Have you noticed all the skepticism lately about social media marketing?
I invited one of those skeptics to vent here on Copyblogger last week. Bob Hoffman is the CEO of a traditional advertising agency, and he raised some valid points about true interactivity online. Unfortunately, as many people ironically pointed out in the comments, Bob is short on answers.
The skepticism Bob and others have seems prompted by the overly enthusiastic promoters of social media and “conversational” marketing. The eagerness of the Marketing 2.0 crowd for a transition to conversation is being taken perhaps a little to literally (perhaps even by them).
The advertising and marketing veterans point to a lack of historical perspective and basic pragmatism among the disciples of the Cluetrain Manifesto (and despite my own pragmatism, I was one of the original signatories to that revolutionary missive). Competitive webmasters point out that the only websites wannabe social media consultants have ever built are the blogs where they endlessly converse with one another.
On the other hand, who can blame anyone for enthusiasm about what’s happening? Social media is a big deal, and it’s revealing a giant shift in media, marketing, politics, relationships and culture. Seasoned online marketers understand that while you won’t change human nature, there’s no doubt that business as usual is not going to cut it in this environment.
Both sides of the debate raise valid points, which means both sides are partly wrong. Rather than take sides, I’ve decided to share the five elements that guide how I build new media assets powered by social media, and let you decide for yourself what you think.
1. Observing Conversation
In a commercial context, the most important conversation is not between seller and buyer, but between prospective and existing buyers. These people are now media participants and producers. They’re out there talking about your company, your competitors, and your market space, and you need to pay close attention.
The foundational element of marketing is market research. I don’t care how great your content or copy is, if you don’t know the story your ideal prospects want to hear, you’re most likely going to tell a story that misses the mark.
In that regard, social media represents the most incredible market research environment ever known. Sure, you can conduct surveys and focus groups, and people will often tell you what they think you want to hear. But observing what people say to each other in an unfiltered social environment is likely much more authentic.
2. Sparking Conversation
More important than any single conversation you have with a prospect or customer, and way more important that what you say about yourself, is what others are saying about you. The conversations you spark lead to links, subscribers, search engine rankings and sales, and there are entrepreneurs right now building profitable businesses by attracting social media attention with great content and remarkable products and offers.
In “real” life, a great host knows how to get conversation going, and then steps back to watch what develops. Beyond the word-of-mouth benefits of starting a conversation that revolves around you or your company, you can likewise learn a great deal by observing the results of the conversations you start.
Someone on Twitter expressed surprise that Bob’s cranky post appeared on Copyblogger, and wondered why I gave him a platform. Like I said, Bob doesn’t have all the answers, but he did ask smart questions, and I appreciate that. But why else do you think I did it? Enjoy the conversation, I’ll wait.
3. Conversational Content
Sparking a conversation in social media isn’t all that tough. Getting people talking in a way that leads to an ongoing relationship with prospective customers and clients, however, takes a bit more contemplation.
Content marketing is the most effective form of online promotion I’ve found in a decade, and social media makes it easier for exceptional content to spread and attract than it ever was during the earlier years of the Web. Content marketing is relationship marketing, and providing reader/listener/viewer-focused content with a conversational tone allows your prospective customers and clients to relate to you as someone they know and look forward to hearing from.
Make no mistake… you’re still broadcasting one to many, similar to the dreaded “mass” media, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. When you blog, email, podcast, or vlog to an opt-in audience, you have an opportunity to deliver your messages and story on a scale that makes it worth doing. The key is for people to feel as if you’re speaking to them one-on-one, even though practicality makes that impossible.
4. Interactive Conversation
Here’s the part of social media marketing that drives much of the skepticism, and perhaps where conversational marketing evangelists get way too literal. Yes, the Internet is interactive; to purport otherwise is ludicrous. And yes, people can leave comments, riff on your content in their own written, audio or video broadcasts, vote, bookmark, Tweet, and on and on.
Going back to point one, people definitely desire interaction with one another, and as social media becomes less novel and more mainstream, the level of illuminating conversation for marketers to observe will only grow. Whether “normal” people desire interaction with brands and corporations is the real sticking point. I’d say most people do not want to converse with companies, and if a bunch of people desire to tell a corporation something, it likely has a public relations disaster brewing.
But the people who do want to interact with your company are important despite their relative tiny numbers. You can glean potential buying objections from their questions, and consider changing practices based on complaints (but be careful there—the vocal minority often fails to reflect the views of the rest of the audience). The most important part of “actual” online conversation is how you respond, because there are way more lurkers than speakers, and they’re influenced by the interaction that does occur.
5. Conversational Copy
Finally, it comes time to get people to take action. While social media marketing with content and conversation will bring you business, you’ll get more business the better you expressly point out the benefits of buying. More importantly, you should expressly ask people to do business with you.
The model for online conversational copy dates back almost a century, and it was developed by direct marketers. While direct response copy is often associated with hype and snake oil, a student of the discipline will have also seen countless amazing stories written in an authentic, human voice. And that’s what works.
If I may be so bold, copywriting skills are the essential foundational skill for all aspects of social media marketing. That’s the reason I chose copywriting as the topic for my contribution to the industry conversation (more on that below). Not because I’m the greatest copywriter in the world, but because it’s that important (and no one else was doing it).
The Conversation About Conversation
Are we talking to ourselves? Yep, and that’s a good thing.
The reason there’s so much incestuous discussion about social media marketing is because we’re at the forefront of a new media industry. We’re the people who are shaping the future, and it’s important that we hash it out the old-fashioned way–with discourse, debate, and disagreement.
Do you think the initial players in radio talked and fought amongst themselves? What about film, network television, cable television, Betamax, VHS, CD, DVD, HD?
Of course they did and still do, as it should be.
So, let’s keep talking.