2009 Apr 02
Tools to Support Social Media Marketing
David M. Raab
Information Management
April 2009

Social media in all its forms—blogs, online social networks, pills forums, file sharing, Wikis, and the rest—continues to evolve at a head spinning pace. But for marketers and IT departments, it has already moved past “my cat is cute” to become a can’t-ignore business tool.

Yet “can’t ignore” isn’t the same as “can manage”.  There are literally thousands of software applications to help you monitor and interact with social media.   Picking your tools is a major project in itself.

To bring some order to this process, first step back and define your objectives.  Common social media applications include:

– gathering market intelligence about attitudes towards your company and competitors
– executing campaigns for outbound marketing, publicity and community development
– identifying potential customers based on their published comments
– connecting with people through common acquaintances and recommendations
– tracking behaviors and attitudes of sales prospects and customers
– measuring campaign results (including, of course, the results of social media campaigns)
– providing support and responding to complaints in public or private

Many of these applications share some requirements, although the mix is different for each.  Here is a brief list of primary requirements by application:

– gather market intelligence: keyword alerts to identify references to the company or product; sentiment measurement to understand the nature of the references; external site traffic and link measurement to measure influence; trend reporting and analysis

– execute campaigns: content creation and posting; external traffic and link measurement; search engine optimization and paid advertising to build traffic to your own sites; platforms to build and manage your own communities

– identify potential customers: keyword alerts, social network research to profile  individuals

– connect with people: personal network and reputation development; social network research

– track behaviors: social network research, Web site visits and behaviors; behavior-based alerts

– measure results: traditional Web analytics (traffic sources and volumes); keyword alerts; sentiment measurement; search volume and destinations; link tracking; content rating on sites like Technorati and Digg; track use of company-generated content

– support and complaints: keyword alerts, sentiment measurement, social network research, external traffic and link measurement

There are dozens and sometimes hundreds of tools to address each requirement.  Social media themselves are a great place to identify the candidates, since expert bloggers often post information on products within a given specialty, and community members are usually eager to share their own experience.  Many of these people can also be hired as consultants—something that can be well worth the investment.

But before you jump into the details of individual products, you’ll want to define a strategy.  Almost every company today has several social media applications on its agenda, so you’ll want to inventory the projects to see which requirements are shared.  Ideally you’ll then select a company standard tool for each requirement.  The reason is less to save on software costs than to avoid supporting more than one platform.  Even if each department runs the tool independently, a shared standard will let them compare notes and help each other out.

Your strategy should also consider the need to integrate the different products, in reports if not actual operation.  Most Web-oriented systems are designed to be open, which in practical terms translates to Application Program Interfaces (APIs) that allow external access to their data and functions.  But the scope and efficiency of those APIs varies widely because vendors must balance openness against external demands on shared servers and the never-quite-dead goal of customer lock-in.  So there’s no avoiding the need to define the required points of integration and to assess carefully whether proposed systems can support them.

Another part of your strategy must estimate the value expected from each application and from meeting individual requirements.  This allows you to add the different supporting systems in the sequence that makes the most sense from both business and technical perspectives.  These choices are essential in the current economy, where every penny and every moment must be spent as productively as possible.

Your strategy must also set standards for vendor stability.  This is especially challenging for social media tools, which are often cobbled together by tiny start-ups.  The good news is that switching to a new system is often inexpensive, even counting the cost of staff time and business interruption.  So unless a particular function is truly mission critical, you can usually take a chance on a great product from a shaky vendor.  In reality, most of your initial social media projects are experimental, so learning quickly and cheaply is more important than finding a system you’ll be able to keep for years.  Much of what you learn is about the underlying technologies and business applications, so that knowledge will retain its value even if you change tools..

Indeed, the most important part of your social media technology strategy has to do with people, not tools.  It’s a truism, but you really do need to train your staff to understand the business objectives of the various projects, and the functions, data and processes needed to support those objectives.  These basic principles will change much less rapidly than the technology itself, and a well-trained staff working in a sound framework will easily adjust to whatever the social media geniuses come up with next.

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David M. Raab is a Principal at Raab Associates Inc., a consultancy specializing in marketing technology and analytics.  He can be reached at draab@raabassociates.com.

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