Social media, which relates to the sharing of information, experiences, and perspectives throughout community-oriented websites, is becoming increasingly significant in our online world. Thanks to social media, the geographic walls that divide individuals are crumbling, and new online communities are emerging and growing. Some examples of social media include blogs, forums, message boards, picture- and video-sharing sites, user-generated sites, wikis, and podcasts. Each of these tools helps facilitate communication about ideas that users are passionate about, and connects like-minded individuals throughout the world.
According to the Universal McCann’s Wave 3 report, released in mid-2008, social media is rising and does not seem to be stopping anytime soon. Among all Internet users between the ages of 16 and 54 globally, the Wave 3 report suggests the following:
394 million users watch video clips online
346 million users read blogs
321 million users read personal blogs
307 million users visit friends’ social network profile pages
303 million users share video clips
202 million users manage profiles on social networks
248 million users upload photos
216 million users download video podcasts
215 million users download audio podcasts
184 million users start their own blogs
183 million users upload video clips
160 million users subscribe to RSS feeds
Social media marketing (sometimes referred to by its acronym, SMM) connects service providers, companies, and corporations with a broad audience of influencers and consumers. Using social media marketing, companies can gain traffic, followers, and brand awareness—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Most search engines contain listings that consist of paid advertisements (sponsored listings) and unpaid listings, where the placement is based on a highly classified search engine algorithm that often relates to relevancy, number of inbound links, and other data points. Organic listings are these unpaid results that often show up on the left side of the search engine results page.
Until recently, the Internet was largely an informational medium. However, in the last couple of years, the Internet has become increasingly social. We are now looking at websites, habits, and behaviors of our peers in order to make well-informed and educated decisions about our next move, be it a buying decision or another endorsed article to read late at night. Websites such as MySpace and Facebook have emerged to make communication between peers fast and easy. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, though. Social websites have been built to unify individuals with similar interests: social news sites that are governed by the “wisdom of crowds,” social bookmarking sites that allow individuals to discover websites that a large number of people have already discovered, and niche social networks that unify individuals under a common interest. As such, a new discipline, social media optimization, also called social media marketing, has evolved.
Social media marketing is a process that empowers individuals to promote their websites, products, or services through online social channels and to communicate with and tap into a much larger community that may not have been available via traditional advertising channels. Social media, most importantly, emphasizes the collective rather than the individual. Communities exist in different shapes and sizes throughout the Internet, and people are talking among themselves. It’s the job of social media marketers to leverage these communities properly in order to effectively communicate with the community participants about relevant product and service offerings. Social media marketing also involves listening to the communities and establishing relationships with them as a representative of your company. As we will discuss later in this book, this is not always the easiest feat.
The term social media optimization, which many today equate with social media marketing, was coined in 2006 by Rohit Bhargava. Bhargava explained the concept of social media marketing as optimizing a site in such a way that written content garners links, which essentially acts as a trust mechanism and endorsement. Social media optimization also helps build brand awareness and raise visibility for the marketed product or service.
In essence, social media marketing is about listening to the community and responding in kind, but for many social media marketers, it also refers to reviewing content or finding a particularly useful piece of content and promoting it within the vast social sphere of the Internet.
Social media marketing is a newer component of search engine marketing, but it is really in a class of its own. It does not relate only to searching; it relates to a broad class of word-of-mouth marketing that has taken the Internet by its horns. Fortunately, the phenomenon is only growing at this point.
In the end, social media marketing can achieve one or many of the goals listed in the following sections.
Using available social media tools, users endorse approved content for their peers. As soon as an active user of a social news site or influencer discovers a piece of content and spreads it, word of mouth commences. The idea is a viral spread, which is heightened by online communities and the cross-pollination of content on other social media sites. Figure 1-1 illustrates this phenomenon.
Considering that link building is a big part of search engine marketing, social media marketing eliminates the need to seek out a costly link-building expert and can help build organic links. When a blogger or website owner discovers a relevant piece of content, the natural instinct is often to share the content on the website or blog with a direct link to the piece of discovered content. These links in turn help to communicate to search engines that the blogger or webmaster has made a decision to endorse the web page, as its content is considered trustworthy. As many search engine marketers can attest to, the more links to your site, the more opportunities you have to be discovered by both readers and visitors, as well as users looking for related content through searches performed on search engines. Links enhance discoverability. Social media sites are just a starting point, but with the right content, the gift of compelling social media content has the potential to give back to the content creator twenty-fold or more.
