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I was recently shown Mark (associate professor of marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands) Ritson’s column in the 28/07 edition of Marketing Week. In fact, I was sent it as a discussion starting point by an organisation, quite rightly, questioning the role of social media in their business strategy. We’re all guilty, from time to time, of writing and saying things for effect… not least when asked to write a regular column… but one wonders where the line comes between entertaining banter and utter irresponsibility. Editor Mark Choueke hints at this in his response to Ritson’s column, when he somewhat justifies social media’s position and attempts to put the other side. However, in reading it I felt compelled to compile my own response (which will doubtless get a fraction of the readership of the original, but may help to put some of the comments within a practical, common-sense context).

If you would like to read the original article first, you can click here.

It’s relatively low cost

Once you wade through the ‘stating the obvious’ (in which he says that ‘it’s amazing what brands are now paying many of the newly created social media agencies’) I have to agree with his closing comment ‘If you have opted for a social media budget that is going to be allocated exclusively on Twitter and Facebook, you are not budgeting or planning your marketing properly.’

The success for social media lies in first accepting that social media = 101 options in terms and platforms and uses… and then using it as an integrated tool within your marketing toolbox. As a stand-alone strategy it’s unlikely to have the desired effect. Indeed, without focus and a link to established business development goals it’s rather like throwing money off the top of a building.

However, Dr Ritson totally misses the point. Social media, as an element of your marketing strategy, IS relatively low cost. Compared to direct mail or corporate events it IS low cost. In fact, use to support other print materials and/or events, it can be a fantastic way of improving their productivity, without increasing the costs, thereby reducing the ‘cost per lead’.

Yes, but look at the ROI you get

This is the real nub of the issue for me. If we’re agreed that it’s only really effective when integrated and combined with other activities then the benefit starts to become obvious, compared to other methods. I would never advise any of my clients to jump into social media. I would always start with a small project, perhaps linked to an existing target market or event… a way to use social media to improve the return that they are getting from existing marketing activities. For example, a law firm that runs an employment law seminar and wants to get more ‘bums on seats’ (or different bums on seats) can use social media to develop relationships and more effectively communicate to a target group. They can particularly use it to follow up more productively and draw ‘non-attendees’ into the dialogue.

If you are going to focus on a narrow, specific objective (for example, get a 10% increase in attendees as the employment seminar) then OF COURSE you can see a return on the investment that social media makes.

In fact, even if you are using it more widely, you don’t have to look far to find companies (even Google Analytics) that can provide you with clear, goals-linked data on social media ROI. But you do have to set some goals first, by which to measure it. Perhaps that’s Dr Ritson’s problem?

Social media is about more than ROI – it’s about conversations/dialogue/community*

Well doh! Of course it’s about making money… But how exactly do we make more money? We listen to our customers and engage in dialogue… we draw them to us (I’m sure Dr Ritson has lectured on push and pull marketing) and involve them in ‘our world’. Doesn’t matter whether you’re a supermarket, school, charity or accountancy practice… community and one-to-one dialogues are the cornerstones that marketing teams have been working with for the last century (when I’m reliably informed by the CIM that marketing started…)

With social media we have been handed a gift on a plate… a way of seeing what our customers and targets are talking about (and worrying about) without having to actually get out of our offices or pick up the phone. It’s a wonderful gift. Recent research has shown that 29% of activity on Twitter is one-to-one dialogue and 32% communicating ‘what you’re up to’. If we actually take the time to look at this and talk to people (having first built a carefully targeted list to follow, based around business development goals) then we can see for ourselves what’s going on and ensure that our other marketing activity is properly suited to the audience.

What about all the successful case studies of social media impact?

I think it’s fair to say that when asked for a case study, a marketing professional will pick a successful case study. Who wants to read about what’s failed (well, actually, that can be useful too… but for now, bear with me…)? But with enough initiative it isn’t hard to find a wealth of utterly relevant examples of brands really making it work… and I don’t just mean the Dells and Zappos of this world. I mean Mulberry, Eddie Stobart, Harvey Nichols, the CIPD, Alton Towers… even Wards Solicitors (Bristol)!

What works for me is to understand the organisation’s objectives and then find totally relevant case studies that we can learn from.

Social media is a new platform that changes all the old rules

To be fair… I’m with him on this one. Fact is, social media isn’t going to change the world (although perhaps the people of the middle east would question that at the moment) and it isn’t ‘the way things are going to be’… it isn’t going to mean the death of emails any more than emails meant the death of letters.

The reality is that some customers will always want to hear from you on the phone and others will want an email… others a letter and I’m sure there are some out there that even like a face-to-face meeting! Social media is just another tool in the marketing toolbox that allows you to communicate in the way your targets want you to…

What? There’s a point he’s missed… social media allows you to talk in the way THEY are talking. It isn’t about how YOU want to communicate. Why doggedly stick to sending out flyers if people aren’t reading them any more? Isn’t it better to add in another method to the mix and continue to demonstrate that you’re speaking their language?

You are missing the role of social media as a source of consumer insight

I’m not sure where he got his figures from but that point is less important than the assumption that one thing is wrong (social media) and another right (focus groups). Depending on your budget and your objectives (yes, we’re back to goal-setting… something sorely missing from Dr R’s article) there are a wealth of methods for getting an insight into your consumers… and social media is one really effective way to do it.  Whether we’re talking about LinkedIn groups (which if managed properly aren’t vastly different from a face-to-face networking group anyhow) or Twitter trends… it doesn’t really matter. For some people it’ll be valuable research, for others not… and they might want to try something else.

If it’s so pointless, why are so many big brands doing it?

This I am interested to read more about. He’s right. The majority of my clients get into social media because they think they ought to, rather than because they think they actually need to. And in some cases I tell them not to bother. Honestly, I do. But in others we look at what they want to achieve and how we can use it (alongside other marketing methods – the good old brochure and flyer isn’t dead yet) to meet objectives.

As time goes on I suspect we’ll see fewer people taking the somewhat ‘old-fashioned’ approach that Mark Ritson seems to demonstrate (talking about social media as a general, dedicated discipline of its own) and moving on to it as part of a properly integrated marketing mix. That’s where the real success stories lie.