Holding Social Media Marketing’s Feet to the Fire

Accountability is essential for any company that wants to be successful. Without it, there is no way to know whether what you’re doing is working or could be done better. In the competitive world of Internet retailing, razor-thin margins and fickle consumers make it even more important to ensure that every effort is contributing to the bottom line.

Marketing departments are typically well-versed in accountability, and traditional online channels like email marketing and search make it fairly easy for marketers to see how well their programs are performing against plan. The problem lies not with these established marketing channels, but with new ones like social media.

Marketers are so excited about social media that they are just throwing up unproven programs to see what sticks. While that made more sense a year or so ago — when the channel was brand new and tracking was elusive — it is now time to start holding your social media marketing efforts accountable.

Yes, the channel is still young, but there’s been a lot of progress in the past year — and that includes new social media marketing applications that can track performance all the way to the conversion. In other words, there is no longer any excuse. It’s time to set objectives for your social media marketing efforts, measure the results, and refine programs accordingly.

As you look to start to measuring, don’t get distracted with nebulous terms like “buzz.” You need to set concrete goals. Limiting your social media objectives to user experience and engagement is shortsighted. The rise of the social Web has caused an explosion in the importance of word-of-mouth marketing, and you need to find a way to facilitate it to drive measureable sales. In case there is any question about the potential, a recent Arbitron and Edison Research survey found that 48 percent of Americans age 12 and older are now members of at least one social network.

So, how do you make social media marketing accountable? It’s true that the social Web has changed the way marketers assign value to customer relationships. Most marketers understand a consumer’s value to a brand as a mix of frequency of purchase, recency of purchase and value of purchase. The social Web takes a consumers’ value to the next level by making it extremely easy to share a brand experience with their networks in near real-time. The key is to tap into this with an accountable social media marketing program. Getting started comes down to following three strategies deeply rooted in direct marketing: measurement, targeting and incentivizing.

Strategy No. 1: Measurement

True accountability (social media or otherwise) requires a framework of metrics that can be measured, tracked, compared to benchmarks and analyzed over time. That means you need to define some KPIs (key performance indicators). There are three key ones to focus on for social media: reach, viral impact and monetization.

Reach: How many additional impressions will social channels provide to your program? This metric looks at how you’re tapping the power of the social Web to engage previously unreachable prospects to your brand message. Increasing your reach through social channels increases your brand’s credibility as new consumers are introduced to your brand by people they know and trust.

Viral Impact: What’s the level of engagement between an influencer (your customer advocating for your brand) and the members of their social graph? You need to identify your most valuable brand advocates — ones that actually drive actions and conversions from their networks.

Monetization: How is the program contributing to the bottom line? You can achieve this metric by associating every program with a call to action — whether it’s subscriptions to email lists, product purchases, signing up as a Facebook fan or downloading a free trial — and then assigning a value to it. It doesn’t have to always be a sale, but it should be a real value that can be defined and tracked.

Once you combine these three KPIs, you can have clear program success criteria that can be weighed based on a program’s objectives. For example, an awareness campaign might place more weight on reach and viral impact, while a direct response program might be heavy on monetization.

Strategy No. 2: Targeting

You can’t overlook the importance of targeting in social media. The number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers isn’t your most important metric. Creating a predictable program comes down to targeting.

You need to first understand who your most engaged customers are, and then which of them are willing to become an advocate for your brand. The fact is that not all customers are created equal on the social Web.

Your most valuable ones are those who have strong brand affinity AND are willing to share their positive opinion of your brand with their social graph.

Only by understanding this distinction can you create realistic goals for your program.

Strategy No. 3: Incentives

The social Web might seem like the Wild West, where anything goes, but social media marketing is subject to the same rules and limitations as more traditional marketing programs. You can’t just pray that something becomes “viral” — you need to create some predictability from incentives.

By incorporating relevant incentives for your social media marketing programs, you obtain predictability while also gaining the ability to control the level of activity. This isn’t some breakthrough concept; successful loyalty programs are all about incentives. The social Web just helps you take it to the next level with bi-directional incentives, which not only reward the influencers for inviting friends to participate in a brand’s program, but also reward the influencers’ friends for acting on the viral invitation.

The result is a win-win for everyone. Plus, programs that include bi-directional incentives perform 4X better than programs that motivate consumers to share out of the goodness of their hearts. Just be sure to make the incentives transparent; otherwise, the same viral effect that you’re trying to leverage could turn on you and hurt your brand.

In short, it’s time to make social media accountable. Social media marketing has come a long way in a short period of time, and that means new applications that will help you set objectives, measure success and optimize performance. Ultimately, being able to show the value that your social media programs provide to the organization is good for everyone — and might earn your efforts more respect and budget.

Sam Cece is CEO of StrongMail.

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