Obviously, a strong market presence is beneficial for getting business from customers who need your product or service today. However, creating brand awareness today can also help you in the future. Consumers who become aware of your brand now, even if they aren’t actively seeking your product or service, are likely to remember you in the future and seek you out when they actually do need your product or service. If you leave a positive first impression on your diverse audience, you will likely reap benefits from exposing it to your product early, especially since one of the key ideas of social media marketing is recommendations: the idea behind social media is that friends recommend links, websites, and products to their peers.
Given a compelling marketing strategy and creative demonstration, social media marketing can lead people to purchase the desired product or service. On the contrary, a poor marketing demonstration will likely cause the consumer to distance himself from the advertised product. Consider this logic: if you are selling a software product offering and decide to innovate with a poor-quality video laden with mistakes and monotonous voiceover, how likely is that video to contribute to increased sales? Presentation and layout are crucial in social media marketing.
Now that we’ve established some of the benefits of social media marketing, it should be clear that traditional marketing tactics are not as effective as they once were, because consumer trust in these media forms has declined. Today, information is more easily accessible online, and more significantly, that information is a lot easier to find. Generations are becoming increasingly digital-savvy. Text messaging and web activity are becoming second nature (and are claiming addicts on a daily basis). If a consumer is seeking out information about a particular product, she won’t necessarily sit down with a cup of coffee and read her favorite magazine to find information about the product; she is more likely to turn on her computer and look for reviews and endorsements from other individuals just like her.
Social media marketing is a promising evolving technology with much potential, and there are successful case studies to back up that sentiment, many of which we will explore in this book. However, there are other reasons to engage in a solid social media strategy in addition to (or instead of) traditional marketing strategies. These include:
- Social media marketing facilitates natural discovery of new content
Content crafted properly can be exposed to hundreds of new website visitors, from the casual surfer to the extreme enthusiast, in a very spontaneous fashion. Unlike paid advertising, which is forced upon web surfers, social media lets visitors view content that is not necessarily associated with commercial intent. If I like a website because the marketing piece is hip, innovative, and genuine, I’ll pass it on to my peers using social media sites and they’ll pass it on to their peers because they also like it. Content can reach thousands of new eyeballs quickly without interfering with traditional marketing, but social media marketing does not interfere with other marketing strategies, either.
- Social media marketing boosts traffic numbers
Traffic comes to websites from sources other than search engines, and many of those sources include social media sites. Once you have established yourself as a community participant worth following, people will be interested in what you have to share and will likely pass relevant your blog posts, videos, or articles onto their peers.
- Social media marketing builds strong relationships
If you are genuinely paying attention to members of the communities that are part of your marketing message (or not even associated at all), you can build strong relationships when you take the time to respond to concerns or feedback. Even communities that are not necessarily related to your company, brand, product, or service offering have members who may individually be interested in knowing more about you and what you have to offer. And since it is so easy to spread your message via word of mouth online, if you really leave a good impression on those who you interact with on a regular basis, it’s almost certain that they will recommend you to a peer who is seeking your service or product— that is, if they believe in it (and you!)
You can certainly hire someone to provide strategy and tactics to bring you success, or you can integrate social media marketing in-house for much less (though before you do, read this book first!). Social media marketers still need to understand the rules of engagement, participate in communities on a regular basis, and capitalize on emerging trends. Such activity will prove to be highly cost-effective. Buying hundreds of links on untargeted sites, for example, may cost you thousands of dollars, but if you practice the creative strategy of social media marketing, the return on investment can be substantially higher. Plus, social media marketing has the added benefit of heightened awareness about product offerings.
Maybe you’ve decided to take the plunge and utilize social media marketing in-house. Maybe you’ve decided to hire a renowned social media marketing consultant to help implement and then execute your social media strategy. How are you going to measure your return on investment (ROI) to see if your investment was worth all the effort?
