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Before posting your first tweet, writing your first blog post, or attracting your first fan, you need a strategic plan.

The path to social-media success is filled with sinkholes that cost you time and relationships. Clearly defining your plan, documenting the process and details, and revising the plan as needed is the difference between profitable social-media engagement and being just another corporate presence.

Start with a detailed plan of action

Your strategy starts with a vision of your community: How do your customers interact with your team and one another? What are the benefits and the challenges? What do your customers want? What moves them to action?

If it works with direct marketing, it will work with social media. But don't jump in and start posting one promotion after another. Social media requires more to maximize its effectiveness. Document your vision and then move to the next step.

One of the biggest challenges with social media is capturing reliable metrics. Various sources provide analytics. It seems logical that the number of visitors would be the same regardless of the analytics source. But the numbers don't match; most of the time, they're not even close. When that happens, following trends is your only recourse. (If you are using only one source to check your metrics, you need to add at least one more as a check.)

Before you start, establish benchmarks for everything. How many orders do you receive from unknown sources? What does it cost to process an order? What is your customer lifetime value? How many hit-and-run customers (customers who place just one or two orders before disappearing) are you attracting? What is your average order? What is your response rate? How many customer-care calls do you receive?

If you've already started a social-media program, you still need to benchmark. Doing so will allow you to see cause and effect as you test different campaigns.

Social media is a long-term relationship builder, not a short-term cash generator. If you don't have benchmarks establishing a baseline, your ability to measure anything is significantly decreased. (See the chapter "Measuring the Unknown" in my guide Social Media 4 Direct Marketers: How to Transform Conversations Into Results.)

The next step is to define your goal and objectives. They need to be realistic and specific, and they need to fit your stage of development.

For example, if you're just getting started your goal may be to create an active Facebook fan page. Objectives would include specific details such as five comments posted daily and 300 clicks to your website per week.

When you are first starting in social media, it is rare to receive much participation. Your timeline needs to allow for the development of your community. Social media is much like direct marketing in that regard. It is a back-end business where you have to build your customer base before you can reap the rewards.

It's faster and easier if your company is a large brand or you integrate your other channels and systems with your new network. Then, it takes less time to see some results, but it still requires a long-term commitment.

Find your customers online

Your customers are already online. The question is where? There are so many social-media platforms available, it is impossible to cover them all. You have to be selective, or the cost will exceed your return.

And that is where social media differs from direct marketing. If you mail a catalog to a home, someone will probably see it (if only to put it in the recycling bin). If you send a message via an online platform, the recipient has to initiate the viewing. Without active followers, your message is presented to an empty room.

There is a "build it and they will come" myth circulating in social-media circles. It would be nice if you could choose a platform or two, set up your account, and have your customers find you.

Some will. But unless you have decades to wait, the majority won't. You have to take the initiative. If you don't know where to go, you have to research and test.

Start capturing information today. Do you remember when email addresses were a new data field without a home? Social-media IDs are similar. Your database needs to be adapted to accept those new contact fields.

Because there is an abundance of platforms, your system has to allow multiple sites and user IDs per customer to be effective. Once you have enough data, you'll know where to start.

Another option is to start where the most people are gathered and active, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace. Facebook has 400 million active users. LinkedIn is ideal for B2B companies. If you are in the music business, a MySpace presence is a must; the platform has a strong music following that you don't want to miss.

Twitter is a good traffic driver: It is best used to point people to your website, blog, or other social-media platforms; and it is a good way to introduce yourself to new people and have snippets of conversations.

Check the platforms for your target market. Some allow you to search by profile. Your goal is to find the places with the broadest base of customers and profits. When you find them, invite them to join your community, participate in conversations, and always remember to play nice. Everything you post becomes a permanent legacy.

Monitor online conversations for mentions of your company and products. Reach out to the people talking about you with appropriate comments and assistance. Include your social-media information with every customer contact. Invite your customers to join you online.

Research your competition's activity to see where it has the strongest presence and how it is engaging its participants. It will give you an idea of your customers' expectations and interests. Your objective is to find a better way to build your presence. Learn as much as you can from your competitors.

Set realistic goals, objectives, and expectations

Stories about viral messages creating unprecedented demand make great reading. Don't be fooled by the hype, though. You are more likely to win the lottery than create a profitable idea virus. Inflated expectations reduce your credibility and increase your risk.

Setting realistic goals, objectives, and expectations is the best thing you can do for your initiative. The low barrier to social-media entry is misleading. Most platforms and tools are free, or the costs are nominal. That leads some to think that it doesn't require many resources. Nothing could be further from the truth. It requires much time to achieve results. Assigning the project to an already overworked marketing manager limits your potential at best and destroys it at worst.

There is an ongoing debate about whether social media is accountable for return on investment. The answer is simple: If it doesn't add value for your customers and company, then you don't need to participate. It may not drive direct sales, but it may improve lifetime value or customer lifespan.

Your initial goal is to determine whether social media is a viable channel for your business.

Testing it takes time. Allow a minimum of one year to fully test your strategy. As a direct marketer, you already know how to test. You establish a control and then alter conditions to compare. The same is true with testing social media. Your baseline is the benchmarks established before you begin.

The first objective is to build a following that matches your target market. A gazillion followers or fans without an interest in your products or services add zero value to your business.

Next, you want those people active in your community. You measure activity by conversation, clicks, and conversion.

Once you have a base for your community, increasing traffic to your website is easy. Many of your followers will click on every link that you post. The trick is ensuring that you are receiving the right kind of traffic.

Site activity without conversion increases costs without generating revenue. Watch your bounce rates to ensure that your social-media participation is attracting the right visitors.

Social media's power is in relationships and long-term loyalty. Retention rates, lifetime value, and lifespan are consistently higher for customers who are actively participating in a company's community.

Be conservative when setting goals and objectives, because you have no idea where your community will go. No one knows, because your customers can alter the direction. Your job is to guide them, listen to them, and follow their lead when doing so moves your company forward.

Continue reading "Strategy First When Integrating Social Media and Direct Marketing" ... Read the full article

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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

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