A Practical Guide to Social Marketing

Updated: August 02, 2010

Before all this new stuff started, in the context of marketing, the word "media" most commonly referred to newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, brochures, documents, web sites, physical and electronic mail, live demonstrations, and seminars or "webinars".

What all these things have in common is that they are all different forms of one-to-many or one-to-one (one-to-n) information broadcasting. The information flow is one-way, sent by a single person or organization and received by some number of individuals and acted upon by some subset of those individuals. These media and their marketing applications are not social.

There are a number of other traditional marketing methods that are social but have little to do with any kind of media, per se. These include one-to-one methods, like telemarketing and in-store sample presentation, and they include one-to-many methods, like multi-level marketing and trade shows. What makes these "social" is that they all involve real-time interaction between people in the form of two-way information flows, mostly questions and answers.

Social media are interactive web applications that are different forms of many-to-many information sharing. The flow of information is n-way (multi-way), presented by one or multiple people and responded to by multiple people. There are many different kinds of social media but those most relevant to marketing are:

  • Social networks, like LinkedIn and Facebook
  • Review sites, like Angie's List and Yelp
  • Presentation sites, like YouTube and Flikr
  • Micro-blogging applications, like Twitter and Yammer
  • Blogging applications like, Blogger and WordPress

A common mistake that many people make when they are getting started in social marketing is using the wrong kind of social media for their particular marketing objectives. So, let's now look more at which social media are best for which kinds of marketing.

"Social Networks" are for making lasting connections between people who are related in various ways, e.g. family members, friends, colleagues, shared interest, fans, professional contacts, etc. Some are better for making new connections with other network members, like LinkedIn, while others are more typically used by people who are actively connected in some way outside the network, like Facebook.

Networks like LinkedIn are best for finding employers, customers, long lost acquaintances, and for marketing skills, expertise, information, specialty products, and professional services. Networks like Facebook are best for staying in touch with friends, family and fans, and for marketing new products and promoting events to existing customers or people with an established connection to your business or interest in your products or services. Social Networks are not good for aggressive promotion to strangers.

"Review Sites" present information about products or services supplemented by opinions, reviews and experiences shared by network members or visitors. Some are focused on specific categories, like Angie's List for professional services, while others are more general, like Yelp, which covers many categories, including restaurants, travel, entertainment and others, including professional services. Some are free to participants and funded by advertising while others charge for presenting and/or searching for products or services. And, some are subdivided by geographic location, others cover a variety of specific geographies, and others are not related to place at all.

If you are marketing a business that provides a specific service within a limited area, depends on referrals and repeat business, and must provide on-site estimates, like, say painting or gardening, a site like Angie's List, which charges people within a particular areas to find you and allows them to share their experience with other searchers, will save you money and provide free, highly focused advertising that you "buy" by delivering good service.

If you are marketing a product with no geographic focus or infrequent repeat business, like musical instruments, a narrowly focused site that is free to searchers, like Harmony Central, might work better. You pay to advertise or spend time participating in discussion groups and the like, and you reach a large, focused national audience. Review sites are not very good for promoting products or services which require explanation or resist categorization.

"Presentation Sites" like Flikr and YouTube enable the posting of picture albums and videos for free, to be viewable either by the general public or only those you allow. Viewers can publicly share their unregulated opinions and responses as they wish or you can control them, depending on the particular service and how you set it up.

These sites are best for illustrating or demonstrating physical products or practical services and finding customers from the public at large or for directing people who know you to your content. To get positive feedback you will need to ensure that you post content that looks and sounds good, holds the viewers interest and is not too long. Presentation sites are not good for presenting complex graphics or lot of information and should not be used with an on-screen presenter just talking through a complex topic with no supporting title graphics.

"Micro-Blogs" like Twitter are, in effect, broadcast services for text messages. Twitter allows you to post very short (140 characters) text messages to be received by designated subscribers (your "followers") or other members who find you on the site based on your profile information or word search. The followers can post comments about your tweets on their pages or "retweet" them to their followers.

Twitter is best used for broadcasting breaking news, event notification, your thoughts and movements, or links to other content, to a potentially large group of identified individuals and providing a context for them to post responses and comments in place where others can see them. A good use of this capability is to build confidence among existing customers with announcements of new deals or products. Such services are widely misused as a mere reminder of the tweeter's existence or for providing a digest of information that few people care about, e.g. "On my way to the airport."

"Blogging" is like writing a public diary. Either on a blogging site like WordPress or using such software on a company or personal web site, the software makes it easy to post text, pictures, or even audio and video and provide a place for people to post comments and responses. The word "blog" is short for "web log", which implies the original idea of something that is posted regularly and frequently.

A blog can run the gamut from a pithy thought for the day to a lengthy article. Blogs are broadly treated and used like a form of journalism presenting either news or viewpoint. The main differences between a blog and any other web page are that a blog invites and presents comments and is instrumented to employ RSS feed or other facilities to inform subscribing users when new content has been posted.

Blogs can be used for a wide variety of marketing purposes, including communicating thought leadership on industry trends and news or keeping customers and prospects informed about products, events, financial results and so forth. Especially if your product is knowledge of some kind, e.g. you are a lawyer, analyst, or adviser, a blog is a good way to give prospects an idea of your capabilities and interests and to stay visible with customers.

Also, more so than any other form of social media, because they are public, blogs get "crawled" by search engines, making it very easy for potential customers to find you or to learn about you on the basis of relevant key words used in your postings. Blogs are most effective when you make regular, frequent additions, if they are concise and well-written, and if they invite and receive plentiful reader commentary. If you lack the discipline, ability or funds to ensure these things, a conventional web page would be a more appropriate communications medium.

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