I had lunch today with Ryan Beckland, Co-founder of Motivation Science, one of the amazing start-up companies from the 2012 class at Tech Wildcatters, the award-winning technology innovation incubator in my hometown of Dallas, Texas. He wanted me to meet one of the candidates he is considering for the all-important marketing management slot in his fledgling company.

During the conversation, I got the chance to hear from a talented young woman currently spearheading digital media for a major brand. She mentioned that she had majored in philosophy instead of marketing, which I think helps any marketer because classes in philosophy, critical thinking, and history help teach you how the greatest minds in human history have solved problems – and solving problems is critical for marketing success. My lunch companions had a lot of good ideas and thoughts to share — she had clearly thought through the strategies and tactics she is using on her job.

When I got home, a friend called to tell me that someone she’d interviewed for a job managing social media at her company had commented that the thing he liked most about social media was that there are no rules — and he likes being completely free to say or do anything, without worrying about legal and corporate communications restrictions. (Surprised he didn’t get the job? I’m not.)

It’s true that social media doesn’t have hard and fast rules. But there are definitely guidelines, although they change quickly. The truth is that what works today in social media may not work tomorrow – and it almost certainly won’t work next year.

Social media evolves and changes quickly, so a marketer who wants to be effective needs to base strategy and tactics on solid marketing 101 lessons. I hope that my five “rules” will help – but they certainly aren’t carved in stone, and are subject to change without warning.

Don’t Be Pushy

They call it “earned media” – and one of the first things you’ll learn in social media marketing is that you have to win the right to be heard. At its heart, social media engagement is an ongoing, global conversation between people and companies. Participation in that two-way conversation is mandatory for success.

If all you do is “push” your own content – without ever retweeting, responding to, or commenting on other people’s thoughts and content – you’ll quickly find that you don’t get the results you’d get if you were a more, well, social participant.

My personal pet peeve here is people who send me emails when I follow them that contain some variation of “Thanks for following. Visit my website for …. (promotional offer). And don’t forget to “Like” us on Facebook, too!” It tells me that the person I just followed is new to social media and is likely to be a content pusher.

One of the lessons you learn very quickly in social media is that traditional forms of marketing don’t work very well in social media. New tools and new communications channels require new tactics.

In her book, The Zen of Social Media Marketing, best-selling author and social media guru Shama Kabani talks about the idea of generosity and sharing in social media. She isn’t talking about online fundraising and crowd-sourcing to raise money (although both those ideas work). She’s talking about the most basic idea that communications is a two-way street in social media. Sharing other people’s ideas, being friendly, approachable, and positive are the actions that can set a social media master like Shama apart from other marketers online.

Deliver Content People Want

Sounds pretty basic, doesn’t it? But too many marketers forget that the power base has shifted from the days with Don Draper and the “Mad Men” controlled the media. Back then, they told us all the wonderful things that their client’s products would do for us – and we listened, because we had no choice. Now, consumers have the power to block most marketing messages – and they aren’t going to give that power away.

So if you want to use social media and digital marketing to reach an audience, the most important thing is to deliver well-written, informative, and entertaining content in all its forms. Blog posts, tweets, status updates, videos, podcasts, photographs, webinars, white papers – and dozens of other kinds of information. New content matters – Google and Bing love frequently updated content, and nothing else has the power to move people like great content.

I’ve written about this topic often, and it bears repeating. Content really is king. If you doubt me, take a look at actor and social activist George Takei’s Facebook page, or at the way content marketing masters like J.K. Rowling and Peter Jackson control the flow of information about their new “products”.

Remember What Your Mother Said

Nearly everybody’s mother said something like this:

  • “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
  • “People don’t get upset because you lie to them. They get upset because they can never trust you again.”
  • “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

Mom was right, especially in the context of social media. Nothing will ruin your reputation in social media faster than misrepresenting yourself, treating other people badly, or delivering false information. Many, many companies have learned the hard way that creating a fake persona to post online reviews may be easy – but it’s very, very costly when you get caught.

And even more have learned that mistreating your customers, employees, or even competitors can destroy years of painstaking and costly brand building. Need some reminders? How about United Breaks Guitars, Facebook’s Terms of Service Changes, or Kenneth Cole’s Twitter disaster during the Egyptian uprising?

