The Only 'Rule' For Social Media You Need to Know: Start Small

Lengthy To-do Lists and Complex Strategies Are Not the Way to Achieve Mastery

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Brian Sheehan
Brian Sheehan

A few months back, I chaired the Direct Marketing Association's (DMA) strategic summit on social marketing. I had a chance to talk to executives working with some of the biggest players in social media, including Hewlett-Packard, Intel, IBM and Xerox, along with a lot of small and medium-sized company CEOs and marketing directors about their social media needs and plans.

Unsurprisingly, social-media strategy was consistently within those CEOs top three to-do items. They were primarily concerned about mitigating threats to their reputation and, secondarily, wanted to take advantage of viral-marketing opportunities in the fear that they could be left behind by more nimble, far-sighted or cutting-edge competitors. In both cases, their view of social media, if they were to be completely honest, was often one of fear and trepidation.

Managing social media is time consuming and marketing departments still need to do everything they're already doing. In smaller companies, they literally have no new staff to handle this, and in mid-sized companies they usually have one person. Simply put, these marketing departments feel overwhelmed and a bit confused.

That's why the first thing I say to CEOs and marketing directors is to stop worrying about articles prescribing 10 or seven steps to social-media mastery. These just make social marketing seem complex. And it's not. Great social marketing is about engaging your customers in conversations and allowing them to engage with each other, nothing more or less. I remind them that their company successfully holds thousands of conversations with customers, suppliers, and partners ever day. The key is to figure out how many online conversations you want to instigate and how many places you want to stage them.

Then I give them one rule. If you follow it, you rarely go wrong.

Start small.

Too many companies start with a list of things they "need" to do to get in the social marketing game. We need a Facebook page, right? We need to be on Twitter, right? We need to build our own community page. We need to engage the key blogs that cover our category, and ... and ... and ... right?

This is entirely the wrong way to go about it. The reason is simple. If you do a good job of engaging people in conversations in social media, it can work really well, sometimes amazingly well. If you don't, and this is important, you are much better off to not be in social media at all. And your chances of online conversations going poorly multiply when you are either trying to instigate more conversations than you can handle (i.e., your "to do" list is too big), and/or your resource level is too small.

Since most companies have no new people or one or two dedicated to this, just do one thing. And then do it really well. Once you have mastered this, then -- and only then -- think about doing a second social-marketing program. Oh, and prove that the first thing is driving better results, so you can get approval for another body to help do the next thing. If you can't prove it is helping drive business, stop doing it and try something else -- one thing else.

The first thing you do may be to manage a great Facebook page. It may be to create a great Twitter feed. But it may not be. Think about what is really going to move your needle. What's going to drive ROI and get you the extra people you want to ramp up your program? But you don't "need" to do anything in social media. Companies can, and do, succeed without sophisticated social media strategies. Your job is not to catch up; your opportunity is to get started.

So start small.

Brian Sheehan spent 25 years at Saatchi & Saatchi, the last nine years as chairman and CEO of Team One Advertising in Los Angeles. He is now associate professor of advertising at the Newhouse School, Syracuse University.
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