and learning to listen effectively should be a top priority.

Finally, when you do talk, say something useful. Social media requires a different orientation than most corporate communications. Think of social media users not as an audience, but a collection of conversational partners. The chances are better than even that the conversation you want to enter is already underway. Be respectful of that fact, and avoid the all-too-common pitfall of interrupting with an uninvited and unwanted sales spiel right off the bat. Social media communication is about engagement and building relationships. You do that by listening to the needs of your conversational partners, putting their interests before your own, being authentic and transparent, and speaking with humility and compassion. Be helpful and be human. Otherwise, you might as well just put up another banner ad.

Align Social Media Strategy with Broader Objectives

One sure-fire path to social media failure is to try and be something you’re not. As Paul Worthington notes, “The number one thing the Internet does is spot lies and fake-authenticity. If you position yourself against a need that you cannot deliver, or worse yet, that you do not believe in as an organization, people will find you out and make you pay. Nobody respects a liar.” To avoid this potential pitfall, make sure your social media goals are in alignment with your broader business objectives. Think about the first-order goals that drive your enterprise – the values and aspirations that constitute your business identity (and if these aren’t clearly articulated, put your social media planning on hold, because you’ve got more immediate concerns to deal with). Although it’s important to listen to your customers, you shouldn’t lose sight of “who you are, what you believe in and what drives you forward.” As Worthington suggests,

“Before opening yourself up to the conversation, before engaging outside, start with who you really are, what you as an organization really believe in, and what gets you out of bed in the morning…Then, and only then, should you engage in the wider conversation. With a clear sense of internal purpose and direction you stand a much better chance of using social media and online conversation as a source of competitive advantage rather than disadvantage.”

With your first-order goals in mind, derive your second-order goals by answering that question you started with – what are your expectations of social media? Are you looking for better marketing reach, more consumer engagement with your brand, market intelligence, new talent, or to establish thought leadership within your market? These second-order goals will help you choose the social media sites and tools that are most appropriate, and establish third-order goals by which you can gauge the success of your social media efforts.

Guide Strategy & Tactics

Clearly defined goals will help guide the strategic and tactical choices that comprise your social media initiative. As Michael Mendenhall of Hewlitt-Packard explains, strategic decisions about how best to engage consumers utilizing social media are based upon “what I’m trying to accomplish. Am I trying to achieve brand immersion, brand preference or brand experience? Am I trying to generate a lead and then manage the lead through to a sale? Am I trying to drive e-commerce or build a lifetime relationship with a customer?” These second-order goals will direct your strategy, and the third-order goals that follow from them will allow you to evaluate the success or failure of your chosen tactics.

When most social media advocates discuss goal setting, they focus on third-order goals. Tamar Weinberg offers a useful riff on the well-beaten horse of a goal setting standard: the S.M.A.R.T. model. According to Weinberg, goals (and although she’s talking primarily about third-order social media goals, but you’re probably familiar with this from other goal setting contexts) should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. This is fairly straightforward stuff, and you can’t throw a rock without hitting a social media “expert” who’ll tell you pretty much the same thing, so rather than reiterate what’s already been said countless times, I just want to briefly discuss the last element: timeliness.

Because effective social media engagement requires a sustained commitment, your third-order goals should include short- and long-term ambitions. Social media is long tail technology, so results may vary dramatically over time. As your engagement extends, the key indicators of success –authenticity, trustworthiness, helpfulness, commitment – will also increase, magnifying the likelihood of success. Couple this with the likelihood that your learning curve will improve with experience and you begin to understand why immediate results are neither likely nor the point of social media engagement. Make sure that your short-term goals account for this lag effect, and avoid allowing your long-term goals to be frustrated by hiccups along the way.

Measure Success

Establishing goals and determining appropriate metrics are two sides of the same coin. Together, they comprise the guideposts that will allow you to gauge the effectiveness of your social media strategy. As Marc van Bree put it, the first thing your organization needs to do is figure out what you’re trying to accomplish – “are you spreading a message, building a community, raising awareness, forging relationship? From there, find out what to measure” (the subject of my next post). I’d add that it works in the other direction as well. When it comes to establishing third-order goals, knowing what analytics are available for a particular type of social media engagement will allow you to define your goals more explicitly (remember, ‘S’ is for specific).

In the next post, I’ll dig into the issue of social media measurement, including a more in-depth discussion of matching goals and metrics.  I hope you’ve found this useful.  I’m excited to hear your feedback, and hope that you’ll help fill in any gaps.  Thanks for reading!

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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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