10 Essential Rules for Brands in Social Media

The 1% Rule and How to Make It Work for You

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Taddy Hall
Taddy Hall
These days everyone seems to have advice about how to run your social media marketing program. There are so many tips floating around, it's hard to know what truly essential strategies you should follow to effectively use social media to build your business. Questions abound: Do Facebook fans drive sales? Why should I fund forums for consumers to pillory my products, ridicule my service and tout the competition? And, whatever I decide to do, how I will I know if it's working?

In the search for truth, sometimes social media is its own worst enemy. With a self-credentialed guru waiting at every click, finding actionable, fact-based insight is tricky.

So, in a modest attempt to bring a dose of sanity to this intellectual frat party, I've reined my impulse to lob more "personal picks" into the fray. Instead, I'll follow the wisdom of an august data mining colleague to just "let the data speak."

Our process was to query data from hundreds of our brand clients to see what testable truths emerged -- and here's what we found: 10 rules that hold up across category and time.

1. The 1% Rule
In category after category, our data show that a small fraction of site visitors are responsible for a substantial portion of total site traffic. On average, the percentage of influential users (defined for our purposes simply as a visitor who's subsequent sharing actions result in at least one additional site visitor) on a given site is 0.6% and rarely above 4%. However, these influencers regularly generate 20%-50% of total site traffic and an even higher share of conversion (defined however a site owner so decides). To make social media marketing effective, marketers have to identify and engage -- and better recognize and reward -- these super-influentials.

2. The 2-4X Rule
When it comes to conversion, visitors driven to a site by influencers are to to four times more likely to convert compared to visitors from other sources, such as display advertisements or paid search. That means your landing pages for people coming from shared links and social sites should reflect these visitors' interests and offer enticing deals that will encourage them not only to convert but to share the deals with others.

3. The New Media/New Pipes Rule
In today's socially driven internet, it matters far more what consumers do with your content than what you do with your content. What they say about your brand means more than what you say about your brand. Our data shows that content spread from consumer to consumer through word-of-mouth is far more powerful at driving brand preference and purchase intent than content distributed by the brand itself. This has profound implications in social media. To illustrate, if a brand puts content on its Facebook fan page, it is far less likely to go viral than if an influential consumer puts that very same piece of content on his or her page or posts it to a relevant community of enthusiasts.

4. The Martha Stewart Rule
Throw your own party; don't just cater someone else's! If you base your social campaigns in venues you don't control -- such as Facebook or YouTube -- you may get great "attendance," but data show it's hard to convert and retain these party-goers. If your goals are anything beyond building brand awareness, it's better to have a house of your own where friends can find you -- such as your own branded social site, contest site, or customer forum.

5. The Power of "Weak Links" Rule
Influentials generally do have many direct "friends" and "followers," but what makes them truly valuable is the number and relevance of their extended or indirect connections. As Albert-Laszlo Barabasi illustrated in "Linked," you are far more likely to find your next job through a friend-of-a-friend than through an intimate contact. These "weak links" matter in the "real world," and they matter even more online. A critical implication for marketers is the need to track the extended social graphs of their content if they are going to be able to understand and activate the dynamics of influence.

6. The Feed the Fire Rule
Consumers love to share relevant, engaging, useful, and entertaining content with their friends. Make it easy for them to find your content and make it easy for them to share your content. Ninety percent of internet pages have fewer than 10 links pointing to them -- making them effectively unfindable. Avoiding this abyss of irrelevance requires more thought and effort than just pasting a sharing tool on your pages. It means actively syndicating and curating your content and distributing it not only through your brand's social graph, but through the graphs of your most influential advocates and fans. Easy ways to do this include following/friending your influentials' followers/friends and retweeting/posting content even if it's not yours.

7. The More Things Change Rule
Our research consistently demonstrates that e-mail and IM remain popular ways to share content. So don't throw out your old e-mail marketing methods just because Facebook and Twitter are the newest communication platforms du jour. The tried-and-true methods of getting customers to share links via e-mail and IM are still extremely valuable sources of traffic. Furthermore, incorporating social elements into your e-mail, such as incentives to share, can dramatically enhance an investment you're already making.

8. Horse Before the Cart Rule
Success in social media happens when brands infuse their content with social dimensions (Facebook Connect, most notably), not when they simply stick their ads and content in social forums. In other words, if you want to succeed in social media, your brands and content need to have social attributes -- content worth sharing, brands worth talking about, sites that encourage consumer participation and dialog. If your social strategy relies on advertising in social media, it's probably better to hang on to your money.

9. The PR Pitfalls Rule
Blogger outreach and content seeding may be popular ways to get your message into the social world, but our data show that more than 90% of seeding has no material impact. Up to 5% gets some response, but less than 2% of seeding drives valuable traffic. In other words, if you can't track efficacy of these efforts, don't bother.

10. The Customer-Service Rule
Social marketing programs succeed when they provide a service to the consumer. Traditional media-planing processes that begin with reach and frequency targets are largely unhelpful in social media. Reach and frequency -- as well as engagement, preference and conversion -- are positive consequences of giving consumers content that is sufficiently relevant and useful that they propagate your message across their own social graphs. Focus on providing useful content and offers to your target audience and they will spread your messages for you.

Social media isn't a science, but applying data-backed principles to your social efforts provides a structured framework that will enable you to improve effectiveness and ROI over time. And one final note: Every rule has exceptions. We live in dynamic times. Find what's true for you -- and share.

Taddy Hall is chief operating officer of Meteor Solutions and former chief strategy officer for the Advertising Research Foundation.
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