Successful social media marketing requires purpose, knowledge, honesty.

Back in the mists of time, before we described memorable moments as ‘instagramable’, we called them something else: ‘kodak moments’. The kodak photography company did so well at associating its products with an action that they became synonymous, like hoovering, yo-yoing, and Facebooking. For a while, they must have seemed unbeatable to their competition, but in 2012 it filed for bankruptcy, and had to shed the camera business it was known for in order to continue.

images shared on my work Instagram

This precipitous fall came about because they didn’t innovate, and allowed themselves to fall behind market trends, always playing catch-up rather than blazing a trail. The same fate has befallen countless companies in many industries over the last 20 years, as the pace of change picks up, and digital business models render huge companies irrelevant seemingly overnight. In the media industry, huge players like the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph are in precarious financial circumstances, seeing their quality and reputations diminish, as outlets like Buzzfeed (once derided as a place to find pictures of cats) develop serious news muscle and gain important scoops.

In the face of this, it’s easy to panic, and hitch your wagon to the latest big thing, whether or not it’s actually right for your business. I’ve lost count of the number of times in recent years I’ve heard people say things like “we need a strategy for Vine” or “we need to do Snapchat” with a note of desperation in their voice, their only certainty a sense that they need to do something, anything to avoid being left behind.

And so the world is littered with abandoned Twitter accounts, cringeworthy corporate Instagrams (who can forget the Conservative party’s conference embarrassment?) and badly designed campaigns which go viral in all the wrong ways (the coke campaign where you could write your own name in springs to mind. Thousands of cans saying ‘share a coke with obesity’ were not the marketing department’s dream).

How can this be avoided, without becoming so risk averse that you end up failing by default? The answer is to apply three principles to your communications: purpose, knowledge, and honesty.

Purpose: know why you’re doing this

As my mother would say, “if all your friends jumped off a cliff would you do the same thing?”. Replace cliff with Snapchat and you have a question that far too few companies are asking themselves. Why do you feel the need to be on Snapchat? Because your competition is on Snapchat? Because your children are on Snapchat? Keep a tangible goal in mind.

It doesn’t have to be anything lofty or complex, it could be as simple as ‘I would like to showcase my company’s products to potential clients’, or ‘I would like to make it easier for c-suite executives to connect with peers’. Your goal needs to be something you can discuss in meetings and circle back to if you get distracted, which means ‘I am panicking about not connecting with the youth’ is not a useful goal.

Remember that social media channels are just tools; different tools will suit different jobs. If your aim can’t be achieved by this channel, set it aside until you have a suitable goal. It may be that some channels just aren’t useful for your business, and that’s okay. It’s better to do a few things well than everything badly.

Knowledge: understand your market

To make sure you are utilising social media channels effectively, you need to have two things clear in your mind: who your customer is, and who uses the social channel. All the best communications are purposeful, as we discussed above, and specific. If your customer is “anyone who might be interested” you are not being specific enough. Learn more about them, understand what they want from you, and you will be able to understand how to offer it to them.

When you know who your customer is (for instance, journalists with an interest in architecture) you can think about how to connect with them. This requires knowledge of what different social media networks are used for, and their uses and limitations. I run the social media accounts for the architectural practice I work at, and I used Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn, because my research shows our audience are on these platforms, and interested in using them to connect with us. It is true that our audience are also on Facebook and Snapchat, but when using those platforms, they are not looking to connect with brands like ours, so investing in them would be a mistake.

I split my efforts 50:30:10:10 between Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn to ensure that we expend most of our time connecting with our audience where most of them are. Over time, we review this. We will probably increase our presence on LinkedIn over time as it has evolved as a platform.

If you don’t know much about a platform, learn. Don’t just assume you understand it because you’re young or that you don’t need to understand it because you’re not. This relates to the next point.

Honesty: are you being humble and realistic?

The third string on your bow should be honesty. Social media’s currency is authenticity, and if you aren’t honest with your customer base, you won’t have it. “OMG we love our jobs!” will not go over well if you are announcing around of redundancies on your website. JP Morgan’s #ASKJPMorgan hashtag on Twitter was a disaster, filled with people saying “you foreclosed on my house. Can I have it back?”. I am sure the people at JP Morgan aren’t stupid, but I would guess that there wasn’t a culture of free and frank discussion in the meetings where this was planned. A warts and all ask me anything might work for the lead singer of a cool band, or a niche brand aiming to deepen their relationships with loyal clients, but it’s a bad idea if you’re struggling with controversy.

Similarly, as discussed in the coke incident above, content designed to be shareable and to go viral can go viral far more easily for the wrong reason than the right one. You need to consider how your company appears to those who haven’t drunk the Kool-aid as well as those who have before heavily promoting it in the public arena. There are always trolls, but if you’re a professional organisation promoting a brand (rather than a controversial freelancer, charity on a campaign, or political party) you should be looking for at least 75–80% positive responses. If your figures are way below this, you might want to reconsider your strategy, and take a hard look at yourself.

Similarly, if you are new to this game, be honest and open internally. Just because you’re the brand CEO doesn’t mean you know how to thread tweets, or why this is important if you have a longer statement than is possible in one tweet. Just because you think a hashtag is a great idea because your mind is pure and innocent, doesn’t mean it is. If you’re suggesting an official hashtag, do a quick search on it first and make sure it doesn’t stand for something you don’t want it do (the GASH conference on Global Atlantic Shale I attended springs to mind here). If someone who is your junior but more technologically switched-on than you suggests that you might not be hashtagging your tweets right, listen to them. (it’s “having a great time at #StirlingPrize 2017 with @RIBAawards” not #having a #great #time at Stirling #prize with Riba”. There is a right and a wrong in these circumstances).

It’s not rocket science

The principles above might seem daunting if social media isn’t something you’re familiar with, but really they shouldn’t be seen as different from how you would use any other communications channel.

When I was starting out in PR, a boss of mine scrawled the following on a Post It note and stuck it to my computer:

Who

What

Where

Why

How

“Any decent press release,” he said, “Needs to answer those questions. If it doesn’t, it’s no good, and if it can’t, it’s not news.” It was great advice, and to be honest it’s helpful in all of life (making a plan with friends, explaining a story to someone, booking a holiday, fighting a war… the list is endless).

Focus on that. Who are you targeting? What are you saying to them? Where are you saying it? Why are you saying it? How are you saying it?

My final piece of advice would be: little and often. If you’re a busy professional who’s been given social media as an additional responsibility, try to spend half an hour three days a week on it to start with to see how it’s going. If you’re looking to build your personal brand, do the same. A burst of activity followed by a conspicuous silence isn’t a good look, but you don’t have to slave over it.

Good sources of information on social media users:

The Pew Research Centre Social Media Update 2016

Smart Insights Global Social Media Research Summary 2017

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