Will Social Media Make the Grade?

Integrating social media into business in a meaningful way is more difficult than I thought it would be—academically speaking, of course. In fact, it’s really ironic. Though higher education is ostensibly about forging trails, igniting discourse, and driving innovation, the reality is that the business of academia is still working on how to maximize the high-octane power of social media. Methinks it’s probably just a little too out-of-control and outside the box for those venerable educational brands.

I think the real rub is the expectation of immediate results versus the fear of unbridled conversation. But it really comes down to justifying the opportunity cost (now that’s a vestige of my 25-year-old MBA trickling out of my baby-boomer psyche). Truthfully, social media may even be the ultimate paradox. In a world of 24/7 e-commerce, instant gratification, and auto-responses, business leaders want immediate profitability and irrefutable ROI. But social media in business is more about the journey than the destination. It’s process. And that’s very hard to justify in a dollar and cents world—especially in today’s, re-orged, laid-off, downsized, bailed-out, and bedraggled business climate.

As many experts have said about social media, it is more a mindset or behavior that a channel or tool, in the traditional marketing parlance. More and more, I see how companies really need to transform from the inside out. We must radically rethink everything—communication, marketing, and sales to truly maximize the power and effectiveness of social media—and marketing, in general. The online social media space is not an environment where ROI can necessarily be calculated based on standalone, one-off calls to action—but where we build an intertwined, 3-D, online “ecosystem” that enables customers, constituents, or alumni to respond—whether it is buying the latest alumni directory, dog food, or a tax preparation service.

It also means integrating a company’s brand and grassroots employee behavior into the rhythm of the social media dance. To be successful, we can no longer be afraid of engaging through our own profiles, website, and presence. We as small business can carve out a more profitable future if we are willing to fully engage in the opportunities. Granted, social media for business is a revolutionary concept. We must be willing to test, test, test, experiment—and even fail. We must also be willing to allocate time and resources. Some ideas:

1. Perhaps this means training a core group of employees (or volunteers for nonprofits) or interns to nurture, tend, and cultivate social media farm, as Chris Brogan calls it.

2. Start from square one on the brand, value proposition, and core products. It is important to analyze and synthesize online behaviors to best understand how to trigger them. Online activity is a very different behavioral energy from the traditional one-to-one sales call transaction. We must understand the dynamics of both.

3. We must spend as much time listening and participating online at posting calls to action. Social media expert Chris Brogan emphasized this in his recent Dallas presentation. This means actively posting, conversing, and responding on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Gowalla, YouTube, the university website, and blogs. The rehearsal is just as important as the performance. It’s about igniting behavior, interest, and activity – then making the pitch.

How will we know that we are successful? When we have increased our goal of social media lead generation and revenue impact, we will know. In addition, web response tools help us continually clean email addresses, physical addresses, and contacts. Streamlined e-marketing can also drastically reduce dependence on snail mail, thus enhancing the profit margin of each project.

What are the appropriate metrics to track? We will implement a series of initiatives and promotions for each type of product offering. We will measure their effectiveness based on fans, followers, click-thrus, and incremental increases in revenue. Key indicators:

• Brand activity and campaigns on Twitter, Facebook, Digg, blogs, online communities, and more traditional news.
• Website traffic.
• Conversions of social media traffic to leads and sales.
• Daily user engagement via online communities.
• Benchmarks for measuring the impact of social media efforts.
• Content on multiple blogs and syndicated content.
• Competitive programs and initiatives within the online product/service community.

A well-meaning, yet hopelessly pedantic friend recently sent me this quote that resonates for me in this context:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Begin it now.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

ElaineGantzWright’s blog is for people interested in using the Web and online marketing to drive social action. Elaine covers social media for education, nonprofits, philanthropy trends, online giving, cause marketing, random life musings, and more. Contact her — elgantz @yahoo.com

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