How Social Media Marketing Works

December 1, 2017
Peter McEllhenney

Social media marketing is a powerful tool because there are enormous numbers of people spending enormous amounts of time on platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.

At the same time, social media is a tricky marketing tool. The essence of social media is that it allows you to have one-on-one conversations with people on a massive scale. The fact the social media is a conversation platform is one of the reasons traditional marketing and advertising messages are a bad fit for it and organizations need to adapt their strategies appropriately.

Social media also allows people to seize control of the conversation about your business or organization from you and make that conversation much bigger. They can talk about things you like (which is great) as well as things you don’t like (which ain’t so great).

Finally, social media is tricky because it makes many businesses ask, “What am I really going to get from this?” Let’s answer the return-on-investment question first.

What Results Can You Expect from Social Media Marketing?

Social media has the potential to get your business enormous amounts of free attention (both positive and negative). This free attention comes from “going viral” which is when something you post is so interesting or relevant or engaging or entertaining or provocative that it generates a large self-sustaining conversation online involving large numbers of people.

When a business or organization is positioned to capitalize on the attention they earn with their viral posts or conversations, the results can be tremendous. Think of the ALS Association’s “Ice Bucket Challenge” in the summer of 2014 to raise money to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The New York Times reported that the Association received $41.8 million in donations from more than 739,000 new donors in less than 30 days because of the challenge.

This is a fantastic result. It is also a very rare one. Most posts on social media get modest amounts of attention and reaction – if they get any attention or reaction at all. Further, the posts that do get attention and reactions do not necessarily earn a lot of conversions for the organization. Sometimes they do. Often they don’t.

So the realistic results that most businesses can expect from social media are increased top-of-mind awareness and some increased engagement if the businesses implement a proactive social media strategy and remain committed to this strategy consistently over time. The ROI on top-of-mind awareness is very hard to measure, as I discussed in my previous post about email marketing.

So how do you get this top of mind awareness? Let’s talk about that next. And keep one key point in mind. The ways you interact with people in person are the ways you should interact with people on social media. That is – the rules of face to face conversations apply to online conversations too.

You Need Social Media Followers Who Want to Follow You

The first thing to say is that the only people on social media who are valuable to your organization are the people who are genuinely interested in what you do. They have to want to follow you. These people typically have a relationship with you, and relationships typically take time to build.

Let’s consider two over-simplified examples. Pretend Facebook is like a neighborhood picnic (which it is in many ways) and LinkedIn is like a networking event (which it also is in many  ways).

If I go to a picnic, introduce myself to forty new people, and say “Hi. My name’s Pete. Great to meet you. Let’s be friends!” does this mean I have forty new friends?  No it doesn’t. More likely it means I have zero new friends and several new people hoping they don’t run into me again.

If I go to a networking event, hand out my card to forty people in the room and say, “Great to meet you. Let’s do business!” does this mean I am about to get forty new clients? No it doesn’t. More likely it means I am about to get zero new clients and my forty business cards will be recycled the moment people get back to their offices.

Now there is nothing wrong with proactively seeking out new followers on social media, just like there is nothing wrong with looking for new friends or new clients. But asking random strangers to instantly become your friend or your customer ain’t the way to do it. Because they won’t.

Your best source of new followers are your existing customers and clients. That is, people who already have a relationship with you. You can also get new followers by advertising for them or making a offer to them. It’s just that next you must build a relationship with these followers and give them compelling reasons to keep following you if you ultimately hope to turn some of them into customers. How do you do that?

Have the Conversations Your Followers Want to Have

The word conversation is again important here. You want to have interesting or relevant or useful or engaging or entertaining conversations on social media with your followers, just like you would in person at a picnic or networking meeting. If you don’t, people will unfollow you just like they will tune you out at a party or event.

These conversations should always be relevant to what you do. These conversations can turn into a sales conversation. But these conversations should never start with a sales pitch. And that’s because the rules for selling on social media are basically the same as the rules for selling in person.

Take for example, the shoe store Bus Stop in my neighborhood.  When Bus Stop posts a picture on their Facebook page with the note “New shoes from one of our favorite designers!” everyone following them understands those shoes are for sale at the store and Bus Stop wants you to buy them. Just like if you walked into the store and saw the shoes on display you would understand the shoes are for sale.

What Bus Stop doesn’t know is if you are interested in those shoes, and they should not try to sell them to you unless you give them a sign that you are.

If you walked into the store and a sales person walked up and said, “We just got in these gorgeous new shoes. They cost $129.00. Buy them!” your reaction would probably be a polite – or not so polite – version of “Get out of my face.”

On the other hand, if you walked into the store, picked up the shoes, and said “I love these!” then you would expect the sales person to talk to you about the shoes. Offer to help you try them on. Tell you the price.

The same dynamics apply to conversations on social media. Don’t try to sell somebody something until they give you a sign they might want to buy. Take the conversation step by step. Listen. And have the conversation the other person wants to have – not the conversation you want to have.

Two Caveats About Sales Pitches on Social Media

First, I do think you can sometimes make direct sales appeals on social media – especially if you are having a sale or have a particularly good offer or a special event to announce. Something your followers would really want to know about. You should just not do it very often. I think 20% of the time at most and I would do it less.

Second, my sales pitch advice does not apply to paid ads on social media. People expect ads to sell them and they don’t necessarily see advertising as conversations coming from a person. The posts you make to your followers are conversations coming from you however. So be gentle and tread lightly.

Social Media Marketing Is a Double-edged Sword. Watch Out for That Second Edge

Finally, it is essential to point out that social media marketing can also be harmful to your business. You can go viral for something bad – think of the video of the older man being dragged off a United Airlines flight – as well as for something good. And you can have bad conversations on social media just as easily as you can have good ones.

So there are two important basic things to do. First, create a content outline of what you will talk about on social media – and only what you will talk about – and how you will talk about it – and only how you will talk about it – and then stick to the plan. This should be a plan focused on the key messages of your organization and only those. And this plan should have a long list of the things you do not discuss.

Second, do not argue with people on social media. If someone posts a criticism or complaint about your business, acknowledge them, move the conversation out of public view, and work to address their problem. Most people who complain simply want to be heard – expect to be ignored – and are pleasantly surprised when they are not. And as we all know, effectively addressing a complaint often makes people more likely to do business with you again in the future.

A small number of people complain because they love to complain and will never be satisfied. Don’t argue with these people online. Some others are trolls trying to upset you. (They might also be you competitors pretending to be an angry customer.) Don’t argue with these folks either. What they want is attention and reactions and to make you look bad by getting you to argue back. The best thing to do is not give them the things they want.

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