The Many Faces of Social Media

As an industry, we’re writing thousands of articles a month exploring how marketers and business people can incorporate social media into their businesses. New books on the topic along with social media workshops and webinars are multiplying faster than rabbits and still we continue to pump out case studies and white papers to help frame this newest channel in a business environment that is simultaneously intrigued and confused.

While it does represent a significant shift in thinking for many business people, with all this academic and practical exposition, you would think that by now the mysteries would all be revealed in the glaring spotlight. I believe that part of the reason business is having trouble figuring out social media is because we continue to insist on thinking and talking about social media as one thing.

I’m reminded of the old fable about the blind man and the elephant. Depending on what part of the elephant the blind man touched, he made plausible but wildly divergent assumptions about the animal. The elephant’s ear and the elephant’s tail elicited very different stories. Likewise, social media promotional efforts vary greatly from social media customer service programs which are very different from social media engagement approaches. Each has distinct objectives, touches different parts of an organization, requires different skill sets to successfully employ, and is defined by different metrics and systems to track campaign performance.

Social media encompasses a diverse and flexible tool set that can be applied to support differing business and marketing objectives. In fact, social media efforts often call on budgets and teams that may have nothing to do with one another under different circumstances. The public nature of social media makes it a natural for a marketing or PR department land grab while the distributed nature of the output makes it hard to pin down to any one department. It’s much more productive to define the proposed social media program by the stated business objectives. After that is done, the program owners and all the tactical elements tend to fall nicely and rationally into place.

Social media as a promotional tool. Social media promotional efforts are often executed as contests or sweeps that employ social accounts like Facebook or Twitter to reach and engage targeted populations and encourage, even incent sharing. Usually run by the marketing department, their objectives can vary across a conversion spectrum that includes new customer acquisition, coupon or content downloads, e-mail opt-ins, plus many others. Marketing departments are charged with integrating these seasonal or occasional efforts with the other digital and offline components, if they exist, and managing the effort across social platforms.

Social media as a PR vehicle. PR professionals and departments have unique skills and experience handling crisis communications, working with executives to establish and direct corporate messaging, and in building media relationships. These skill sets have extended naturally into building blogger relationships. Often bloggers are a critical part of marketing efforts in social media, which makes this contested territory in social media.

Social media as a customer service extension. Some of the more famous and early case studies of successful social media use involve organizations like Comcast or Best Buy that integrated real-time communication channels like Twitter and Facebook with their customer service arms. By allowing consumers to choose their preferred communication style and channel, they emphasize that the customer is important. Staffing and reaction times are a constant challenge to meet the always-on and immediate response expectations that consumers hold in communications via social media. There is clearly cross-over here with PR and marketing in how messaging is delivered, especially with disgruntled consumers to deal with in a public forum.

Social media as a customer engagement vehicle. We’d all like our customers to interact frequently with our brands. Using social media to encourage repeat visits and participation with a group or with content or tools is a proven method to create consumer loyalty and advocacy. Building and nurturing that kind of interaction is becoming more and more difficult as consumer attention is fractured into ever more pieces as their choices explode. When nearly every brand they touch is clamoring for a piece of a consumer’s day across multiple channels, tools, and destinations, that consumer has to be selective to cope. Consumers increasingly turn to their social graph to help them curate the relevant and valuable content where they will invest their precious time. It’s up to the brands and marketers to carefully create valuable, sharable content and to nurture the networks that may adopt their content.

Social media is currently being used for many different business objectives and we have only begun to test the capabilities and opportunities it provides. Like the elephant, it can resemble an odd assortment of different shapes and sizes, textures, and appendages, but when taken together, it’s a powerful animal that leaves a big footprint.

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