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Social Media Strategy & the Importance of Listening to the Conversation

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So, you’ve been tasked with developing a social media strategy, but where do you start? In most cases the focus is on building an actual presence, which means building your Facebook page, MySpace profile, Twitter page and YouTube channel. Then, just like a magician waving a magic wand, your social media channel will be up and running.

But is this really the right approach? As we all know, what makes social media unique is the ability able to socialize with your target. To simply just look at social media as an extension of what you are already doing elsewhere online is not necessarily a sound strategy, as most online strategies are based on a one way exchange…speaking to your customers, while social media strategy is about socializing with your constituents. However, can you really socialize with people if you don’t know what they are actually talking about and what’s important to them? Now, you may think you know what’s important to them and in doing so try to barge in on the conversation, but is that really the proper way to engage someone in a social conversation?

While establishing a presence on major networks is by no doubt important to any social strategy, I’d like to argue that its not necessarily the first thing you want to do if you truly want to socialize with your constituents. In order to truly socialize with your audience, you need to first listen and understand the conversation that’s already taking place. This approach will in turn enable you to form the foundation of a social media strategy that is truly based on socializing with your audience, versus just speaking to them.

A Four Step Approach
With this being said, I would like to propose a different approach towards social media strategy development that is first about understanding your audience and the conversation taking place, versus building out a physical presence on major social networks. In the case where you might be inheriting an existing social media infrastructure, which as a result needs to be managed, I would like to argue that this approach still applies, as understanding the conversation that’s taking place will enable you to more effectively evolve the channel you’ve inherited.

With this being said, I would like to outline an approach to social media strategy that is based on the following four sequential steps.

1) Listen
2) Learn
3) Build
4) Engage

1. Listen to the Conversation
As any company knows, based on today’s environment there’s a conversation going on. And knowing there is a conversation, but not knowing what’s being said, scares the heck out of them. From blogs to Twitter to groups/forums and more, people are talking and conversing about your brand, products and company in more ways than you can imagine.

Thanks to social media monitoring technology such as Radian6 and other tools, it’s now possible to monitor this river of news and understand what people are saying about your brand and organization. These tools enable you to see what people are saying on Twitter and in the Blogosphere and by monitoring the conversation, you can get a handle on what’s being said.

Therefore, focusing first on “Listening to the Conversation” is more important than ever, as the intelligence you can gleam from it can form the bedrock of your social strategy, in terms of how you will ultimately choose to socialize with your constituents.

2. Learn from the Conversation
It’s not just enough to listen to the conversation, but you must then learn from it as well. By having your ear to the ground, you’ll be amazed by what you suddenly can learn about your brand and the people discussing it.

With this being said, following are just a few of key strategic elements that can be garnered and be used to develop your baseline strategy:

*** Topics of Conversation ***
– What are people talking about?
– Which topics are most popular?
– Which topics incite the greatest passion?

*** Sentiment ***
– Are people speaking in a positive or negative tone?
– Are there certain topics that garner positive and/or negative responses?

*** Influencers ***
– Who’s steering and guiding the conversation?
– Are there particular individuals, bloggers or Tweeters, that have a large following and are seemingly influencing how others perceive your brand in the social landscape?

3. Build Your Presence
Now that you’ve listened to the conversation and learned about what’s actually happening on the social front, you’re now ready to begin building your actual channel. The key thing here, is that unlike most strategies where this is often the first idea that is put forth, we’ve only come to this point after listening to what’s being said, and then garnering strategic learnings from it. This will ultimately enable you to develop a much more sound social media strategy, as it will be based on what people are actually conversing and socializing about, versus your assumptions, or worse, what you think they should be conversing and socializing about.

With this being said, building your social presence is composed of a few key components:

*** The Plan ***
Once you’ve decided to build your presence you must then develop a plan of action. Specifically, what’s the timeline, how and where is your channel going to be constructed and what kind of content are you going to populate it with.

