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More and more businesses are using social media to get their messages out. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, weblogs, and other user-driven platforms provide new opportunities to reach new audiences, or to reach existing audiences in new ways.

And, because they are user-driven, implementing them is relatively easy and inexpensive; there's no need for special HTML skills, FTP access, graphic design skills, or costly printing.

Too often, however, social-media marketing communication is undertaken without an integrated strategy in place. That is particularly true in the marketing of events and event-driven businesses.

But today the problem is endemic in small and large companies alike. The result is a flood of marketing communication, but fewer people actually receiving those messages.

In this article, I'll explore why marketers so often misuse social media platforms and how to ensure that you use them to communicate effectively.

The Cost of Social Media Misuse

Many people believe that, in terms of marketing, more communication is better. As well, many tend to regard social media platforms as silver bullets for their marketing communications challenges. When a business's marketing team subscribes to both these misguided notions, the typical result is a wholesale embrace of social media at the expense of strategic considerations.

The negative implications that follow may include the following:

  • Expending marketing, business, sales, or technical resources on low-value communication activities instead of on high-value ones.
  • Creating "noise" and causing target audiences to tune out; in the worst cases, the result is a devaluation of your brand.
  • Confusing the marketplace with poorly timed, competing, or apparently conflicting messages.

Current estimates hold that the average North American is exposed to between 600 and 3,000 advertising messages each day—yet another reason that more communication is not necessarily better communication!

Wanted: Not More Communication, but More Effective Communication

Your target audiences almost certainly don't want more communication. What they surely do want is more effective communication, which is to say communication that delivers the information they want or need, at the time they need it and in the formats they prefer.

To create an effective marketing communications program, you need to decide which social media platforms will work best with other ingredients in the marketing mix to help you reach your marketing communications objectives.

Choosing platforms and ingredients strategically, with an eye to how they will complement one another, will create much better results than using them simply because they have become available. Pursuing the latter course—communicating via any and all platforms just because they're there—merely creates noise.

Five Fatal Errors—and How to Avoid Them

Below are the five most common errors that businesses commit in using social media platforms for their marketing communications, along with ways to solve the problems that result (or to avoid those problems altogether).

Error 1: Failing to consider the audience first

Jumping on the latest, greatest communication bandwagon without first asking, "Who is my audience and is [insert new media platform here] the best way to reach them?" is the leading cause of ineffective marketing communications. That social media lacks an entry barrier (i.e., it's easy and cheap) magnifies the problem; even marketers who should know better are led astray.

Without understanding your audience's needs, expectations, and preferences, you can make only guesses about how best to reach them.

Solutions: Sometimes, profiling your target audience based on knowledge that exists inside your company can be enough to determine whether a particular communication path is worth pursuing. Audiences can also be interviewed, surveyed, or polled to determine their communication preferences. But the most effective strategy will be a combination of solutions, including those provided below.

Error 2: Assigning ownership of messages

Companies will often make individuals owners of important key messages. Thus, numerous people throughout the company are given incentive to do whatever they can to "get their message out," and they will tend to measure their results in terms of volume. The result is a great deal of noise for those on the receiving end of these dispersed communications, because no one has an incentive to make the needs and preferences of the target audience a primary concern.

Solution: Assign ownership of audiences, not messages. For example, "business partners" may be one target audience with whom your business needs to communicate. "Attendees of event X" may be another. Assign an individual or department to own each audience for your company; it's then the owner's job to represent the needs of the audience and to ensure that the messages delivered to the audience match what the audience really needs. This approach also helps to reduce noise because one entity has complete visibility into the messages that audience is receiving.

Error 3: Offering too much or too little choice

Offering audiences too much choice for communicating with them creates noise. For example, if they receive the same information via Twitter, LinkedIn, emails, online groups, and your newsletter, at some point they will tune out and potentially miss important new information.

Offering too little choice is just as problematic. For example, many organizers now use Facebook to advertise events and contests to the exclusion of traditional websites and advertising. However, the assumption that "everybody" is on Facebook—or that everyone who is on Facebook and needs the information will receive it—is flawed.

Solutions: Choose the best mix of communication vehicles for your audience and purpose. Enable audiences to filter your information and messages by topic. Enable opt-in communication and allow audiences to choose their preferred format to receive information (e.g., daily, weekly, monthly email; RSS; social media group or fan page). Above all, provide a single place that audiences can go to get all available information on one topic.

Error 4: Failing to consolidate messages and information

A key problem with relying on quick-and-dirty methods to disseminate information (e.g., Tweets, Facebook, and LinkedIn updates) is that no one ever gets the complete picture at once—if ever at all.

You also lose control of the message through "re-tweeting" and status sharing, so it's important to have a method in place that allows you to own the whole picture even while the message is being disseminated by others.

Solutions: Assigning ownership of audiences (No. 2 above) can eliminate this problem. Here's another strategy:

  1. First consider how many messages the audience really needs about the topic, and how often they need to receive updates.
  2. Next, follow the advice in No. 3 above.
  3. Then, for each topic or event, provide a single place where audiences can go to get all the information they need. These days, this is most likely to be a Web page—but it may also be a toll-free number or a physical location like an information kiosk.
  4. Finally, in every message you send out on the topic, tell people where they can go to get complete information.

Error 5: Falling prey to "easy" and "cheap"

The primary problem with easy and cheap is that it's easy and cheap. With no premium or barrier to entry, user-driven communication vehicles like Twitter and Facebook arrive on the market already commoditized. By becoming distracted by easy-access commodities, companies erode the value of tried-and true foundations of communication.

Examples of how this can happen include:

  • Creating too much noise for truly important messages to be effectively heard.
  • Inadvertently training your audiences to ignore messages from you because there are too many messages of low value.
  • Succumbing to 11th-hour communication (because it's so easy to do) rather than planning out well-timed information delivery.

Solution: Consider new communication channels within the context of the bigger picture: your business and marketing goals, your audience's needs and preferences, your marketing communications mix. The marcoms mix should always be open for tweaking, but make changes only after you have a solid business case for it. Once the need for change is determined, take the time to map out your audiences, the messages they need, and the best channels of delivery for each audience-message combination.

An Aside: My Favorites

Two marketing communication e-vehicles are my tried-and-true favorites. Here's how I like to fit them into an overall marcoms mix:

  • E-newsletters or e-bulletins. Ideal for consolidating information into one location. Summarize important information and provide links to Web pages where complete information can be found. Stick to a reliable distribution schedule that people can come to expect and appreciate as part of their daily or weekly routine.
  • Dedicated Web pages. Ideal for collecting all the information and answers to frequently asked questions about single topic. Easy to link to when communicating updates on the topic and easy for others to link to when re-tweeting or recommending the topic to friends. It may be a traditional HTML page, a blog entry, or a LinkedIn or Facebook Group page. Just remember that not everyone can access applications like LinkedIn. Your audience should never feel forced to sign up for third-party applications to get the information they want from you.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maria Ford is a professional "marketing journalist" and founder and president of Kaszas Communications (www.kaszas.ca), based in Ottawa, Canada. Reach Kaszas via info@kaszas.ca and 613-741-9484.