Social Media: Seduced by the New?

We’ve been privileged and challenged by a steady stream of new and hot technologies and communication channels in digital marketing. Each new star garners outsize attention from the media as marketers, educators, and agencies desperately try to stay abreast or get ahead of yet another new opportunity.

For that brief shining moment, both fads and legitimate strategies and tactics can take on celebrity status while other, equally legitimate strategies and tactics are temporarily displaced. But “hot” shouldn’t be a factor in rationale decision making or budget allocation unless it’s the kind of hot that creates audience momentum and true marketing opportunity.

Often that isn’t the reason marketers are so keen to try the new, however. They succumb to the media hype or organizational pressure to be an early adopter. They assume that others know better than they do and follow competitors.

They yearn to be a trendsetter. They crave the attention and case studies that may follow a unique marketing approach. Agencies may want to impress their clients with their prowess with the newest gadget or hold off contenders threatening to take their clients.

Sometimes the motivation is appropriate and clear. Sometimes the new is a true marketing opportunity that either aggregates relevant audiences or opens new communication opportunities with them. Sometimes it makes perfect sense to move quickly to leverage a new opportunity.

In the real world, however, budgets are often fixed and trying the new becomes a zero-sum game with programs that may have been honed for years to deliver optimal ROI (define). So when does it make sense to steal from the known to take a risk with the new?

Admittedly, making rational decisions amid the hype and without experience to guide efforts is difficult. Each brand’s case is unique, requiring a customized analysis of opportunity, environment, resources, competition, and a host of other factors. New tactics are often missing the guidance of relevant history and example.

A rational framework is required to assess a new entrant’s potential contribution to an existing program. Some degree of risk is always inherent but can be managed by aggressive optimization and frequent, regular analysis against agreed success metrics. What you should be watching isn’t the new program’s results but the overall impact this new mix is having against marketing or business goals.

Social Media Is Different

Two things set the newest thing, social media, apart from many prior new tactics.

First, it was quickly wrapped up in an understandable and useful framework. Courtesy of Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff and their book, “Groundswell,” new social media users could immediately apply social media tactics using the POST methodology, which emphasizes what it should: unique audience characteristics and business objectives.

Second, social media really does describe and open new communications opportunities and provides new access to new audiences. It’s a departure from other recent advances in digital marketing; it’s not simply a tactic applied to audiences but a mode of facilitating interactions within the audience and between the audience and the brand for a much broader set of possible business objectives.

Strapped marketing budgets often require that something be sacrificed or downsized to make room for the important examination and implementation of a social media strategy. The effect of that tradeoff isn’t yet clear and will likely be masked by the overall economic pressure most marketers are confronting this year. It’s also likely that when you move budget from acquisition- or conversion-based programs to social media, you’re also serving different business objectives, creating an apples-to-oranges comparison of results on budget spend.

What’s Next?

Remember, everything old was once new and that there are very few real game changers, even within the digital realm. Social media might just be one. It has managed to change and extend business objectives to include listening and engaging in very different ways from past marketing efforts. That clearly gives it star power and a legitimate claim to the limelight — for now.

In the end, the only star power that means anything is that which supports defined business objectives, be they apples or oranges. If the newest opportunity doesn’t meet those criteria, it should be ignored — no matter how shiny and enticing it is.

Join us for a one-day Online Marketing Summit in a city near you from May 5, 2009, to July 1, 2009. Choose from one of 16 events designed to help interactive marketers do their jobs more effectively. All sessions are new this year and cover such topics as social media, e-mail marketing, search, and integrated marketing.

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