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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Five Lessons From the Social Media Frontlines

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image of Debra Ellis
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 ( and can be reached via