First, if you’re trying to determine how much a social media marketing strategy should cost, there’s no “one size fits all” approach. Social media marketing simply does not have a fixed cost. Depending on the scope of the project, social media can vary from hundreds of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. When pricing out possible consulting engagements, never put all your eggs in one basket. Look for a fair mix of social sites and communication opportunities in the most ideal social media marketing campaign.
You never want to work with a consultant who will give you visibility on Digg but ignore the other sites that exist for a similar purpose.
Now where is your ROI, and how can you tell if your social media marketing strategy is the right one? Social Media Explorer Jason Falls explains the issue of determining ROI for social media marketing:
The problem with trying to determine ROI for social media is you are trying to put numeric quantities around human interactions and conversations, which are not quantifiable.
Further, social media marketing results cannot be measured immediately. Your strategy does not work overnight, but rather works over the long term. Like any sort of marketing tactic, social media marketing puts your product or service in front of a group of users who will be interested in sharing the offering with their peers, though the process of sharing is only as rapid as the individuals who want to pass on the content. In an effective campaign, the results should speak for themselves.
In many instances, social media is also about listening and engagement. Over the long term, if you see more positive sentiment being expressed about your company, that should be a win in itself.
There is no “one size fits all” strategy that works with everyone. Each product and service is different. Each online community is different. By communicating with the right group of people online and then revising your strategy as needed based on feedback, you will likely see some incredibly valuable results that will help you sell your product—or you’ll go back to the drawing board.
Later in this book, you will be introduced to tools that will help to measure success—all depending on your goals—and you will be able to tweak your campaigns effectively based on the response to your strategies.
Let’s face it: the online world is becoming saturated. There are a substantial number of individuals now flocking to the Internet to find answers and get direction. It’s time you talk to those people, especially since they may have questions about a product or service that you may have the answers for.
With social media marketing, you’ll see that if your outreach efforts are received well, you’ll gain a percentage of supporters. As these supporters spread the word about your offering, you will gain additional supporters. With the right targeting and proper message, gaining loyal followers will allow you to build up a group of individuals who will be willing and able to act when you launch a new desirable service offering. This is so much easier to do online because the message is so much easier to spread.
If you are looking for a sure-shot way to achieve fast results, this book is not for you. Like any marketing discipline, social media marketing takes diligence, effort, and persistence. By reading this book, you will understand how to:
Establish goals for your social media marketing campaigns
Create a strategy for executing your social marketing efforts
Communicate effectively with the communities you intend to target
Take charge of the conversation, even if it’s not on your website
Gain exposure from participating among many social channels
Utilize social media to handle a reputation management crisis
Utilize blogs and bloggers to send messages to larger groups of individuals
Leverage existing sites to market your products
Craft content that is currently “hot” within many social media circles
Fortunately, there are already a number of portals available online that can empower you, as a marketer, to start spreading your message. Innovation, too, can bring success, though it’s not the only way. There are already so many sites that have been built around the idea of the collective mindset, and it is your responsibility—if not your duty—to understand the communities that frequent these social sites and leverage them for your benefit while also giving back to the community.
The emphasis here is that people want to know you are providing something valuable to them. Communities will not respond if your intentions are selfish in nature. Later in the book, we will discuss how to work with communities to spread the message.
With social media portals, your current and potential customers can associate themselves with you and your brand. They do this by bookmarking a page on a social bookmarking site, becoming your fan on a Facebook product page, and voting up a story on a social news site, among other tactics. In this section, you will learn some of the more popular social media portals—not at all intended to be an exhaustive list (as there are new ones cropping up from day to day). Later, you will learn how to leverage these networks to spread your message.
Social news sites rely on the collective to vote on news stories that individuals think should be exposed to a larger audience. In essence, when a story is submitted to a site, it has one vote. The goal of social news sites is to get the story enough votes (which may vary per social news site) to hit the front page. Since thousands upon thousands of visitors often do not venture farther than the front page of social news sites, getting your story there can bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to your site in a short while, with the added benefit of getting targeted links from influencers. The reason for this is that popular social news sites are regularly visited by bloggers, journalists, and other influencers who try to find their writing inspiration from content that is on the front page of these sites. If the community already publicly endorsed this content, it’s fair game for the writers to pass on to their readers. Some social news sites are covered in this section.
