What’s Next in Social Marketing? (Spoiler Alert: Real ROI)

I co-founded a social marketing company in 2006. It wasn’t quite called “social” then (it was called “web 2.0”), but then, in 2007, the feeds and widgets of web 2.0 turned into the streams, tabs, and apps of social media and a whole wave of social marketing solutions was born from that shift.

Things have shifted again.

The first wave of social marketing innovation is complete, confirmed by the recent acquisitions of Buddy Media, Wildfire, Vitrue, Context Optional, and Involver. These are all great, innovative companies that hit their stride by addressing that shift back in 2007. And now they’re all being integrated into more traditional CRM and CMS solutions.

Social Marketing’s Heritage: Fan Acquisition, Conversation, and Contests

To illustrate the new shift that is happening in the market now, it helps to look back at the dynamics that defined the “Class of 2007” social media marketing solutions (SMMS):

  • Tech landscape. Largely Facebook pages, tabs, and FBML apps.
  • Marketing focus. Get fans, create conversation on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Social content. Mostly text posts and Facebook tab apps/widgets.
  • Business goals. Maximize the number of fans, followers, likes, and comments (drive mindshare).

In this first wave, a typical brand playbook for social marketing went something like this:

  1. Create a Facebook page.
  2. Run contests and ads until you have 1 million fans.
  3. Post on your wall and tweet twice per day.

…and redirect questions about “measurable ROI” by focusing instead on “earned media” and “engagement.”

Don’t get me wrong. This was the right playbook for the first wave. And in many ways it has established the “table stakes” for brands’ participation in social marketing. But it’s no longer a real competitive advantage. The game has changed again.

Social Marketing’s Future: Real Revenue Impact From Engaged Social Customers

This new wave is driven by brands’ need to derive meaningful business value from their social customers, presence, and marketing efforts. To paraphrase what I hear from most CMOs talking about their social efforts today: “I’ve got a team that spends all day posting, tweeting, and pinning. Where’s the return?”

And a whole crop of new solutions is emerging to answer that challenge. These companies combine social marketing and social commerce capabilities to link social product discovery (in places like Pinterest) to actual purchasing online and in-store.

In contrast to the first shift, these are the market dynamics that characterize this new class of solutions:

  • Tech landscape. A wide range of social and mobile platforms: HTML5, Open Graph, Google+, Pinterest, and Instagram, as well as Facebook and Twitter.
  • Marketing focus. Product discovery, engagement, and commerce impact.
  • Social content. Rich images, videos, apps, and social streams.
  • Business goal. Drive revenue from engaged social customers.

These new solutions represent not only a more diverse set of technologies and formats, but also a much keener focus on creating real, measurable value from social marketing efforts. For a glimpse into the future, take a look at what sites like Pinterest, The Fancy, and Fab are doing on the consumer side – and social marketing tools that focus on connecting social product discovery to purchasing decisions, online and off.

The Path to Social ROI: How We Get There

From the marketer’s standpoint, the key theme in this shift is social activation. How many total fans or followers a brand has amassed in the first wave is important, but it’s less important than how many of those social customers are actively:

  1. Engaging with their content and exploring their products.
  2. Amplifying their messages and marketing via sharing and participation.
  3. Converting to purchase online or in-store, generating real revenue.

This isn’t a new idea – social marketers have been talking about “activation” from the beginning. However, until recently it has been difficult for them to apply significant budget and effort beyond the “conversation” stage. With recent changes in both the technology landscape and social customers’ engagement with rich product content, the activation opportunity has arrived.

We can see the seeds of the solutions to come in the companies that are innovating quickly in the fields of social promotion and social commerce. Watch this space in the months to come, as the “Class of 2013” is right around the corner.

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