As social media marketers, we have direct, 24/7 access to the world's largest focus group—and they have a lot to say.

Social marketing is different from other marketing tactics because it's a medium where your audience talks back—immediately, directly, and sometimes not in your favor.

So, if you're developing a social advertising strategy using the same one-way approach you would for a PPC ad, email campaign, or TV spot, you're missing the point... and a huge opportunity to capture market share.

Brands succeed on social when their messages are two-way conversations that tap into their audience's preferences and deliver a more personal (dare I say "intimate") and live experience. The smartest social brands engage in these real-life conversations using social media listening, which stitches together data from across the major social media networks—factoring in sentiment, demographics, engagement levels, and earned media trends.

For example, a leading video game brand uncovered a significant social trend by searching earned and owned social media for the phrase, "I want the new [game name] but it's too expensive." The company then tagged the people posting this type of content; the minute the game went on sale, the brand reached out to those people to inform them of the sale. As a result, the company sold 70,000+ copies of the game.

Social listening data is gold for a social media advertiser. "The holy grail of social media is using custom audiences to get very specific messages to a very targeted audience," according to WordStream Founder Larry Kim. That same video game brand could subsequently serve up relevant coupons (and content) to that audience via social ads for ongoing engagement.

Although paid social and social listening often live in different areas of the marketing team or even the company, when brought together they have the power to create much more relevant messaging and advertising.

Here's how.

Before the campaign:

  • Understand your audience beyond basic demographics.
  • Identify new audiences to target based on similar attributes.
  • See what your competitors are already doing and how you can stand out.

During the campaign:

  • Optimize ads on the fly, based on real-time feedback.
  • Monitor feedback to augment the positive and minimize the negative.
  • Identify trends, audience segments, networks, and sentiments based on campaign reception.

After the campaign:

  • Measure effect on earned social media: Is your message catching on beyond the walls of your brand?
  • Gain insights into purchase intent.
  • Prove the true value of campaigns.

Wed Social Listening to Paid Ads for Social Success

It's worth re-emphasizing that social media advertising is different from other types of advertising because social media is a dialogue, not a monologue. Accordingly, you must adopt a "listen first" approach when creating a social advertising strategy in 2017.

Simply put, people no longer want to hear you talk about yourself or your product. They want to hear you talk about them and the things they care about.

But nailing down your social listening strategy is just the beginning. To master social media advertising, a holistic approach—combining social listening with paid social ads—is the 1-2 punch to social success.

In truth, and somewhat sad and sobering news, is that most social media sites are now "pay-to-play." It's no longer strategic or effective to rely on organic reach. With organic posts reaching fewer and fewer people, 91% of brands now use Facebook ads. In fact, organic reach for branded ("owned") Facebook pages has hit an all-time low at around 2%, and organic reach per post continues to decline rapidly every day.

But don't despair, just change your focus to learn more about how advertising strategies can alleviate this pain.

There are two main types of social advertising strategy: one-off campaigns and ongoing boosting. Both are important, and they should be used in tandem. One-off campaigns can often run independently of your organic efforts, whereas ongoing boosting takes organic content and gives it wings:

  1. One-off campaigns: These are more like traditional advertising campaigns and should be integrated across all your channels. Often called "dark posts," these are shown only to the audiences you choose, allowing for greater tailoring and targeting.
  2. Ongoing boosting: With organic reach diminishing, many brands make a habit of putting money behind their posts, or at least the best-performing ones, to reach more of their fans and followers and increase page engagement. These boosted posts can also be targeted to brand new audiences to bring in new followers, leads, and customers.

Best-Practices for Social Media Display Ads

Though it's critical to first gain a deep understanding of your buyer personas through listening to create successful social ads, it cannot be overstated that the look and feel of your ad has to also be exceptional.

You're not just competing with other brands for attention; you're competing with people's friends, family, pets, and favorite celebrities.

Grabbing attention under these circumstances isn't easy, so make sure your ads are intriguing, high-quality, and visually appealing. To get you started, here are the top five visual best practices:

  1. Make your branding subtle. You're spending money to get exposure for your business, so ensure your ads are still recognizable through connective elements, such as small or subtle logos, brand colors, figureheads, or style of photography. But make sure your branding doesn't overshadow your message.
  2. Use high-quality imagery; lighting is key. Whether you're going with a design, video, or photograph, make sure that imagery resonates with your audience. What's more, like a bad user experience on a website, blurry or grainy photos are a turn-off. If you are taking your own photos, use natural light whenever possible.
  3. Learn photography composition rules. Take some time to learn best-practices, such as the rule of thirds, the beauty of symmetry, or the importance of having a focal point. They will help you simplify your images, focus on one concept at a time, and blend in naturally while also standing out.
  4. Run tests to avoid ad fatigue. For the best performance, update your ad creative every one to two weeks. If everyone in your target audience has already seen your ad multiple times, continuing to use the same ads gets expensive and it can negatively affect the way your audience perceives your brand.
  5. Keep copy to a minimum. A picture is worth many words, so keep your copy concise and within the headline or text sections of your ad, rather than cramming copy into your image. For maximum deliverability, keep text to less than 20% of your total image.

* * *

The new era of social media advertising offers companies a huge opportunity to start listening better and serving up more personalized, compelling messages where their target audience lives and breathes every day.

Social media is a two-way street; so, with every ad you serve, listen to your audience—both before creating your ad and during the campaign—to be in tune with their personal styles, behavior, and responses.

A continuous feedback loop of social listening, engagement, and analysis will help you create smarter social media campaigns for the remainder of 2017.

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Why Your Paid Social Is Failing, and Best-Practices for Social Advertising

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image of Jen Kern

Jen Kern is CMO of Tracx, provider of an all-in-one social media management platform that helps social-savvy companies hear and react to the full conversation online.

LinkedIn: Jenifer (McGregor) Kern

Twitter: @jennifer_kern