One of the biggest ways that marketing and advertising departments fail to effectively use social media is to treat it as a method for self-promotion rather than an online community to interact and engage with consumers. As many organizations improperly engage with their audiences online, it raises the question for businesses and professionals building their brand presence: what is social media and how should they be using it?

What social media is

As defined in Dr. Regina Luttrell’s book Social Media: How to Engage, Share, and Connect, social media refers to the “activities, practices, and behaviors among communities of people who gather online to share information, knowledge and opinions using conversational media. Conversational media are web-based applications that make it possible to create and easily transmit content in the form of words, pictures, videos, and audio” (pg. 20).

More than 2.8 billion people access the internet and 74 percent of adults who are online use social media. Although social media is in its teenage years, 71 percent of companies planned to increase their digital marketing spending by 27 percent in 2016 (Luttrell, pg. 1).

For businesses and professionals, social media allows for improving brand loyalty and awareness, increasing conversion rates, building strong relationships with their communities and adding credibility through large user followings.

While platforms are gradually transitioning toward “pay-to-play” methods for advertising, organic reach is one of the best ways for promotion because there’s no cost to create an account and instantly post content. However, the mentality of free advertising is detrimental for businesses, as improper engagement will result in a low following, poor credibility and minimum conversions from the communities they’re trying to reach.

How to use social media

A cardinal rule for social media is the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of posts should inform, entertain and educate your audience, while 20 percent is to directly promote the business. Going back to Dr. Luttrell’s definition, social media is used to gather and share information, knowledge and opinions in an online community.

“We want to be around people who make us most comfortable and have similar interests, ideas, ideals, and experiences. This premise also holds true for consumers who desire to interact with companies that they relate to, connect with, and feel comfortable aligning themselves with,” (Luttrell, pg. 19).

Too often do companies create Twitter and Facebook accounts to create content that reinforces the idea of how great the business is. Users don’t want to follow an account that follows this kind of promotion; if they’re following the organization, they most likely already know how great the company is. They want to take part in a community, share ideas and consume information that either engages them or reinforces pre-existing beliefs and opinions. Communication needs to be  a two-way symmetrical model, rather than a “me, me, me” and “I, I, I” philosophy.

Oddly enough, Luttrell makes the point that marketing without selling can still be profitable, a formula that most successful social media accounts use for businesses.

“Products and services come second to sharing information, connecting with your online community, and telling your story through genuine interactions with consumers. Creating content that is not about your brand but rather relates to topics your audience is interested in is the quintessential idea inherent in successful social media marketing and content marketing campaigns” (pg. 45).

Brands that effectively engage with their audience

Luttrell mentions in her book a few brands that do an excellent job of establishing themselves as trustworthy, friendly resources without directly selling their products:

  • American Express accumulated seven million likes on Facebook in 2017 by illustrating what’s possible with an American Express card through photos.
  • Procter & Gamble created a microsite for girls and female teenagers that allows them to ask experts questions on topics such as sex and intimacy, online safety, substance abuse, confidence and self-esteem. They also made a fan page on Facebook that acts as a public forum for community users; in a study performed by Forrester Research, microsites like these proved to be four times as effective as traditional marketing campaigns.
  • General Mills also created the Tablespoon Cooking Community, which is an interactive website for people to find great resources on recipes and topics that are curated specifically for its users.

Social media isn’t a promotional tool

It’s important to know who your audience is, what they’re interested in and the discussions that they’re having online. Businesses and professionals building their brand need to share information and tell stories through genuine interactions with their consumers. Following an 80/20 rule is a good rule of thumb for promotion, but products and services should always come second to engaging with your audience.

If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend reading Regina Luttrell’s book Social Media: How to Engage, Share, and Connect; it’s a great resource for public relations professionals, and individuals interested in the rapidly expanding social media landscape.

In my next post I plan on discussing various avenues of communication in the social landscape and how to drive engagement, so stay tuned!