By far, Digg is the most popular site at the moment for sharing information socially. Digg was originally launched in late 2004 with an emphasis on technology news, but it changed its game plan in early 2008 to target a much wider audience.
Launched in 2005, reddit is known as the second most popular news site. reddit found big success in January 2008 when it launched subreddits, which enable users to create their own categories in which to submit stories. As a reddit user, you can subscribe to specific categories and get the content that you want without the clutter of other news.
Social bookmarking sites allow you to store your favorite sites, often with metadata (tags, for example) to be retrieved at another time or in another place. While some people use social bookmarking just so that they can access their bookmarks from several computers without feeling tied down to any single location, social bookmarking also allows you to discover new content saved by your peers. By default, social bookmarks are public, though there are options to make the bookmarks private. The more popular social bookmarking sites are covered in this section.
This social bookmarking giant is now owned by Yahoo!. The site boasts more than 5 million users and more than 150 million URLs. On July 31, 2008, delicious launched a newly redesigned site that boasted impressive speeds, enhanced sorting, and a stronger emphasis on networks.
StumbleUpon is a unique kind of social bookmarking site. It allows you to discover content using a toolbar. When you click Stumble!, you are shown a site tailored to your interests (per your specifications when you registered). You can then provide feedback to the service as to whether you like the content or not. Based on your feedback, StumbleUpon provides additional (or fewer) pages on the specific topic.
Social networks are the websites that you use to let individuals know exactly who you are or establish a profile to find others with similar interests. Often used to connect with old friends or to find new ones, social networks are some of the most popular sites on the Internet. Three of the key social networks are covered in this section.
College student Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2004 to allow other college students to keep in touch with their friends. Now Facebook is one of the most popular websites in the U.S. has been growing virally throughout the world.
Launched in mid-2003, LinkedIn is a network that connects professionals in all disciplines all over the world. LinkedIn is intended for those who are business-oriented, and is best described as a “virtual resume” and social network connecting professionals who have interacted with one another in both the personal and professional realms.
Social news, social bookmarking, and social networks are the main social sites at present, but they are not the only sites that allow you to share your content. Whether your passion is knowledge, photography, or video, there is an ever-growing number of websites that let you share and spread information with an audience who may already be willing to listen.
Prior to the advent of the social networking sphere, you had to have a substantial amount of money to share your content on the Web. To establish a web presence, you needed to hire a savvy web developer and a knowledgeable graphic designer. You also needed a domain name (approximately $70/year), and most importantly, web hosting space. That’s why, until the turn of the century, the only professional websites were ones owned by companies. Few individuals really had their own personal web spaces.
In the past several years, however, numerous things have changed. First, social sites emerged and gave us the ability to create our personal space on the Internet. Not only that, those social sites let us connect with others who had common interests or backgrounds.
Second, social web applications have become increasingly popular. In the previous section, I described some of these applications that are hosted by various companies and give users the ability to set up their own profiles and establish relationships. Additionally, open source applications (such as MovableType,WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla) allow individuals to become their own publishers. These applications have evolved substantially in the last few years and can be set up by just about anyone with an Internet connection, as they do not require extensive technical know-how. Savvy web developers and knowledgeable graphic designers are still being sought out, but some applications exist that eliminate the need for some web designers, and there are thousands of open source (and cheap) themes that eliminate the need for a costly graphic designer.
Third, domain names have become more easily accessible and affordable. The dot-com domain names are likely all taken (unless you can think of something imaginative that nobody else has considered), but new domain name extensions are being released on a fairly consistent basis, with the recent launch of .me and .tv domains. The more popular domain name extensions now cost between $7 and $10 per year.
Fourth, web hosting has also become a lot cheaper. If you want to create and manage your own personal space, you can download the open source applications and install them quickly on your web host. Whereas hosting may have cost a few hundred dollars before 2000 (and data delivery was a lot slower), now even children have their own web spaces and the cost is a fraction of what it was in 1999, with significantly faster speeds.
