In My Opinion: Mary Harper: Take care rushing to adopt social media

THE digital media is no stranger to misplaced myths and hothead hype. Since its inception, the internet has been plagued by intermittent outbreaks of geek-powered hysteria which inspire entire industries to explode with enthusiasm over the ‘next big thing’ to hit the web and sink millions into untried technologies in an ill-considered stampede.

If the current rush to engage with social media is anything to go by, the lessons of the ’90s dot.com bubble burst have yet to be learned. Bombarded on all sides with opinion insisting that any company not flinging itself into the world of Facebook is inevitably doomed, today’s marketing directors are besieged by a toxic blend of conflicting advice and social media ‘snake oil’ that’s tempting many to make hasty and potentially expensive decisions.

Do I have to show face on MySpace? Will I look a right twit if I don’t Tweet? What, exactly, is a ‘Google buzz’? The rise of social media may have created a wealth of new communications opportunities, but for media and marketing professionals it still poses more questions (and headaches) than it does answers.

This is why smart companies are taking a pragmatic approach to cut through the hype and identifying the real potential benefits that social media can offer their organisations. They can begin by not jumping on the latest band-wagon (there’s a new one every five minutes anyway), taking a deep breath, and applying the same brand of clear thinking that made their business a success in the first place.

They should be asking questions.

What am I trying to achieve? Who are my customers and what do they engage with, online? How can I bring these things together to reach my objectives? What’s going to get in my way and how do I get around it? Social media may look like an exciting, space-age new channel, but in reality it requires exactly the same mix of forethought, planning and communications skills you’d expect to find behind any successful route to market.

Due consideration must also be given to the organisational impacts of entering into social media communications.

Because it is so easy for customers to engage with these channels, the decision to get involved should consider issues such as required skills and resourcing, social media policies, and how to monitor and respond to ‘bad’ coverage rather than simply focusing on which platforms should be used to achieve it.

Really smart companies with a more mature approach to social media go a step further by ensuring this pragmatic philosophy sits within a whole-of-digital channel strategy. While it is technically possible for such campaigns to operate in isolation, in practice it often turns out to be a mistake. Siloed digital strategies frequently lead to disjointed channels, overlapping functionality and broken or disjointed customer journeys, while focusing on individual platforms rather than planning for the online channel as a whole can also lead to budget conflicts or duplicated spending.

The best campaigns are guided by focused, phased, whole-of-digital strategies designed to deliver a range of business benefits and increase Return on Investment. By integrating social media into their overall marketing and communications strategy, organisations will be in a position to identify which business issues or initiatives their online channels should address, gain a deeper understanding of their target markets’ online profiles, and then select the right digital channels for the job.

This kind of comprehensive approach to online strategy further ensures that different areas of the organisation are brought together to plan and deliver a seamless and productive customer experience across all channels, including offline. It enables you to identify how to take advantage of or overcome any opportunities, challenges and threats to online success, and gives your organisation a clear plan for how to measure the success of the channel and how to map this success back your overall achievements as an business.

There is no doubt that the social media channel does offer marketers some exciting opportunities to communicate directly with customers, but it’s crucial to maintain solid business practice and focus on your objectives and your customers rather than being blinded by the enthusiasm surrounding the latest technologies. Facebook and Twitter may well have changed the world, but it’s still a mistake to put the ‘cart before the horse….’.

Mary Harper is strategy director of Line.