Getting Started with Social Marketing

Yesterday I was in a room with about 15 very smart people at a large insurance company. Clearly most of them liked the idea of reaching out to consumers via social marketing. However, they admitted they had done little to nothing thus far. Reservations and questions included, "We're not hip, how do we engage with audiences?" "We don't have anything budgeted." "How does social marketing integrate with our other campaigns?" and "We don't think it would drive sales, so it's hard to justify the cost."
Many companies that I work with are intrigued by social marketing - as an idea. As a practice, many remain skeptical or hesitant. Often their hesitancy is for very good reasons, as with the insurance company. However, as I've said before, consumers are already out there - interactions between consumers are taking place whether or not the company is participating. Below are some simple actions to start down the path to social marketing in such a way that minimizes cost and risk, and maximizes positive interaction with consumers. Jupiter and Forrester (as well as several good bloggers) have posted lists similar to this one in the past. But social marketing is still new, so I think a quick review is a good idea.

- Start listenting. Either using search engines to type in your own company and product names or those of your competitors, see what links come up first. Do they include product reviews, blogs or comments? If so, see if you notice common threads. For extra credit, retain the services of a buzz monitoring company to help you create a more complete understanding of what consumers are already saying.
- Tap your own databases to understand what your best customers think about you. Use email and surveys to find out what makes you special, and if your best customers fall into specific categories such as small business owners, new parents, camping enthusiasts, etc.
- Form a short list of topics that covers both what people are saying about you and what your best customers care about. If they overlap, you've got your starting subject matter, if they don't, decide which seems to be the most positive and go with that.
- Start small on your own site. There is a reason why blogs are the most popular social marketing tactic. They allow you to control content and place it on your own site. Additionally, you get some improved SEO. Remember that only a small group will read the blog, most likely your best customers and other enthusiasts. Make sure you ask them what they want to read about and post to the niche, not the masses.
- Simple integration with other campaigns can make it easier to justify social tactics. Adding a widget to a display campaign is a great way to increase viral behavior and can function as a test without blowing your display budget.
- (Yes, you've hear this before.) Align your goals with measurement. If your goal is to directly drive sales, then social marketing tests will not fare very well. Social marketing works best for branding, buzz and driving intent. To really measure ROI, you need to start thinking about where people go after they see your social marketing, perhaps to search engines or your own website. This is where you can start measuring incremental value.