Five Steps to Evaluate Social Media for Your Business Without the Hype!

The hype is what often kills any effort to incorporate social media into a marketing plan; and the hype has been huge. Expect the initial wave to die down, as serious marketers get serious about social media as a tool to listen to and communicate with the customer.

There are a lot of great articles on the web about social media; how to start it, how to convince the CEO you need it, how it is not a panacea for bad marketing; the list goes on and on. It’s getting a huge amount of attention and many people have developed strong opinions (read love/hate) about social media. Regardless of how you feel about it, it is a tool that needs to be as seriously evaluated as you would any new business initiative.

The best way to evaluate social media is to make a business case for using it. Use your existing business plan as your cornerstone. There are two areas where you will focus your efforts: marketing and customer service. By targeting prospects and customers you will be better able to evaluate its potential for a meaningful impact on the bottom line. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Do your Homework

First get the facts as you would any new initiative. This will form your summary overview to present to others in your organization, if you decide to move forward.

1) Gain a working understanding of the tools: Twitter, LinkedIn, Blog sites, Facebook, YouTube, SlideShare, Foursquare, Tumblr, etc. To monitor activity, popular tools are ViralHeat, Radian6, Spokesignal, etc. Each has its unique niche in the user community. Make sure you know the pros and cons of each. While I don’t normally recommend Wikipedia, it actually has a good section on application examples. Just wiki “Social Media” and you’re there. There are links from each example that provide more detail.

2) Understand the trends as they pertain to your demographic. It’s easy to find. Nielson puts out quarterly reports on social media as do other agencies. Put together a couple paragraphs and a chart or two, just enough to prove to yourself that social media is real and is actually used by your target demographic. The latest Nielson report for Q3 2011 can be found on their website.

3) Query at least 10 customers. This is key. Social media, used properly, is not about broadcasting commercials about your company; it’s about your customers. Talk with them. Where do they get their information? Would they visit a Facebook or LinkedIn group if you provided them with useful information or special coupons? What kind of information would they find useful? Make sure they are willing to join a LinkedIn group. Would they sign up for Twitter? Would they view a demo or training class over YouTube? This is important as you begin to build your communities. Users won’t connect if there is no value. You need to find the best way to encourage involvement.

4) Conduct a quick check on your competitors. What social media are they using?

Step 2: Insert Social Media into your Business Plan

This step is critical to assess the fit of social media within existing initiatives and to put it in its rightful place, alongside traditional tools.

1) Highlight all areas of the plan that touch on communications with prospects and customers. This is where your social media entrance points will be. As an example:

a. Customer communications: surveys, newsletters, focus groups, feed-back

b. Prospect communications: advertising, press releases, trade shows, TV spots, radio spots, e-mail campaigns

c. Although social media is not a replacement for any of these programs, it needs to be present along with these traditional communications tools so that it can be properly implemented and measured.

2) In each of these areas, insert the best social media tool to compliment or extend existing communications tools.

a. Example: As an extension to a newsletter sent to end users once a month, you might recommend a monthly WordPress blog, targeted to users. The blog can be set up to encourage responses and comments. It can be authored by one of your customer service reps or a technical person.

Each new blog can be announced via a LinkedIn group that is set up for end users only. It can also be posted as a link from your website. The value-add is that now you have a “circuit” that encourages discussion and interaction, in place of a single one way newsletter event.

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