Before social media, you heard about new products through traditional forms of marketing: newspapers, magazines, or perhaps television commercials. Those tried and true tactics are no longer as powerful as they once appeared to be. Before social media, you would use the same traditional media channels to read about a bad company or a great one from consumers who had firsthand experience. Nowadays, the picture has changed.
With cheaper and faster technology, the Internet has evolved into a different kind of beast. Moreover, the extent of communications now travels farther than imaginable. Performing a search using your favorite search engine indicates just how far we have come. In 2001, a search for Comcast on Google yielded the results shown in Figure 1-2.
Today, the same Google search doesn’t give you quite the same information, and that information is no longer controlled by a single entity (see Figure 1-3).
As shown on the search results page for the 2008 search, the expected results for “Comcast” appear—there are numerous links for the company’s website and its various divisions (and for viewing the company’s financial information), as well as news stories related to Comcast. Further down, however, you see social media finding its way to the top of the search results. First, you can see Wikipedia, the user-generated encyclopedia of information about public companies and notable individuals, among other informative topics. Perhaps more alarmingly, a potentially troublesome YouTube clip has found its way to the first page of the search results. The Wikipedia and YouTube social sites have beat out over 34.7 million pages to appear on the first page for a very simple and common web search.
Now that web technology is cheaper and content is produced more easily, the Web has become a means of giving consumers a voice, and as shown in the Comcast example in Figure 1-3, that voice may not be in your company’s favor. In 2001, it was unheard of to start a blog and complain that you were unhappy with the delivery of goods. Only recently have websites emerged that are dedicated to letting consumers fight back or rant about poor service. Blogs are now media for complaints about products and services (among other innocuous ramblings). Reputation management, or responding to negative mentions of your company or product on the Web, has blossomed as an industry within the social media marketing/search engine marketing sphere.
There appears to be no shortage of negative press about products (there is positive press, too, but as many of us know, the good stuff simply doesn’t spread as much as the bad stuff does), and the Internet has allowed consumers to seek reparations for injustices and to ramble about their dislike of a particular product. Since negative publicity is often most talked about, this also means that people are sharing these stories and likely linking to them as well. The more links to a story, the higher the stories are (usually) ranked in the search results. That’s why you see a video of a sleeping Comcast employee on the front page of the Google search results. If you look at the whole picture and the entire search results for Comcast on that particular results page, that video is probably the most interesting link.
This proves that the Web is giving everyone the opportunity to share whatever they deem relevant to their audience. It’s easy to set up an account and start criticizing the editor of your newspaper or to openly disapprove of the way your school board is handling discipline problems within your district. Sometimes a single blog post, if ranked well (and discussed enough), can adversely affect your business, especially since consumers are often seeking out reviews of companies before taking the plunge. If that negative press is highly visible, it’s likely that consumers looking to make a purchase decision may look to a competitor who isn’t facing bad press.
What do you do when you discover that someone is speaking ill of your company on her website or on another web channel that is accessible by the general public? The traditional approach would be to sit back and wait for the wave of complaints to stop. Today, with the ease of spreading information, that is not the ideal approach. Instead, joining in the conversation may be the best route you can take.
In the past, consumers would simply soak up what they read in print media and what they watched on commercials. Consumers had a limited floor upon which to give feedback to the message providers. We called this a monologue. This old way of communicating has changed, however. The Internet has facilitated two-way conversation. Conversations about your product are happening online regardless of whether or not you are participating in them.
Marketers have the responsibility to be ahead of the curve and to pay attention to these conversations. They should understand how individuals perceive companies and products online, and they should engage in a fully transparent dialogue with openness and honesty. The marketer who speaks to those who will listen and will actually engage in the two-way dialogue on a consistent basis—on matters good and bad—is the marketer who will be able to build trust and drive those sought-out conversions.
Take the lead and don’t languish in the echo chamber. Seize the opportunity and join the conversation. Consumers in this digital era appreciate transparency and communicative entities, and it’s never too late to communicate with your constituents. They’re waiting.
In other words, you can write everything and your visitors will come. You can start a blog and just keep writing. Eventually, people will find you and become loyal followers. You can write an exhaustive article on a topic about which you are incredibly knowledgeable, and hope that the right people eventually discover that article and share it with their friends. That is the meaning of the “content is king” mantra.
