Social media is all the rage – it has been for almost a decade now. From the generation Y-ers who initially picked up on the pioneering social network Friendster back in 2002 to the new generation of socially networked seniors with Facebook friends galore, the world is now socially networked. Using social networks for marketing purposes, a practice more technically referred to as social media marketing or just SMM, is a young and rapidly evolving practice (as you may notice from the lack of detailed information in the Wikipedia entry on the subject). While the leveraging of social networks for marketing purposes is not a particularly new idea, companies have traditionally been slow to adopt social networking. While some companies have had overwhelming successes with SMM – such as Bio-Rad’s PCR song spoof of the Village People’s “YMCA” that went massively viral within the scientific community two years ago – most companies’ social media efforts, particularly those of small companies, are largely failures. In this post, I will address some of the basic yet important and often overlooked questions and challenges of social media marketing that many companies fail to address, as well as discuss some of the social media outlets and some of the specific concerns involving each.
Issue #1: Understand who you are trying to talk to
This is the easiest and least complex step and should be the first step as well, but nonetheless even this relatively simple issue gets overlooked sometimes. Simply ask yourself: “Who am I trying to communicate with?” If you are serving life science researchers generally, then the answer to this question will be broad – you’ll be communicating with research assistants and lab techs, PIs and professors, grad students and lab managers, procurement department employees, etc. They may be in academia, pharma / biotech, CROs, etc, etc, etc. This will likely make it easier to find your audience but may make it harder to connect with them since they’ll have diverse interests. Alternatively you may be focusing on a small subset – say, researchers in big pharma performing mass spectroscopy analysis of proteins. This kind of refined specification may make it harder to find your audience but will make it easier to connect with them since you will know their interests to some extent.
Issue #2: Understand why you are talking to them
An equally important and amazingly frequently overlooked question is “why”. Why are we trying to engage this audience? Do we want to get their opinions? Do we want to control or convey our brand image? Do we simply want to promote products and / or services to them? Don’t just answer yes or no to these questions – delve into them a bit. If you want to promote products to them, think about how you plan on doing so. Do you plan on offering exclusive promotions? Do you want to use social media as an outlet for conveying information on new products? Dig deep and think about what your goals are.
Issue #3: Understand how your audience uses any given social media platform
This is the #1 reason for failure of any social media marketing strategy. Companies fail to understand how the audience is using a particular platform. A related pitfall involves rolling out an identical engagement plan across all (read: “disparate”) platforms. While this is a complex issue and could be the subject of a book, allow me to give you a few things to remember. 1) Social Networks are your audience’s turf, not yours. Unlike your website, print or online advertisements, or just about any other marketing platform you utilize, you are not in control of a social network, and your audience is not there specifically to interact with you. You are both a guest and a member of a conversation, so act accordingly. Interact. Contribute. 2) You need to give people a reason to listen to you, and this reason has to be congruous with the reason that your audience is on a particular social platform in the first place. In other words, delivering value is not enough – you need to deliver value within the context of the audience’s presence on any given social network.
Issue #4: Resource your efforts appropriately
One of the great things about SMM is that social platforms are almost always free to use, but this doesn’t mean that an SMM campaign doesn’t require any significant amount of resources. While SMM can be significantly less expensive than other marketing outlets, social media marketing is not some simple endeavor that involves merely sending out an occasional tweet whenever you have a promotion. It requires forethought, planning, engagement, conversing, creating and delivering value, and all these things take time. Figure out where you can get the greatest returns from your social media marketing investment and focus on that. Only roll out a broad SMM campaign across many platforms if you have the time and budget to do so. As with other marketing endeavors, spreading your efforts too thin will lead to failure.
Brief comments about different social media platforms
Facebook – This is a purely social, mostly recreational platform. It’s a great place for strong consumer brands, but others can have difficulty connecting with their audience here. Remember that people go on Facebook for personal reasons and to make personal connections. If you’re going to connect to most scientists here, you’ll need to reach out to them not just as scientists, but as people.
Twitter – People express a variety of interests here, so listen to what your audience is saying and participate. Perhaps the greatest power of social media marketing via twitter is it’s search function. Connect with people who are talking about things that pertain to your company. Also, be sure to give your account some personality.
LinkedIn – You’re probably not going to pick up many customers here unless you’re doing higher-level B2B sales, but it is a great way to connect with potential business partners. Since your space on LinkedIn is your turf, so to speak, make the best of it. When presenting yourself on LinkedIn think of your company first, and your products as a function or extension of your company.
Forums – While not always thought of as a social network, the same rules apply. Forums can be great ways to find and convey messages to groups of researchers and scientists (and others) interested in a specific topic. Again, be engaging and be sure to add value to the conversation.
YouTube – Remember that after someone watches a video on YouTube, they’ll see “related videos”, so if your competitors are on YouTube as well, they’ll probably be presented with their videos after watching yours (although this works both ways). It’s a great way to host content that can be easily linked to, shared, embedded, and otherwise distributed.
As a closing note, don’t spend all your effort trying to create the next huge, viral media phenomenon. While it’s a noble goal, the success rate in trying to do so is very low, and the compulsion to spread the word needs to be very high. A 2006 Millward Brown study suggested that on average only 13% of people who receive any viral message pass it on. This means that for every 8 people the message reaches, one of those must pass it on to another 8 in order for the message to maintain it’s rate of spread. That’s a lot to ask for. Don’t let these numbers discourage you from trying, especially if you have a great idea (again, I point to Bio-Rad’s video), but don’t think that going viral is necessary for a good SMM campaign.
Social media marketing is a great way to connect with customers, get feedback on products or services, crowdsource for ideas, and convey and monitor your brand identity, but it is something that requires planning. Not adequately defining SMM strategies, not understanding your audience or social platforms, or under-resourcing your SMM efforts are all-too-common and avoidable reasons for social media marketing failures. A little planning and some understanding of the social networking landscape can dramatically improve returns on social media marketing.