The 3 Types of Social Media Strategy

Do you have a social media strategy for your business? Can you articulate what a social media strategy is? Don’t feel bad if you answered no.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while and have talked around the issue a few times. If you think I talk a lot about social media here and on Twitter you should talk to me in real life. Over the last few months a few people have blogged about my thoughts around social media strategy that I haven’t shared here. This post is an attempt to pull those various thoughts together.

First Shannon Paul asked me the very dangerous question: What’s missing from most social media strategies? The correct answer of course is the strategy. The following is an expanded version ofthe answer I gave her.

Defining Social Media Strategy

When people talk about their social media strategy they are usually talking about their Goals (their desired outcome), or the specific tactics used to achieve their goals. A strategy is neither of these things. Strategy may be one of the most misunderstood and misused terms in business, probably because every business expert has their own definition. How strategy was explained to me in my MBA program was:

  • A business strategy is creating operational alignment between all functions and activities of a business.

A communication strategy is a subset of the business strategy. If you buy my professors definition then:

  • A communications strategy is the alignment between all the mar-com groups and their activities in support of the business strategy.

The communications strategy supports the business strategy by communicating the various messages (primarily the companies value proposition) to the various stakeholders of a company (the value proposition is different to each stakeholder). Stakeholders being customers, shareholders (if applicable), employees, partners and anyone else who is impacted by a company. For a company like Microsoft (client) or HP (former employer) that pretty much means everyone.

Therefore a social media strategy,for PR or Marketing, is a subset of the communications strategy. It should support the communications strategy in supporting the business strategy.

So to answer the question: “What are most social media strategies missing?” They are missing organizational alignment with the overall communications strategy which is often not in full alignment with the business strategy to begin with.

Because they are not aligned they are not achieving efficiency. This is why we mostly see one off social media campaigns that don’t accrue to anything.

This problem isn’t unique to social media. It plagues all comms groups; advertising, marketing, PR etc because we often work in our own silos and fail to achieve alignment.

This is no small task and I doubt that true strategic alignment is achievable; we’re imperfect people in imperfect companies. But it starts by first understanding clearly the overall business strategy and then making sure we are aligned to that and not our own personal or department goals.

The question then becomes do you have a social media strategy? Think about that before you answer. Over the last year I have noticed three different strategies for adopting social media (one strategy is to not adapt social media at all but that’s a topic for another post). At the SXSW Social Media Breakfast I presented briefly and talked about the three kinds of strategies. Aliza Sherman was in attendance and captured these three approaches on WebWorkerDaily (go read the comments, they’re great).

The Bolt On Strategy

This is where most businesses are today (assuming they’re doing anything) and really isn’t a strategy in my view because it’s not optimized with existing efforts and resources, it’s more of a phase companies go through. This is the way every company starts off. This is the toe-in-the-water, stop-gap approach. What this looks like is the one off blog, Twitter account or Facebook page that isn’t integrated into anything and many people in the company might not even be aware of. This isn’t a bad way to start, there’s a lot of learning that happens in this phase but it’s not really a strategy.

The danger becomes when more and more groups within the business start bolting on their own individual efforts. The end result is what I call Zombie Media: social media with no brains.

Optimizing Social Media For Your Business

This is the phase more advanced companies are actively working towards. When you use social media as part of your business for any length of time you will quickly realize that you are not getting the most out of your efforts. For all the external output you create you (initially) create multiple extra cycles internally.

Does this sound familiar?

  1. Someone says something bad about your company on Twitter or on a blog or in a comment to a blog or on your Facebook page.  What happens next?
  2. An email is sent out with a screen grab and (maybe) a link to the offending statement.
  3. Multiple people hit the “Reply to All” button in Outlook and the first line reads something like this: “Adding [so-and-so] or [x-team] because (some reason that really means I don’t want to/don’t know how to deal with this).
  4. Repeat step 3 a few more times and the issue gets escalated further and further up the chain.
  5. Now your entire day (and maybe the next) is spent managing the email created by a tweet.
  6. If you’re lucky you get a response to that person (assuming you decide to respond at all) late that day or sometime the next.

Point #6 is, of course, dependent on the fact that you have at least made it to the Bolt On Strategy. How quickly you respond is a direct reflection on how far you are along the spectrum towards optimizing social media for your business.

Within this strategy you have clear decision makers, clear roles and responsibilities and have allocated the right resources to social media. To date this is as far as I have seen any company go.

Optimizing Your Business for Social Media — Beyond Marketing

To me this is the Holy Grail. I don’t think any company has achieved this strategy (some like StockTwits are close). There is an alternative definition of strategy that I have used that I like better than the first one I gave (I know that’s cheating).

Strategy: Art and science of planning and marshaling resources for their most efficient and effective use.

Sounds kind of close to the first definition but without all the business lingo. There’s a key difference though: operational alignment vs. most efficient and effective.

If you think of social media as only a communications channel you will never achieve this strategy. If you perceive social media as the most disruptive resource since the Internet and the Web then you will begin to see the possibilities.

HP is currently the top global PC manufacturer. There was time though when Dell was the top dog and the Investor darling. HP had an unmatched sales channel and there was no way anyone would easily beat it. That is until Dell built a business that was optimized for to the Web, completely bypassing the channel (something they’re now trying to go back and build). Eventually HP matched Dell’s price through acquisitions, scale and building out there Web sales but it was expensive and the Compaq acquisition almost sank the company (it didn’t help that Carly was CEO).

Amazon (client), Netflix and Google have all built businesses optimized for the Web.

Facebook and Twitter have built businesses that enable social media but I have argued that even they are not strategically optimized for social media (I think they’re really close though I just feel like they focus too much on acting like a “real” business — another post). In order to optimize for social media you can’t just address the technology you have to look at the cultural shift that is happening. Businesses need to realize that collectively and globally our priorities are very different than they were ten or even five years ago.

In a previous post I tried to define what some are calling the social business. I’ve adapted that definition slightly to show what a social media strategy would look like.

A business strategy that is optimized for social media will use social technologies to build collaborative relationships across all company stakeholders.  By leveraging social technologies in an open and transparent way businesses will regain and build more trust among stakeholders. This increased trust will result in greater knowledge creation, which the same social technologies have the ability to capture, organize and distribute at a yet to be seen level of efficiency. By building collaborative relationships with all company stakeholders using social technologies, businesses will be able to quickly create and capitalize more innovation.

Business Model vs Business Strategy

At this point some of you may be thinking that I’ve crossed over into talking about business models and not just strategy.  A business model is how you make money. Amazon’s business model is the same as Barnes &  Noble’s but their strategy is optimized for the Web by doing away with physical locations.

One Final Note

If you’re still reading this 1,400 words later, I congratulate and thank you. I fully admit to being a social media Kool-Aid drinker (strawberry kiwi) but I am not saying that the only strategy is throwing out your old business model and strategy and rebuilding it around social media. Very few companies can, will or should create a strategy like this. Just like most companies do not have a business optimized around the Web. Most will end up with some version of the second strategy.

But those few that do will be the next Amazon, Netflix and Google of their industries.


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