Social media: where are you now?

Fabio Torlini, marketing director at Rackspace Hosting, offers his advice on how to best utilise social media.

Fabio Torlini

1. Consider the benefits

Many industry gurus have written about the shift toward social media apps, like Facebook, Twitter and Huddle.

Analyst heavyweights Gartner even recently predicted that the business benefits of social software platforms will lead to email being replaced as the primary means of communication by 2014, with a fifth of organisations using them as their key communication medium by this date.

However, this is not a race to eradicate email – especially in the business world. The truth is that email is still the preferred way to communicate within organisations, however social media is quickly gaining speed from a customer perspective.

Different people prefer different means of communication based on where they are and what they are doing, so it’s important to consider if social media is the right tool to reach your customers effectively.

Some audiences prefer to be communicated with via email, physical mail or telephone. Others prefer social media and utilise tools like Twitter and blogs for customer service where communication needs to be fast and easily available. Other social media caters for publishing the latest information about companies which users are interested in following, such as financial or business information.

The key is to understand which communication tool or combination of communication tools are right for your customer’s needs, as well as offering them the opportunity to engage in dialogue with you as a brand.

2. Importance of Big Thinking

Businesses certainly shouldn’t embrace social media for its own sake – they need integrated communications. It’s more important to clearly understand your own audience and communications objectives and develop a strategy which may or may not include social media.

Whilst many savvy marketers have realised the benefits of social media, the first step should always be to understand audience behaviour and match communication channels to these behaviours.

Most organisations are tempted to jump on the social media bandwagon by creating a Facebook, Huddle or Twitter page, but need to take a step back and decide whether there is justification for doing so.

Marketers should consider:
-Does this channel communicate my messaging and reach my target audience effectively?

-Is social media right for the brand?

-Does a Facebook or Twitter account help generate leads?

-Is social media a preferred method of solving customer issues and reducing customer support calls?

-How can social media help build relationships with customers or prospects?

It is important to understand the limitations and pitfalls of the many different communication methods, rather than charging into social media.

Organisations often fail to recognise that social media is neither free nor easy. The social media tools may be free but the time investment required represents a very real labour cost. Similarly, it is easy to ’speak’ on social networks, but much, much harder to say something of value.

Smart marketers need to consider the optimal mix for meeting customer need and quality of communication balanced with relative cost – but this is an age-old problem.

Consider Vue Cinemas, which uses its website in a factual fashion to communicate cinema times, but also has a dedicated Twitter feed to engage with customers and discuss forthcoming films.

This can educate their community and allows them access to a dedicated communication channel. Increasingly, many businesses are creating VIP groups via Twitter, FourSquare or Facebook where special offers are only available to these regular or special clients.

Many marketers may be intimidated by the sheer number of social media outlets and groups available. They should draw on expert advice to help refine the channels they communicate through, prioritising factors such as audience, strength of focus or popularity.

It is also important to continuously audit audiences, as social media changes and evolves on a weekly, sometimes daily basis.

3. Calculating a Plan of Attack

Today, it can be just as important to communicate with customers through bloggers as it is to have effective email marketing campaigns.

It is simply a question of assessing effectiveness and relative influence. After all, both methods help people know your brand, but you need to determine which method will help reach the right people in the right way.

Many social media tactics are seen to have the advantage of speed; companies can help people instantly and quickly build online communities which will in turn support each other. Issues can sometimes be resolved faster over Twitter than via a call centre or web forum, although the latter choices may give more in-depth information on individual topics.

Speed can also work against marketers, as the trends and tools available change faster than most people can keep up with.

Fortunately, marketers don’t need to comprehensively understand all social media channels out there – they simply need to understand what it is, how it will communicate with an audience, and its current and likely future influence for your brand.

Again, marketers should not be afraid to ask for specialist external help to understand changing social media landscapes and organise monthly ’social media audits’ to stay on top of these changing communication methods.

If organisations can balance the right mix of communication techniques and master the ever-shifting landscape, success can come quickly. For example, ’Compare the Meerkat’ combines an unforgettable TV advert with a twitter feed which has gained almost 40,000 followers and a Facebook page with over 700,000 fans.

As long as marketers think carefully about their objectives, audience and manage the best mix of communication methods, using social media is no different to managing any other communications campaign.

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