Social Media: Business Objectives and Metrics

With social media’s impact increasingly entering marketing conversations, it seems reasonable to talk about what you could be doing to influence it. For starters, check in with operations, where you can influence the experiences that drive word of mouth. Traditional media is crafted, launched, and guided with a laser-like precision, based on your brand definition or something similar. Social media is more like a hurricane that gathers its strength from conversations as they circulate and coalesce across the social Web. This isn’t to say it’s always bad: social media, unlike a hurricane, can be hugely beneficial. Rather, like a hurricane, social media can be a bit hard to predict and trying to control either is futile. It’s about being prepared. It’s about not being caught off guard when whatever is coming your way — good or bad — makes landfall in the middle of your purchase funnel.

How do you answer the questions that a marketing strategy that includes social media always seems to raise? As Sam Walton often said, “Go to the store. The customer has the answer.” In this case, the customer has a set of behaviors that do, or do not, include social media use. Further, these behaviors have subtleties that turn out to be really important when sorting out your marketing options. Two people may be on YouTube for the same amount of time each day. But if one is creating and posting while the other is simply viewing, the social media options open to you are different for each.

If that seems obvious, consider a higher-stake, subtler example: the implementation of white-label communities. Understanding your audience and your business objectives are the keys to success. Without grounding your communities in the capabilities and interests of your audience and simultaneously aligning the goals of your community with your business objectives, it’s like playing roulette with technology, placing your bet and hoping that what comes up is something you like. Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy. Just like in Vegas, where losses outpace winnings, hoping for a win at blackjack is unlikely to send your kids to college, although FedEx founder Fred Smith evidently managed to send his then-young company to the top of its industry using just this technique. It happens, but it’s rare.

Instead of gambling on a platform, dazzled by the allure of snazzy technology, dig into your business and motives for considering social media. Lead with strategy, and follow with technology. Pluck, Jive Software, and Lithium all make great community platforms. As well, they all make different platforms, with different key strengths. More over, Bazaarvoice offers ratings and recommendations. Powered offers branded resources that help your customers make smarter decisions. The list goes on. These are all excellent social media choices: some are complementary, some are exclusive. Sort out what you want to do first, then pick the technology that drives your business forward.

Likewise, dig into your audience. Ask questions, or do a survey. Remember, the 45 to 54 female demographic uses social media very differently the 45 to 54 male or 35 to 44 female does. While social media is only part of what should be in your toolbox, you’ll still be able to use it better by first understanding who will be participating. For a quick look at social media consumption and participation differences in broad demographic groups, look at the great profile tool that “Groundswell” authors Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff have made available.

Once you’ve tied your technology to your strategy and it’s synced with your audience’s behaviors, how do you measure it? The social Web is fundamentally measurable; the trick is in knowing where to look. On the social Web, look to the conversations, and hook up with a service like that offered by Nielsen BuzzMetrics, Cymfony, or Techrigy. Closer to home, tap your Web and your purchase funnel analytics: time spent and bounce rate are surrogates for influence, while the comment ratio on your blog — or the ones sending you customers — can serve as an engagement indicator. Actual conversions speak for themselves, and tying them to conversation measures and Web analytics culled from your commerce pipeline will give you a decent chance of determining a real ROI (define).

The data is there. And just like taking the time to build a solid strategy aligned with your business objectives and audience behaviors, digging in and measuring — rather than chalking the whole thing up to experimenting — will actually take you a long way down the road to reliable measures and a whole lot of experience that will prove useful later.

Don’t shortchange your own judgment: your experience and intuition as a marketing professional count for a lot, especially in uncharted waters. Though we too seldom encourage, much less reward, our inner voice, realize that it’s an asset too. If something seems wacky or your main driver for jumping on the social Web is that “everyone else is doing it,” push back a bit and ask a few more questions. Ultimately, the truth reveals itself. So too, you’ll find your way on the social Web.

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