Deciding on a social media strategy

Before we really get started on any of the technical issues for The Year Of Living Socially, we really need to resolve the social media end of things, so that we can fulfill the plan of implementing the technical end ‘in public’.  So the first thing we need to do is develop a strategy.  Now, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert; part of the Year of Living Socially project is for me to bone up on all things social.  But here’s a look at what I’ve learned, and what it means to this project.

[Note that because I’m basically a single person organization, this look will be geared towards small shops and freelancers (or as I’m starting to hear more and more, solopreneurs).  If you’re part of a much larger organization, check out the resources at the bottom for articles more geared towards additional things you need to consider.]

Effective technical writing typically follows a pretty simple formula, which you probably learned in school for writing essays:

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
  2. Tell them
  3. Tell them what you told them.

There are a lot of opinions on creating a social media strategy — Develop a Social Media Strategy in 7 Steps is a great starting place — but it basically involves the same type of simple and straightforward common-sense formula as writing a technical piece:

  1. Decide what you want to accomplish.
  2. Decide what you can do to can accomplish it.
  3. Do it.
  4. Measure to see if you accomplished it.

That sounds like a good way to accomplish almost anything, actually, but in this case we’re talking about some issues that are pretty specific to social media, so let’s look at how it applies.

Step 1: Decide what you want to accomplish

In most of these cases, we’re going to be starting with the general and working our way back to the specific.

What is your business goal?

For example, before we can decide what we want to accomplish with our social media activities, we need to decide what we want to accomplish with our business in the first place.  In my case, my business is creating technical content, and the way that I get people to hire me is to convince them of two things:

  1. I can write.
  2. I understand their technology.

Fortunately, #1 is pretty easy; I’ve written more than 10 books on technical topics, and literally hundreds of articles and tutorials that are out on the Internet, so writing samples aren’t a problem. Sometimes #2 is a little dicey, though, because in a lot of situations, I’m writing about products or technologies that haven’t even been released yet.  In that case, I need to convince them that I can learn their technology.

What is the big picture?

But I can’t convince them of anything until I actually “speak” to them, and I can’t do that until I make contact with them. So that means two things. First, as Jay Baer says, your social media strategy needs to be about just one of the following:

  • Awareness
  • Sales
  • Loyalty

In my case, I’m just looking for awareness that I exist, and that I’m out here should someone need a technical article, tutorial or other content.

Where are you on the contact scale to start with?

Second, he points out that your potential audience has had varying degrees of contact with you:

  • Nothing (or in this case, they’ve never heard of you)
  • Aware of you, but never acted
  • Acted once
  • Repeat actions/enthusiasts
  • Advocates

He suggests focusing on two adjacent groups, so I’m targeting people who know nothing about me, and people who may have heard of me and know what I do, but who have never contacted me.

What do you want people to do? Ultimately, my long term goal is to get potential customers to contact me regarding work, or at the least to have heard of me when I contact them.

Step 2: Decide what you can do to can accomplish it

We already know we want to “reach people’, but that’s too general.  We need to get more specific about who we’re trying to reach and how we’re going to do it.

Who are you trying to reach?

This one takes a bit more thought than you might think.  In my case, though I write technical content, it’s usually the marketing department that hires me, because I specialize in expanding the audience for a product by providing the necessary skills to use it.  So it stands to reason that these are the people I’d be targeting, but that’s not entirely accurate.  Here’s why:

If I were targeting marketing managers in general, I’d be talking about, well, marketing, and that doesn’t show that I can do the job I want to do for them.  (Besides, I don’t actually like talking about marketing, and being passionate about what you’re doing is definitely key to being real.)  Instead, I want to target, at the very least, marketing mangers at the types of companies I want to work for, which means technical companies.

Also, more than once I’ve booked a job because the marketing manager asked his or her developers who they thought would be good at producing content.  Add this to the fact that the better my reputation is among developers, the more effective my content will ultimately be for a client, and it seems to me that targeting other developers in the spaces I want to play in is a good choice.

Where are they?

Forrester Research suggests that before you decide what tools you’re going to use, you need to determine the capabilities of your target audience.  If you’re targeting college students, they point out, you should be thinking about social networks, while business travelers are more likely to be impacted by product reviews.  (And if you’re going after teenagers, it seems, mobile and texting are the place to be.)

Moreover, once you’ve narrowed it down that far, you need to go a little further.  Developers, in my experience, are in the blogosphere and some social networks, and on Twitter, but not as much, I think, as other communities might be.  (Maybe it’s because we just follow so much information, a Twitter stream just seems like so much noise.)

