4 November 2009

Social media marketing 101

By Rodney Lim

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

It is becoming impossible to ignore social media. Online social networks like Facebook and Twitter are exploding like crazy. Facebook has over 300 million users worldwide (3 million in Malaysia, or over 10 percent of the population) while Twitter is growing at a staggering 1000 percent rate. YouTube, with over 300 million daily visitors is easily one of the most visited websites on the planet.

With numbers like these, companies everywhere are jumping on the social media bandwagon. Too often however, many would sign up for a Twitter or Facebook account only to realize they don’t know what to do next. In fact, some are not even sure how social media could help their businesses; they are there only because everyone else seems to be there. So, if you want to make a worthwhile foray into social media, here is a basic primer to help you get the most out of it.

Like any other business venture, you need to map out a strategy for your social media initiatives. Start by clarifying your purpose, that is, what you aim to accomplish with social media. Do you expect to increase brand awareness, build relationships or engage with customers? How would you measure success – number of subscribers or friends, page views, comments, referrals, sales?

Next, consider how social media could be integrated with your overall marketing plans. Can it fill certain gaps in your existing programs, complement traditional media campaigns, or reach out to niche markets? Asking these questions will help you determine the role and scope of your social media involvement and will set the basis for strategy formulation.

It is also essential to identify social media sites with characteristics that match with what you are trying to achieve. Social media encompasses a wide range of social networks, blogs, news or media sharing sites, forums, review sites and even virtual worlds. They are not all the same, so although Friendster, Facebook and Myspace are all social networks, they each offer characteristics that present unique opportunities for marketing. While a regular blog can communicate in-depth information about your company and products, for instance, a Twitter account is more useful for quick updates, tracking real-time conversations and directing online traffic to your main website. Thus, a careful selection of social media sites can synergistically complement your existing official site to yield superior marketing results.

The worst mistake you can make is to approach social media with a conventional marketing mentality. If you see it as a broadcast channel like television, you will probably use it to shout your opinions or push your products. Social media, however, does not revolve around you or your goods. It is a sea of conversation, and yours is just one voice. Instead, Rule Number One in social media marketing is to listen, listen, and listen some more. Where conventional marketing is action-oriented, here you can only engage people meaningfully if you are willing to listen first. Ultimately, this means relinquishing a degree of control of your brand. Are you willing to do that?

Creating a strong social presence is a lot of work. Online videos do not go viral by themselves and you don’t get popular on Facebook by waiting for people to add you. You need to find creative ways to give people a reason to connect with you. This means not just aiming to create a fan following, but becoming a fan yourself of people who share similar interests.

In this regard, social media requires participation needs to be genuine. If you open up and are authentic about it, you will have an opportunity to share the one thing that is highly sought after- your expertise. This will give you unprecedented opportunities to get close with key audiences, build real relationships and delight your followers. The legendary crime fiction author Elmore Leonard, for instance, actively discusses his craft with his devotees on Facebook, a treat indeed for those who admire his works.

Many companies do not want to participate in social media because they are afraid of being criticized in public. This is silly of course, as people will talk about you whether or not you choose to engage them. Smart companies, though, grab the chance to address negative circumstances in full view, and to turn them into something positive for all to see. Clearly, if you want to make social media work for you, you have to be transparent, sincere, and forthright about the values you claim to have.

When top management is unwilling or unable to commit to social media marketing, it usually becomes an underground activity carried out by eager employees who, out of their own interest, work the tweets and run the ‘unofficial’ official company page on Facebook. While this seems like a good arrangement for many bosses (zero budget, employees do it on their own time), these unsanctioned activities can only go so far without top management support. For social media marketing to be an integral and sustainable part of the overall marketing plan, companies have to commit sufficient resources and attention to it.

In my opinion, social media is here to stay. Sooner or later, you will have to decide how it should become a part of your business.

Rodney Lim is a lecturer with the School of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at rlim@swinburne.edu.my.