The Five Essential Elements of Effective Social Media Marketing

Social Media Marketing

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.

About the Author: Brian Clark is the founding editor of Copyblogger, and co-founder of Teaching Sells and Lateral Action.

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Reader Comments (48)

  1. says

    All great points — I’d just add that most of all, Social Media Marketing is effective just because of the fact that the technology is effective enough to begin engaging people according to their own behavior and thought patters within their peer group — not as a workaround to ‘that’s how the system works’

  2. says

    In 1994, a friend of mine said, “Without links there is no web.”

    Another friend replied, “Without conversation, there are no links to share.”

    We all worked at CompuServe at the time. The online world was exploding and we were watching as that very precious online commodity called -conversation- began die.

    One thing that made CompuServe special (besides the hefty price tag) was the community built around the conversations taking place in the forums. The best forums were not just message boards, they were communities with moderators who knew how to work a room much in the manner you describe above.

    I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to see conversation come back to the forefront again.

    Great post, Brian!

  3. says

    Wasn’t it 10 years ago cluetrain was published? I recall being at an InternetWorld conference in Los Angeles when it first came out.

  4. says

    Well said Brian. Conversing about conversation… incestuous? Yes. Necessary? If you want to actually figure out the method of this social media hysteria, absolutely. And I think that is what’s going to make the difference between those that have an impact and those that don’t.

  5. Selina says

    It amazes me the amount of times I have come across disparaging comments posted by users regarding a product a service, and no answer from the company!! I always think, shouldn’t that be someones job, to scan these conversations, and respond? And i mean really respond, not put out some stiff press release.

  6. says

    Great, awesome, excellent post. A wonderful reminder about how so many, myself included, still get it wrong sometimes about the real power and benefit behind social media marketing. Bring on the conversation!

  7. says

    I have to be the curmudgeon here.

    The post is EXCELLENT. But it seems to me that these points apply to all internet marketing, and in some cases offline marketing as well.

    I continue to love the concept of social media marketing but wonder why we had to give it a unique name. It’s what we’ve been doing for hundreds of years…

  8. says

    Social Media Marketing has been around for a long time.

    In my opinion…

    Using the Internet as the media to “carry the conversation” and be interactive with your audience is simply the “Web” developing into its fullest potential as an interactive media form.

  9. says

    It really is important what people say about your company, rather than what your company says. Who would one rather believe, hundreds of customer reviews? Or the company. If their is a conflict of opinion, then of course most, if not all consumers, would side with their peers. Nice work!

  10. says

    @Ian, IMO, the primary difference with SMM is the potential for many-to-many distribution of your content.

    Absolutely, most of the content and techniques that work in IM and offline will also work in SMM. (Sometimes some tweaking is necessary, the “rules” are a little different in each space.) But the architecture of the tools makes the distribution look different.

    @Joseph, I feel the same way. What’s labeled as “social media,” for me, is just the natural maturing of the ‘net. Not that the process is complete (I’m not sure we’ve even reached Ugly Adolescence yet), but these patterns have been in place from the beginning.

  11. says

    Great article – many people are apprehensive about embracing social media marketing as it is hard to measure. However if done properly, it can be VERY effective – people are just calling it quits these days due to improperly implementing it.

  12. says

    Social media marketing is just word of mouth, but at the speed of the space shuttle. To diss it prematurely is to toss your hammer in the garbage dump just as you start to build the house.

    Good post. First, I agree that there are few people within any given market who want to “interact” with a brand. The cool thing is that those few who do are usually market influencers, those who will use their own communication skills (on blogs, MySpace, etc) to tell stories about your brand, good or bad. So social media for influencer communication alone is worth the effort.

    Second, the news media read corporate blogs. ‘nough said.

    Third, one of the positive developments stemming from Cluetrain and other movements demanding authenticity is that even corporate leaders are letting their hair down a bit. This informal realism helps readers of blogs relate to the brand through a real person, who is probably (if the blog is well done, see point 5 above) more interesting than the brand he/she represents. A little of the personality that comes through the blog rubs off onto the abstract brand, and both the professional writing the blog and the brand benefit.

  13. says

    Excellent insights — social media marketing is in its infancy at best, and bloggers are working out the bugs and redefining the arena as they go. It’s pretty cool to be aware of this evolving new landscape.

    Also: Your remark that many of these conversational elements associated with Web 2.0 were created by direct marketers many moons ago — as a vet from the direct marketing world, I have always found may similarities between good DM writing and good web writing — you have to grab your audience in 5-seconds, the time it takes to get from a mailbox to a garbage can.

  14. says

    It’s a balancing act. Social media is a part of the puzzle. But, excellent point about the conversation. It doesn’t matter where you have it, just have it. Tell your story in a way that encourages people to repeat it on the web or face to face.


  15. says

    Well, I may need some guidance here. I’ve tried social media. I see where you can network and interact, I see where this can be a good thing. But, for me, I find it a hassle and frankly boring to keep up with people and their “conversations.” Am I missing something? I genuinely have no interest in using them. I try, then quickly loose all interest and never use the media site for months. I can’t imagine going online every night to Tweet or Plurk about anything and everything. I find that almost annoying. Is my perspective wrong? I want to do all I can to generate readers and customers, but is social media necessary?

  16. says

    dang brian – great post man.

    i had a long talk to my friend about something similar last night. it’s very interesting to see how things will shake out in the next 6 months…

  17. says

    Thanks for sharing these points, Brian. I just finished reading Groundswell, by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff over at Forrester, and they make some similar categorizations.

    I agree with those like John G. and Jim who point out social media marketing is in its infancy. A month ago, Twitter was all the rage. Now, half the world is fed up with it. But it is a new tool, nonetheless, and once we figure out how to use this particular tool, we’ll be better able to decide where it fits in our toolboxes.

    Great discussion all around.

  18. says

    At the risk of being somewhat self-serving I have to point out that what makes this work is the ability to monitor social media (we’re in that space and offer a freemium version for anyone who wants give it a try). Tools are out there, originally designed for agencies but increasingly in use by all kinds of marketing people, that track sets of keywords across blogs, social networks, Twitter, UGC, etc. and provide the ability to analyze sentiment, demographics, influence etc.
    My usual caveat is: Don’t pitch, participate. And spend some time listening before you act.

  19. says

    loved this one, I have been using facebook allot lately. I know I should be using myspace too but I really am not a fan of them anymore. Takes an hour to add a friend or load a page in general. Facebook has really been cool with how quick you can move around and once you create a main profile, you can also set up a store page that you can use for brand awareness, etc.

  20. says

    Great stuff. Before social media a company would receive good and bad feedback via customer service telephone lines or the mail; where no-one else was able to share their experiences, etc. Now with social media, the platform is in place for people to interact with the company as well as other customers to share their experiences.

    Traditional media is still a viable option to get the word about your company and product but social media is where customers are and people will immediately rush to twitter or FB or a blog to share an experience about a company, especially bad, to get others to talk and not be alone.

    Failing to embrace social media is closed thinking and well will eventually lead to a closed business. Social media is here to stay just like the internet.

    @Adam is a perfect example of resistence. He has tried and is not interested in following conversations. Imagine a big company like a jetblue or pepsi not wanting to follow conversations and interact with customers.

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