This is obviously a huge endeavor, but when based on steps 1 & 2 of Listening and Learning, it becomes much easier and more strategically sound. The reason for this is that your plan and all of its components are rooted in the realities of the social conversation that’s happening and what people are responding to. Therefore, you can be confident that the plan you put forth will ideally be well received because its based on the realities of what your audience wants, not what you think they want.

*** The Platform ***
This is the point where you put your plan into action and start building your actual social media platform…Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, etc.

In doing so, your key advantage here is that you will be building a platform that’s based on knowledge of how your constituents are already socializing, so it can be constructed with this in mind. Therefore instead of merely constructing a social media presence, what you can construct is a platform for socialization.

4. Engage Your Base
One, if not the most important, component of your social media strategy, is your Engagement Plan. The reason I say this is that engagement is really just another word for socialization and this is this is what truly makes Social Media a unique marketing medium.

While anyone can listen, learn and build, what will ultimately determine the success of your social media strategy is its ability to engage your base. In short, if you want to build your friend/fan/follower base, you need to be consistently updating your channel, responding to inquiries and developing new content.

However, it’s important to realize that engagement is a two way street. It’s about how you choose to engage with your users and also knowing how they want to engage with you. Therefore by first and foremost Listening and Learning it will enable you to formulate a 360 degree approach towards your engagement strategy, as you’ll have a solid handle on what people want from you and also what you can expect with them.

With this being said, the following are a few key components to any engagement strategy and how listening to and learning from the conversation can impact them.

*** Building Your Fan/Friend/Follower Base ***
For many social media programs, this is what success is often measured against…the ability to build your social community. This of course is very important and therefore, warrants very specific attention.

Understanding why someone would want to engage and become a friend/fan/follower is very important. Therefore incorporating elements of the conversation within your branded social environment in the form of content, updates and more will help you to readily build your Fan/Friend/Follower base as they will see you as understanding their needs and most importantly relevant.

*** Outreach ***
Social media also affords you with the opportunity to reach out to particular “influencers” as a means to extend the reach of your social media communications. This is particularly true in the case of Blogs, as identifying bloggers who focus on particular topics and have a decent following is a great way to further extend your message and get others, besides yourself ,to talk about your offerings.

Therefore having an understanding of what’s being discussed in the Blogosphere, can help you to offer and put forth content that will garner interest from them. This can in turn lead to long term and important relationships with a very influential circle of tastemakers and evangelists.

*** Integration ***
Engaging your audience via social media does not only have to happen within your social media properties, but it can also happen on your branded web properties as well. The act of installing chiclets throughout your site or by integrating Facebook Connect makes it possible for users on your site to engage in a way that enables your website content to be propagated as social content.

Therefore, listening to the conversation can provide insight in how and where you should place chiclets and what kind of content might likely get propagated into the social environment. This is particularly important as your website is where many of your key evangelists are residing and giving them the ability to propagate content into the social networks can play a huge role in helping your overall channel to grow.

*** Applications ***
While there have been far more misses than hits with applications, what they do afford is an opportunity to create a branded social engagement within a user’s personal social environment. Therefore, applications make it so a user does not have to come to you to socially engage; rather they are able to incorporate your brand into their environment.

Additionally, I personally believe that also by deploying a “Listen & Learn” strategy as it applies to application development can fundamentally change how they are perceived and adopted. The reason I say this is that by basing your application development decisions on the conversation that’s happening within the broader social media environment ensures that you are fulfilling a definitive, versus a perceived, need with what is built and deployed.

Conclusion
I believe that the four steps outlined in the proceeding paragraphs provide a solid road map to success in this new and evolving medium. The key takeaway here is that by deploying a Listen >> Learn >> Build >> Engage strategy is that it’s based first and foremost on understanding the environment and who’s participating within it.

The fact is, social media can not be approached with a “Build It and They Will Come” mentality; rather success lies first and foremost in an “Understand and They Will Engage” approach. For its only you are able understand who you are talking to and what’s being said, will users then socialize with what has been built and success ultimately realized.

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