Social Media Marketing for Beginners

Companies that ignore social media do so at their peril.

That theme was repeated during four panel discussions this week at SES San Jose, where experts in social media and search marketing offered practical advice about how businesses should approach this evolving channel.

“Five of the top 10 sites are social media. You need to go where the people are,” said Rob Key, CEO of Converseon, a social media marketing agency.

As confusing, challenging, or silly as “pokes” and “tweets” may sound, businesses that avoid social media were equated to those that thought the Internet was a fad back in 1998. After listening to people in the audience and chatting with others between sessions, though, I began to understand obstacles that must be overcome. At large companies, it’s not clear who is supposed to marshal resources from different divisions. At small companies, one person may already be wearing too many hats.

What’s a marketing executive to do?

Learn From Failure

Take EF Education, which operates language learning programs and educational tours. It built an application called Global Footprint for students to show on a digital map where they’ve traveled. Problem was, no one used it, said Erik Qualman, EF’s global vice president and a Search Engine Watch Expert. “It was a field of nightmares. We built it and no one came,” he said.

What went wrong with Global Footprint? “We were treating it like a direct response [vehicle],” he said. EF Education asked people for more information than they wanted to share before they could use the application.

In the meantime, not one — but two — other businesses developed Facebook applications to enable Facebook members to identify the places they’ve visited around the world. TripAdvisor’s Cities I’ve Visited has 1.5 million active users monthly, while Where I’ve Been has 1.3 million.

Despite its setback, EF Education didn’t give up on social media. It developed another application that enables people who’ve signed up for an EF program to find out who else is traveling to the same city — and connect with them beforehand.

Qualman said he should have learned from a past experience. In the late 1990s, he was at AT&T when it built a portal that included such information as weather and sport scores and gave people the ability to pay their bills. “We learned that all customers wanted was their phone bill,” he said.

The lesson? “Figure out what it is you offer, and go for that,” he said.

SEO in Social Media

When it comes to making things interesting, not everyone agreed on approaches.

For instance, Brent Csutoras, an online marketing consultant, advised businesses to get creative to encourage link building. A case he pointed to: publishing a headshot and name of a 28-year-old Singapore man.

What was the big deal? The fellow’s name is Batman Bin Suparman. In social media circles, Suparman was described as a “Singapore superhero” and “quite possibly the best name EVAR.” The offbeat campaign sent 8,000 inbound links to a Web site that Csutoras created for research and development. Inbound links can enhance a Web site’s position on a search engine results page.

Liana Evans, director of Internet marketing at KeyRelevance, argued against courting inbound links aggressively in social media. “It’s like SEO [search engine optimization] pissing in a pool. You don’t want to pollute that,” she said. Instead, Evans said a brand’s focus should first be on encouraging a conversation with its customers. “Links are a byproduct of social media. Links will happen.”

Take Baby Steps

Businesses were advised to start out small in social media, taking some of these first steps:

  • Have an action plan. “It doesn’t have to be a tome,” said Kendall Allen, a digital marketing consultant. Let’s say one staff person devotes half her time to a social media strategy, and an application or blog takes off. Then the company might consider adding a person to assist.

  • Set up a barebones profile to claim your company name before someone else does, said Andy Beall, blogger at Marketing Pilgrim. (Is there a name for the social media equivalent of cybersquatting? “Social squatting,” perhaps?)
  • Another first-timer favorite: develop a video and post it on YouTube. “Not only does YouTube come up in search engine results, [a video] is inexpensive,” said David Synder, cofounder of Search & Social, a consultancy. Plus, YouTube shows how many people view a video and makes it easy to post comments.
  • Don’t try to create a new community, especially if one already exists offline. That was the case with Military.com, an online community that worked with Buzzlogic, a company that helps find influential people participating in relevant social media and blogs. From there, Military.com ran ads on 250 blogs to promote DoD Buzz, an online publication affiliated with Military.com for people working on defense contracts in procurement and acquisition.
  • Be patient. This is an emerging media. One audience member said he was frustrated by people on Facebook who poked him and sent unwanted virtual gifts and applications, activities that can be initiated on the social network. Brady Lauback, a Facebook staffer in the audience, pointed out that the social network site took a revolutionary step last year when it opened up its platform to third-party developers. Since that time, he said Facebook has taken steps to improve the platform for its users, including the establishment of a quality score system for applications.
  • Put your energies into one platform rather than spread yourself too thin among many sites. “Social is not something you are going to do as one of 10 things for the day,” said Csutoras. “You need to be involved. If you don’t have that much time, pick one community that entertains you and makes you happy in the process of marketing.”

    Marketing Pilgrim’s Beal put it this way: “Like a kid in the candy store, pick your favorite piece of candy.”

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