The pressure on communications professionals has never been so great. The constant emergence of new digital channels has led to a complex world of communications tools to choose from. The growing trend of these digital starts-ups posturing with their incredible, if not out of context, usage stats has made us all guilty of those thoughts… ‘perhaps we should have a Vine, Pinterest, Instagram – wait…SnapChat (!) account just to show we’re… well, there’. Prevalent in social media and digital communications planning in particular is the combination of becoming giddy with the hype around new technology and the fear of being left behind. And it is this that’s leading us to lose sight of one important thing – the end user.
The social media 'quagmire'
The last two years has seen a raft of new social trends and tools that have been grabbing headlines. First it was Vine, the mobile service that allows users to capture and share six-second looping videos; then, the rising trend of ‘discreet’ social networking following on from the impact of Path in 2011 (heard of Nextdoor?); then, the growing use of mobile instant messaging services, particularly amongst those typically hard-to-reach teens, the biggest three being What’s App, SnapChat and Kik. And most recently Ello, the stripped-back social network AKA ‘the next Facebook Killer’. The media haven’t been slow in pumping out articles relaying the importance of these channels.
There are some good case studies out there of brands and organisations getting involved with these channels (for example: Channel 4 and the Scottish Referendum). But, with limited usage stats and real insight into user behaviour plus no real community volumes to rival the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and not forgetting YouTube, it’s at this point we need some perspective…
To discredit the importance of understanding the latest trends and keeping a close eye on them would be wrong but jumping in feet first, with no clear strategy about why and to whom you are speaking to could be risky. As with all communications planning the same due diligence needs to be evident when building a social strategy. How else can social activity ever be justified, ever be evaluated, ever be seen as truly effective as part of the wider communications mix?
Gone are the days where social media can hide behind the ‘lack of data’ argument. There is tonnes of it out there coupled with an ever-increasing number of tools to be able to sift through it. The challenge is identifying the different data sources available and understanding how that data should be used.
Where to start: Four areas of social media planning
1: Social media usage
Understanding the actual size of specific audiences on each channel is key. Like any channel, you need to go where your users are spending time. Sounds obvious? It is. And yet, in some cases, hard numbers are still not being used to make social planning decisions.
User behaviour also differs depending on channel, demographic and social influences. This subsequently has to have an impact on strategy. Why are people using these spaces? How and when should you engage? Each answer cements a rationale about how you can appropriately align your organisation with conversations that are already happening – rather than looking like an uninvited guest at a party.
2: Owned social channels
Many of you would have already set up social media channels – sometimes rightly or wrongly. Seeing how these are currently functioning in terms of adding value to both your users and the wider organisation will ultimately dictate whether they are worth investing in.
If the social media ‘ecosystem’ put in place is not working, you need to identify why and act accordingly – this may involve streamlining an approach, introducing new channels that better serve your users, or shutting down channels altogether.
3: Creating benchmarks
A lot can be learnt from what other organisations are doing both in the public and private sectors. Firstly how they position their social channels. For instance, are they using it for customer services; is this a space that you want or need to get into or can you define your social offering as something different (information giver, entertainer, campaign promotion etc)? Valuable insight can be gathered from witnessing good practice but more importantly the mistakes of others; potential pitfalls that could be of reputational risk and therefore need to be avoided.
4: Earned and organic social mentions
Understanding what your users are saying and where these conversations are happening not only dictates the platforms your organisation needs to be present on but also what you need to say. How do users talk about your organisation currently? Are these conversations that need to be enhanced or actively managed? Trends in online chatter can determine how you should be engaging, the tone of voice that needs to be adopted and, the life-blood of social; how content should be developed to support your strategy.
I'm certainly not suggesting that experimentation is a bad thing; the ever-changing nature of these platforms dictates the need for tactics to be flexible and to evolve. But when it comes to strategic decisions about how budgets should be allocated and activity prioritised, social media needs to stand up and be counted. Like any other channel there has to be a clear value proposition to justify resources and this will only come from understanding how people are really using social media. So whilst the Vines, Instagrams and SnapChats of this world are indeed likely to stick around, let’s not forget those basic marketing and communications principles and take a more considered approach to social media planning.