Feed the Beast: The Social Media Marketer's Challenge

Marketing technology has changed, but have marketers changed their operational model enough to follow suit?  Or are we jamming the proverbial square peg of 20th Century marketing practices to fit the round hole of new marketing demands? Every company has a web site now.  Every company sends out blast e-mails.  Every marketer is becoming an “expert” on social media marketing and various networking techniques, but only a few companies seem to be getting enough out of it so far.

But that isn’t because of a lack of desire.  The value proposition of social media is compelling.  No longer tied exclusively to twentieth century technologies like advertising, public relations and sales collateral, a company can now use the Internet, social media, and advanced direct marketing strategies to find customers, win their business and ultimately keep them as customers over the long term.  The advantages of these tactics are readily apparent:

  • They are more focused and can deliver more accurate metrics than ever thought possible.   A smart marketer can now know precisely who is looking at their message, when they are looking at it and if they are altering their behavior.
  • They are faster and more scalable than ever before.  No more waiting for printing presses, postal deliveries or prime time television schedules.  New messages can be delivered instantly.
  • They are far more controlled than messages that are filtered through the context and the agendas of media publishers.
  • Web sites, blogs, e-mails are technically quite simple to design and implement – requiring far fewer skilled man-hours to complete.
  • Messages can be easily changed and even customized for specific customer segments.
  • They are less expensive to execute…much less expensive.

Companies “get it”.  Social media marketing as a concept makes sense both from an efficacy and economic point-of-view.  The problem is, once one has built a social media program, how can one keep publishing new material that people actually want to see?  Everyone wants to be social media marketers – but might not be set up to deliver what social media needs to be successful:  a lot of content delivered constantly.

Typically, marketers and agencies have optimized their process to deliver finely tuned messages, value propositions and persuasive arguments through a limited number of advertisements, press releases, brochures and direct mail pieces.  Every word and every image is evaluated before it’s published.   The nature of the older mediums allowed marketers to take their time to hone messages – and to create messaging at the highest possible level of polish.  Those’s why marketing departments, agencies and others are so effective at creating well-designed, thoughtful web sites – but sometimes have difficulty adding new content to it every week.

If the old marketing model is like the highly crafted output of luxury artisans, then the new marketing model requires a mindset much closer to that of the daily newspaper.  Social media, like a newspaper has to produce interesting compelling communication every day – or else lose the interest of their readership.  Therefore every part of operation and practice has to be optimized – not for the creation of literary art – but to produce provocative stories fast and frequently.

In 1938, Evelyn Waugh published a satire of the business of journalism titled “Scoop”.  The fictional newspaper that his hapless hero worked for was called “The Daily Beast” – interestingly made non-fiction in 2008 when Tina Brown and Barry Diller started their on-line “newspaper” named in its honor.  It is, perhaps, the most appropriate analogue for the news business:  a great hungry beast that has to be fed with fresh content every day.

That’s why, with social media, the marketing process needs to be optimized to “feed the Beast”.  The central question is how to cost effectively organize to deliver new – and interesting – content constantly.  Instead of focusing exclusively on refining messages, or producing highly polished media, marketing organizations need to figure out how to produce a large and regular volume of blog articles, web videos and Twitter posts.

(There is some question about how frequent social media content should be – should it be every day? weekly?  every month?  A reader  pointed out to me recently that not only were daily postings difficult to produce, they might also be difficult for readers to keep up with.  I agree.  In most cases, weekly or fortnightly postings for businesses are not only more reasonable to produce, but more reasonable for regular readers to digest.)

21st century marketing, like the newspapers of the 20th century, is a Beast – and the Beast must be fed.

So how can it be done?  Fortunately, newspapers are a very good model for how to produce material.  Three crucial elements of their model in particular are worth examining and adapting to marketing practice:

  1. The use of templates.
    Even the most junior staff writer can quickly churn out stories on a very wide range of topics, not because they are especially experienced or knowledgeable – but because they are filling in a basic template for a news story.  By inserting a few quotes from people who do know about a story, it’s possible to quickly assemble a story within that template.  There are basic templates for every story in the newspaper – and if one spends some time analyzing individual articles, you can find the underlying structures are remarkably consistent.  Blog articles, web videos and tweets should all start with a template.
  2. Emphasis on a streamlined approval process.
    A company, in some ways, is more challenged than a newspaper when it comes to making sure they send out the “correct” message when communicating.  Shareholders, regulators and customers must not get the wrong impression from a few careless words – or else the value of the company and the brand could be in serious jeopardy.    But newspapers do have a good process for minimizing mistakes in a fast and furious time frame.  Instead of finishing an article then getting approvals, most of the approval is done upfront, when an editor approves the stories to be included for the day.  There are several checks that occur as the article is written, re-written and ultimately published – but since the idea was discussed up-front, it is easier and faster to make sure articles that are published are as accurate as possible.  Social media factories for companies, should follow the same general process – gain the direction, ground rules and general direction before proceeding with a piece – then include key constituents such as investor relations, public relations, marketing and operations leadership in the checks on the content as it is developed.
  3. The heart of the content comes from others
    Just as a newspaper article is assembled from quotes and explanation from sources that are close to the story, a good blog entry, video, or tweet should come from the expert who best understands a particular issue.  Instead of trying to write an entire white paper every time one publishes a blog, it’s possible to accelerate the process by assembling the good ideas of experts throughout a company – including line people, sales people, engineers, and even customers.  Even when the blog is the point of view of the chief executive, they should embrace, quote and give credit for all the good ideas that come from within their community.

If a marketing group is able to adopt the operational model of a newspaper and focus on generating provocative stories assembled from the good ideas of their entire community, they will have a much better chance to continue feeding the beast long after the initial excitement of a new web site fades.

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