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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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