This idea by itself, however, is not entirely true. How many times have you accidentally stumbled on a great article online that nobody seems to be talking about? Chances are, it happens more often than not.
Gary Vaynerchuk, host of the popular online TV show Wine Library, uses a more appropriate slogan: content is king, but marketing is queen (and the queen rules the household).
The bottom line is that you can’t just write something and let it sit there. How will people find your content if you don’t disperse it appropriately to the right communities, or if you don’t share it with anyone at all? The key takeaway is that marketing is part of the mix, and if you are producing content in the online realm, it is crucial to leverage the social media community to spread that message and share the information with the individuals who will absorb it and pass it on.
I’ll end this section with another important quote, from Michael Gray, a search engine optimization expert:
Building quality content without [marketing] is like locking William Shakespeare in a room to write for himself.
You’ve read this far and are intrigued by the benefits of social media marketing. Yet are you ready to take the plunge into a vastly different communication tactic? Some companies are not at all prepared, and some simply won’t ever achieve the success that they are hoping for. The reason for this is that they are not willing to give up control of the conversation. They are afraid that when they introduce the community into the discussion, they may not hear what they want to hear, and their responses (or lack thereof) can distort the public’s perception even further. Unfortunately for those who are unwilling to innovate and dedicate resources to these peer-to-peer channels, social media is here to stay.
There are two main considerations when assessing your readiness to embrace social media marketing.
Today, everyone can be a content creator. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of websites on which individuals can be publishers, and it takes little to no effort. People are using these sites to talk about you.
Companies need to acknowledge that they can no longer easily control their messages. Marketers now have the ability to influence and cultivate the message through their own communication channels and through regular community participation, but they are now contending with hundreds of thousands of customers who have a soundboard to articulate their own thoughts about the company and product offerings. Marketers should listen—not ignore—these messages, as they can provide some deep insights into the presentation of the product and the actual marketing message, and companies may find suggestions on how to improve.
In the digital space, the truth of the matter is that not everybody gets it. Getting it doesn’t happen overnight, either. It will be necessary to allocate the resources to achieve the goals. This will often require manpower.
It’s also important to note that the initial time commitment will probably be substantial. You’ll have to study communities, learn the proper rules of etiquette (some sites may demand different rules than others), and figure out how to respond based on what is acceptable within the community. Over time, as you gain knowledge, the time commitment will be less significant, but you’ll still have to keep abreast of developments in the field in order to stay ahead of the curve. Building and maintaining trust will require a consistent time commitment, as you reinforce your involvement in the community and remind your constituents that you are a participant in the community for the long haul.
There are online conversations about your company, product, or service going on right now, and they will happen regardless of your participation. It is your responsibility as a marketer to find out exactly what people are saying and how they perceive you. By becoming involved, you can facilitate that conversation, sway your audience, and engage community participants in a dialogue that will be beneficial to both them and the entity that you represent. Such an engagement can translate into tremendous successes for your marketing message, from reputation management to increased brand awareness, and then some. What are you waiting for?
Social media usage is on the rise with billions of frequent online interactions, and as such, social media marketing is a great way to connect consumers with companies and brands.
Social media marketing is about listening to and sharing great content with the collective. This helps drive links, raise brand awareness, increase conversions, and kick-start conversations. This is a much more powerful tactic than the old practice of traditional advertising; the old strategies are no longer as effective.
One of the biggest challenges of social media marketing is measuring your ROI. Much of social media is not that easy to measure; you can’t put a numeric value on buzz and quality of conversation.
Social media portals, where conversations are ongoing and marketing messages can be conveyed (if done right), exist in all across the Internet. We reviewed social news sites, social bookmarking sites, and social networks in this chapter, but many other portals exist as well.
Social media is making its way into search results, and you have the opportunity to join in on the conversation. It’s not in the best interests of your company to sit back and let that conversation continue without stepping in to influence it.
You may have a great product or an excellent whitepaper that will help boost your brand, but without marketing it via social media, nobody will discover it. After all, content is not king (not by itself, at least).
To be sure you’re ready for social media marketing, you will have to give up control of the message and dedicate time for the task. In later chapters, we’ll look at which strategies are most effective.