The most important thing to remember in social media marketing is that if you want people to trust you, you have to treat them with respect – and that includes responding to negative posts or customer inquiries instead of just deleting anything except your own specials and promotions. More importantly, it means avoiding treating others with disrespect.

I recommend using your photo as your avatar and your name as your handle. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have an identity tied to your brand. It’s just that in social media, people are more likely to relate to and build trust in other people than corporations.

A number of the most effective social media marketers use their full name for their personal social media, and a short version of their name with the brand for work-related marketing messages. For example, @janedoe for personal tweets, but @WidgetMakerJane for company tweets.

As the number of lawsuits filed by employers against former employees over social media continues to increase, this makes it clear and simple to make sure that you can keep your social media identity when you change jobs.

Avoid Magpie Marketing

New social media sites seem to crop up every week or so, and even the best multi-channel scheduling applications can’t keep up with them all. Some marketers are like magpies, moving quickly from one shiny new marketing tactic to the next.

Personally, I think it’s nearly impossible to maintain an active presence on every social network. Luckily, most brands don’t need to. For some brands, Pinterest is vital – for others, it’s just another chore that probably won’t add to the bottom line. And that’s true for nearly every social media site. Geography matters — the most popular social media sites in Europe or Asia don’t even register with American buyers, but they’re critical for global companies.

The key is to be on the social media sites where your customers are. How do you know that? Well, you could always ask. Or you can use a low-cost and powerful service like FlipTop or Socialyzer — I’m a satisfied customer of both, and went so far as to invest in Socialyzer. The kinds of campaign intelligence that tools like these dliver can turn an ordinary marketer into a social media super hero who is light years ahead of the competition. (Listen, if it helps a Quaker grandmother like me master social media marketing, a tool is definitely worth your time!)

It seems to me that some social media “experts” forget that the rules of marketing still apply. Social media is just one channel, not a replacement for traditional marketing. The other rule that is easy to forget is that marketing is a marathon, not a sprint.

One of the worst mistakes I see are from the drive-by posters (people who push content to a LinkedIn group or Facebook page, but never bother to respond to anyone who comments ont heir post.) I admit I’ve been guilty of it myself. I get excited about a LinkedIn group or social channel, and post diligently for a few days or weeks. And then I get busy, and forget….until I have another message I want to share there. In fact, I recently took an 8 week hiatus from all social media, thanks to a woman texting and driving who rear-ended me on the freeway. (I found it hard to type with two broken thumbs and a separated shoulder!) But it’s a bad idea, and I don’t recommend it.

Many years ago, we used to warn PR clients that no single story – no matter where it appeared – was going to make a product a success. (The converse – a really bad story – can spell the end of a product, however.) That’s especially true with social media. Yes, you get an almost instant read on how successful something is — and campaigns and messages can go viral (for good or ill) in minutes.

Most people need to hear a marketing message over and over before they accept and act on it. So don’t start a blog if you aren’t going to keep it up for at least a year, and don’t expect social media to replace spending in other areas. Trying to use social media as a way around your customer’s normal buying cycles simply doesn’t work.

Test Messages, Channels & Tools

As I said at the beginning, what works in social media today may not work tomorrow, and it’s nearly certain that it won’t work a year from now. So test your messages, your communications channels, your landing pages, your link shortener, your writing style, and the tools you use to deliver your message. Run A/B tests frequently.

Social media isn’t free – it consumers the most irreplaceable resource of all: time. But the costs are reasonable, and the rapid response allows plenty of room for experimentation.

One trick I use to make testing easy and quick is to write the social media messages at the same time I create new content, landing pages or campaigns. I may write 20 tweets, two social media bookmark site abstracts (these are the forms you fill out on Reddit and StumbleUpon that describe the link you’re posting), a press release, and a blog post for any given piece of content I want to post – on top of the new content and its supporting marketing materials (emails, newsletter article, landing page, etc.).

Once the content is written, it’s simple to schedule it, distribute it, and compare the results across multiple communications channels, different times and days, and different audiences. I suspect that anyone who runs a series of tests will be as surprised as I was the first few times I tried it. But if you act on the information you gain from your tests, your results will get better. Just keep testing, and keep tweaking your tactics.

Cartoon credit: The amazing Australian cartoonist Scott Hampson created this image, which he made available under a Creative Commons license on his website.

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