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Five Lessons From the Social Media Frontlines

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It's easy to find people to tell you what you need to do to make social media work for your business.

They have anecdotal tales of viral campaigns with heavy emphasis on the impressions and branding benefits. There's no end to the stories of successful branding campaigns using community platforms. Though there are benefits to branding, it isn't immediately convertible to cash.

The last few years, I've been heavily involved in testing the effectiveness and efficiency of social media as a marketing and service channel.

Sometimes I pushed the limits, which brought outcries of "This isn't how you're supposed to do it" from the self-appointed best-practices police. Other times, I didn't push hard enough and watched opportunities pass by. Throughout it all, I measured and documented the results.

The first test was to follow the rules (or guidelines, as some prefer to say) of social media engagement. I posted, tweeted, and chatted. It brought me a few new followers, but they were primarily competitors, not potential clients.


That is a consistent issue for everyone participating, because we are learning from one another. When I review community members for new clients, I find the same pattern: more competitors than customers or prospects.

After determining that the rules may work for the people who make them but weren't working for me, I ventured outside the loosely drawn lines.

I followed only one rule: Test and document everything. Every test provided a lesson in what works (or doesn't) in the social media world. Here are the top five.

Lesson One: Calls to action work

The same motivators that work for direct marketing also work for social media. Our marketing channels and tools have changed, but the people who use them haven't. We are still moved to action by emotion, direction, and urgency. Adding calls to action consistently increased clicks, engagement, and sharing by up to 60%.

To test, I posted two content-sharing tweets one week apart. It is impossible to create a perfect A/B split test in social media. Day of the week and time of day are key factors in audience participation, so the test kept them consistent.

The first tweet included the title and link. The second include title, link, and call to action. The tweet with the call to action consistently outperformed the one without.

There were diminishing returns as the frequency of the call-to-action tweets increased. Think of it as crying wolf. If there is urgency in every message, people become immune to it.

Takeaway: Adding calls to action work extremely well when used wisely. Save them for your most -important messages.

Lesson Two: Make it easy for people to connect with you via their preferred channel

What is your preferred method of communication? Does it vary by message? Some things can't be said in 140 characters. Others shouldn't be said in a public forum. If you are reaching out to people, let them respond in a way that fits their preferences and message.

Yes, that means you will receive more calls and emails. Some will be from crackpots. Most will be from people who want to be part of your community. If you want a community of raving fans, you have to let them reach out and touch you.

Takeaway: Provide multiple ways for your community to connect with you, including social-media platforms, email, snail mail, and telephone.

Lesson Three: The best community members are in your customer database (presuming they are active social media participants)

If your business has a solid customer base, start building your online community there. Your best customers should be easy to convert to active participants. When you start with a good foundation, it is easier to build a powerful network. If you've already started, give your community a boost by reaching out to your in-house database.

The caveat is that not everyone is actively participating in social media. Or, they are personally involved but don't want a professional presence. Reach out to your customers to see whether they are participating and want to join you. If they do, then you have a great foundation. If not, then you're starting from scratch. It'll be harder.

Takeaway: Invite your best friends to the party. They'll boost your presence and watch your back.

Lesson Four: Integrate social media with other marketing channels

Social media works best when integrated with other channels. It opens the door for one-to-one connections with customers and prospects. When you invite people to contact you via the channel of their choice, they will. And, they spend more when they do.

One test invited people to cross channels. The marketing message was consistent. The channels of choice were Twitter, Facebook, a blog, a website, and email. The control was customers who weren't participating in social media.

We monitored the social media participants who were established customers. Over a three-month period, the customers who were active on social-media platforms but didn't cross over to the traditional marketing channels spent 34% more than the control.

Customers who used a combination of social-media and traditional channels spent 52% more than the control.

Takeaway: Encourage people to cross channels and recognize them when they do. They are your most valuable customers.

Lesson Five: There is only one universal rule...

Do what works for you, your company, and your community. Listen to others' success stories but know that what works for one company may fail for another. Test everything, and document the results so you know how to improve your activity.

Don't let anyone else define the rules for your social media participation. The problem with predefined rules is that following them makes you one of many. If you want to be a leader, you have to break rules and find your own way.

Takeaway: Do it your way. 


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Debra Ellis is a speaker, consultant, and author of the integrated marketing guide Social Media 4 Direct Marketers. She is the founder of Wilson & Ellis Consulting (www.wilsonellisconsulting.com) and can be reached via dellis@wilsonellisconsulting.com.

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  • by Jennie Tue Sep 7, 2010 via web

    This is one of the best articles on social media I've seen in a very long time. I especially agree with your last point. Two questions -
    1. In Lesson 4, you recommend that you encourage people to cross channels and "recognize them when they do." Is this an automatic web-based recognition or do you do the research to determine which customers come to you through multiple channels? How do you recognize them?
    2. When you work in a large company, how do you build support around Lesson 5... if corporate guidelines are already set in place?

