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How To Build An Effective Social Marketing Strategy

2013 October 16
by Greg Satell

In the 20th century, nearly every marketing problem had one solution—the 30 second TV ad.  If you had a product to sell, you could reach everybody you needed to with a powerful, highly polished message in a very short period of time.

Yet marketing in the digital age is different.  Building awareness is no longer sufficient.  In fact, it may even benefit your competitors more than it does your brand because once consumers react to your message, they will be retargeted using digital methods.

So the basic function of marketing promotion has changed.  It is no longer enough to grab attention, you need to be able to hold attention and that’s where social strategy comes in.  The age of catchy slogans and massive ad campaigns is over.  Brands in the 21st century need to become more like publishers and strategy needs to follow from that.

Clarifying The Mission

Content strategy has become a popular specialty in marketing lately.  The problem is that very few content strategists actually know what they’re talking about.  They tend to approach content as if it was just a longer version of an ad and therefore double the usual amount of psychobabble about the “consumer mindset.”

In truth, a publisher’s first loyalty is not to the consumer, but to the editorial mission.  That doesn’t mean you should ignore consumers, trends or anything else that’s going on.  What it does mean is that great publications stand for something.

Apple stands for design.  Harley Davidson stands for friendship and camaraderie.  Red Bull stands for an extreme lifestyle.  These brands successfully engage consumers because the brand’s mission supersedes whatever they happen to be selling at any given time.

So the first thing you need to do to create a successful social strategy is figure out what you stand for.

Identifying Analogues

There is probably no greater peril in marketing than the misplaced compulsion to be original.  Originality, after all, is not a virtue in itself, but only has value if it’s meaningful. Try to be different for difference’s sake and you’ll accomplish nothing more than being weird.  That might thrill the guys in the office, but it will fail in the marketplace.

So the best way to start formulating a social strategy is to identify others who share your mission.  What are they doing?  What succeeds and what doesn’t?  What can we add? What can we subtract?  There’s no reason to try to reinvent the wheel.

When I was a professional publisher, we would insist on 3-5 analogues for any development or editorial brief and we found that practice absolutely essential.  It not only helped us adopt best practices and avoid poor ones, it also helped everyone visualize exactly what we were trying to accomplish.

Focus on Structure

Law and Order was one of the most successful TV shows in history.  Running for 20 seasons, it not only ruled the ratings, but was a critical success as well.

Regular viewers of the show became familiar with its clear structure.  First, a crime, then an investigation leading to an arrest and prosecution.  Somewhere along the way a snag would be hit, creating tension that would drive the story.  You could almost set your watch by it.

Every successful content product has a clearly defined structure.  TV shows have plot formulas, radio stations have clocks, magazines have brand bibles and web sites have usability rules.  These are rigorously followed.

While this may seem boring in concept, creating a clear structure is absolutely essential in practice.  Any cognitive energy your audience uses up trying to navigate your content lessens the amount of energy they can spend on what you’re trying to tell them.  A standard format is also helpful in setting the constraints under which creativity thrives.

A legendary editor once told me that a great content product delivers two things: consistency and surprise.  I think the same is true with social marketing.  You should set expectations, but also feel free to break the rules now an then.  However, without consistency, there can be no surprise, you just make a mess.

Create A Community (Not An Audience)

Up till now, I’ve focused mainly on content.  That’s deliberate, because without compelling content that informs, excites and inspires, social marketing doesn’t have a chance.  It simply will not be effective.  However, the mark of a great social marketing program is that it builds more than an audience—it builds a community.

This is where things often go wildly, wildly wrong because social marketers mistakenly equate the strength of their community with the size of their following.  They establish fans on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks as key performance indicators and then blast them with brand messages.

The truth is that the strength of your community has much less to do with how consumers are connected to you than how they are connected to each other.  That’s how great social brands, like Apple, Harley and eBay built devoted followings long before anyone even heard of social media.

The bottom line is that we are now in a post-promotional age where brand messages are only half the battle.  To build a great brand today you need to build great brand experiences and the best way to do that is to build a community around shared values with content that holds attention.

– Greg

10 Responses leave one →
  1. October 16, 2013

    This post made my day, well we’ll see if I win the lottery I may forget about this post. In the meantime my thoughts are:

    “So the best way to start formulating a social strategy is to identify others who share your mission. What are they doing? What succeeds and what doesn’t? What can we add? What can we subtract? There’s no reason to try to reinvent the wheel.”