  • by Debra Ellis Tue Sep 7, 2010 via web

    Hi Jennie,

    Thank you for your kind words and questions.

    Answer 1-A: Unfortunately, there isn't an automated way to recognize customers when they cross channels. You have to do some legwork and create your own solutions. A good first step is to start capturing social media ID's when people place orders. We're in a similar position as when email addresses became available. Order management systems didn't have a field available for the new information. Innovative companies either created a new field or found an empty one. I recommend starting with fields for Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Once you have some data, recognizing people from different channels will be easier. (Be sure to make the fields searchable.)

    In the beginning, it is a manual process. It's worth the effort because the people who are crossing channels are your most valuable customers. They are opening the door for you to participate in their lives.

    While there are some tools that match email addresses with user ID's, using them are challenging. There shouldn't ever be the presumption that a social media presence is an invitation for your company to connect. Many people will consider that contact invasive because their participation is limited to family and friends.

    There is also the personal vs. professional issue for B2B companies. In our research, the number of people who used their professional email addresses to create their personal social media pages surprised us.

    Answer 1-B: We identified the people that were crossing channels by asking when given the opportunity. When we didn't have the opportunity, we reviewed their profile information and compared it to the company's customer file. It is a time consuming process, but it was the only way to capture the information we needed. The investment is worthwhile because it provided insight unavailable via any other source.

    Answer 2: You build support in baby steps. Guidelines shouldn't be cast in stone. Even if they are, there are ways around them. Educating the people who make the guidelines is the best way to get them changed. Dispense the information needed to change the strategy in bite size information. It will reduce resistance and help open the door for new tests. Test everything to insure that it works. And, never do a hard sell of an idea. Social media is too new. It is evolving. The things that work today may not work tomorrow. If you sell an idea too well, it will become cast in stone. Keep everything in test mode so people will be open to change.

  • by Lisa Tue Sep 7, 2010 via web

    I agree with Jennie - this is one of the best articles on the use of social media. Too many times articles spit forth tatics as if they were rules, forgetting that a lot of us trying to leverage social media are trying to do so for less than sexy brands and products. Engagement just won't work for clients who work in financial services or engineering the same way it works for Coca Cola or Apple. Thank you Debra for freeing me from believing I was the failure because I couldn't make these "tried and true" methods work. Your short article gave me a lot to think about.

  • by Debra Ellis Tue Sep 7, 2010 via web

    Thank you, Lisa. As an engineer, I know exactly how hard it is to find the glam in the business! You are right when you say that engagement doesn't work the same way for all industries. When engagement is the only measuring tool, it is impossible for most companies to succeed in social media.

    But when you remove the rules, possibilities start to appear. Good luck finding your way that works.

  • by Zack Pike Tue Sep 7, 2010 via web

    Debra - Great article and I'll definitely be sharing this one with several people. Your point about cross channel integration is especially relevant for a lot of companies. Too often we silo each specific social platform into it's own little world... Many times, at large companies, different people are handling different platforms and not communicating back and forth. I'm glad you mentioned this because it's concrete proof that everything works together and each platform needs to be tightly integrated with the other. That's where the real value of a social strategy is... multiple touch points with a singular customized voice.

  • by Debra Ellis Tue Sep 7, 2010 via web

    Thank you, Zack. It's much harder to make the cogs work together when they are in different departments and often in different parts of the world. It's still manageable if you have people willing to cross borders in peace. It usually only takes one person willing to reach out to counterparts in other areas. I like the way you describe social strategy as "multiple touch points with a singular customized voice." I'll have to borrow that! (with attribution of course.)

  • by Jennie Tue Sep 7, 2010 via web

    On the topic of channel integration... we've developed several web aliases specifically for social media (SM). We are tracking how many potential customers visit our lead generation website from SM sites. For example:
    www.xxxx.com/fb (from Facebook)
    www.xxxx.com/tw (from Twitter)
    www.xxxx.com/yt (from a YouTube video)
    www.xxxx.com/bl (from our online community blog eBlasts)

    Based on this we can look at our sales coversion numbers and make an estimate of how many leads/sales can be attributed/influenced by SM efforts. It's not solid ROI, but it's a start.

  • by Jennie Tue Sep 7, 2010 via web

    Make that sales conversion... not coversion. :)

  • by Debra Ellis Tue Sep 7, 2010 via web

    Jennie,

    It's a good start. If possible flag the customers who come in via social media so you can track their activity. Then you can compare their lifetime value, life span, and contribution with non-SM customers.

  • by Tal Wed Sep 15, 2010 via web

    Great article, very practical and usefull information.

  • by Debra Ellis Wed Sep 15, 2010 via web

    Thank you, Tal.

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