    I agree 100% but would add my own one trick pony which is identify the problems your audience wants to solve. In healthcare that is find the problems you patients are seeking solutions to and you will become an analogue to that patient. HCP and providers are already trusted, well to a point, helping solve problems secures that trust better and more effectively.

  2. October 16, 2013


    Wow! Thanks. That’s some strong praise.

    Unfortunately, I’m going to have to disagree with you. I actually left out needs analysis on purpose. It’s very hard to separate it from consumer analysis and then you’re down the rabbit hole. When formulating social strategy, it’s best to stay mission focused. Needs analysis is important as well, but it can wait for execution.

    I realize that in health care, it’s very hard to separate the two, but you should try. It will make you rethink how you deliver content, who you partner with, etc.

    – Greg

  3. October 16, 2013

    Greg: That is how we learn by hearing other points of view, ideas, etc reflecting on that new knowledge and putting it into action. And since I ascribe to only knowledge can change our consciousness I am going to integrate your point regarding needs assessment as it relates to social media into my thinking.

    But in healthcare specific to HCP learning and CME it is critical that a needs assessment be completed to see where gaps resides within the HCP current treatment, community health, failure to integrate new knowledge into practice, etc. But I believe that SM specific to healthcare cannot be thrown against the wall like so much poop to see what sticks. Mission specific is smart and clear but how many people identify a mission that is crystal clear? Or have a mission and keep moving the goal posts.

    Bottom line thank you for new knowledge.

  4. October 16, 2013


    Yes. As I mentioned, it gets a bit dicey in Health Care. It’s hard to separate the cure (i.e. the mission) from the disease (i.e. the need) and at some point, you need to think seriously about needs. So I’m not suggesting you ignore them.

    However, once you start thinking about needs, you inevitably start thinking about tactics. So it’s helpful to start by thinking about the mission first. D we want to educate or help find a cure? Do we want to improve lifestyle choices or connect people to better treatment. All of these are needs, but trying to fulfill all of them is probably too much for one effort (unless you’re the American Cancer Society or something).

    So, in other words, there are usually too many needs out there to build a coherent strategy, you usually just end up adding more and more needs until you have a mess. That’s why I’m suggesting to think about the mission first. It’ll help narrow things down a bit and make for a better product.

    – Greg

  5. October 17, 2013

    Greg, very impressive read.

    “…to build a community around shared values with content that holds attention” – I like it!

    Today’s business dynamics is out of the traditional tools which are slow enough to grab the elusive profit…

    Context vs content, relationships vs products, community vs audience… Community (=ecosystem) is the social machine with self-developing activity which can pull (not push) the business and profit non-deliberately based on co-evolutionary processes…


  6. October 17, 2013

    Very true. Thanks Sergei.

    – Greg

  7. October 28, 2013

    Greg –

    Very insightful. Thanks for posting. A couple of points strongly resonated with me.

    First, the concept of community. It feels like with social media there is a lot of focus on pushing out content for the sake of the push and checking the box, but what we really want and need is engagement and interactions. If there is better content going out, it will help pull people into your community rather than simple being outside observers.

    Second, this quote is key: “social marketers mistakenly equate the strength of their community with the size of their following.” In our never ending quest to measure ROI with (too many) metrics, companies and their management team can lose sight of the social media impacts, the meaningful ones being longer-term relationship development. As it has been said, everything that can be counted, should not! I personally feel that measuring the value and success of social-based marketing is an area that is ripe for much discussion.

    Thanks again Greg for your always insightful and thought-provoking posts!


  8. October 28, 2013

    I consider myself to be a newbie/hobbyist in regards to social media. This is really one of the most educational and original posts that I’ve seen on the subject in quite some time!

    All the points are great, but the one regarding structure is what really resonates with me. Too often you see social media efforts that are just all over the board. Some brands are too quiet, while others are like a fly buzzing around your head. I was shocked when I starting following the twitter account of an online magazine that I enjoy, only to see about 20-30 tweets that were all posted within the past couple of hours. Needless to say, I unfollowed them pretty quickly. Not because I do not appreciate their articles or whatever other content they wish to share. It is just that I do not want them monopolizing that particular social media channel.

    The fact that social media is seen as an afterthought by far too many firms is reflected in the utter lack of structure that you see. Thanks for reminding myself and others, that it is an absolutely crucial part of any successful social media strategy.

  9. October 28, 2013

    Great points Net! Thanks for sharing.

    – Greg

  10. October 28, 2013


    Yes, structure is key. This is an increasingly well researched area (e.g. innovation networks, Broadway plays, etc.), but very little of the insight has filtered into the mainstream.

    – Greg

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