As for social networks, where does your target audience congregate?  You need to find them, and if necessary, follow them.  In any case, you need to narrow your focus.  You simply cannot keep up with every single blog and every single social network.  Pick two or three at most and stick with them as long as your audience does.

For developers, LinkedIn seems a good choice.  (Maybe it’s because so many of us are solo-preneurs.)  Also, Twitter seems so ubiquitous, I’m not sure I can pass it up. (Yes, I know that’s really a terrible reason.) Finally, I feel compelled to try to make a go of it on Facebook, for a couple of reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that it’s the current social media darling.  I’m curious about the technical aspects of it (how much can you customize, and what’s involved in creating a Facebook app?) and because I’d like to see how effective it is compared to LinkedIn.  So those three networks will be my focus.  (In addition to my actual blog, of course!)

What do they want?

So far we’ve been focused on our own goals — what do I want? — but perhaps the biggest key to success in social media is in not focusing on what you want, but on providing value to the people you’re trying to reach.  So what does your target audience want that you can give them?  In my case, they want to be able to do their jobs more easily, with less pain.  (Isn’t that what most of us want, really?)  So I’ll be focusing on content that provides that kind of value.

Step 3: Do it

OK, so you know what you want to do, now it’s time to plan on doing it.  It’s nuts and bolts time.

Who’s going to produce content?

In my case, it’s easy to know who’s going to produce the content, because, as the Monty Python mountaineering sketch goes, “There is only me, sir.”  But if your organization is more than just you,  make sure you know who’s responsible for what going in.

What kind of content will they produce?

As far as what kind of content to produce, your choices of form range from a tiny tweet that links to someone else’s content all the way up to a multi-chapter ebook.  In between you’ve got articles, blog posts, videos, comments on other people’s blogs, and any number of other options.

In my case, I’ll be doing the following:

  • Tweeting valuable technical content found elsewhere.
  • Writing how-to content on this blog.
  • Writing more substantial pieces on this blog.
  • Commenting on other tech blogs where I feel like I can make a contribution.
  • Adding to existing conversations in appropriate groups on LinkedIn and Facebook.

(HubSpot has a great webcast, 5 Tips for Advanced B2B Business Blogging, that lists different kinds of blog posts.  I already have notes for a blog post about it, but it’s definitely worth your time.)

How often will they produce it?

It’s easy to get behind, or to get overwhelmed, when you are trying to produce content on a regular basis, and one way to avoid that is to create an editorial calendar.  The very first rule is “don’t talk unless you have something to say”.  Other than that, I’m setting my calendar based on guidelines suggested by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman in Content Rules (which I’m not finished reading but is a fantastic book so far):

  • Daily:  At least one valuable twitter update, blog comment, or comment in a Linkedin or Facebook group.
  • Two to Three times a week:  How-to posts to the blog, with a goal of posting Monday, Thursday, and Saturday.
  • Monthly: A significant post on a complicated topic, such as this one.
  • Quarterly:  A thoughtful “philosophical” post, about technology trends.

What are your target audience talking about?

Now, I’m not one to follow the crowd, I’m not advocating “me too” writing, and I’m definitely not in favor of the echo chamber that the blogosphere has become.  But it is good to know what your audience is talking about so you know what’s on their mind, and so that you can offer your own opinions.  Some good places to see what’s being discussed, as suggested by Mashable:

  • Social Media Firehose: Kingsley Joseph used Yahoo Pipes to create one RSS feed that aggregates results from Flickr, Digg, YouTube, FriendFeed and other social media sites.
  • Latest Blog Mentions Pipe: This is another Yahoo Pipe that will aggregate brand references across several major blog search engines, including Technorati, Icerocket and Google Blog Search.
  • Alltop: This website aggregates the top posts from the top blogs around the world. Because it divides the blogs into categories by topic, it’s also a great place to begin building your list of relevant blogs to read.

Step 4: Measure to see if you accomplished it

I think it’s Peter Drucker who said, “That which is measured, improves.”

How do you define success?

If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?  Success doesn’t always mean traffic.  If you just want exposure, that might be one measure.  If you were trying to sell something, you might consider success in terms of sales leads (for example, registrations to download a whitepaper).  Here are some measures you might consider:

  • Traffic (hits to any page on your site)
  • Traffic (unique users)
  • Traffic (a low bounce rate — percentage of users who visit just one page, then leave)’
  • RSS subscribers
  • Mailing list subscribers
  • Number of (non-spam) comments to your blog
  • Number of Facebook fans
  • Number of Facebook “like”s
  • Number of Twitter followers
  • Number of Twitter re-tweets
  • Twitter “follower to list ratio”
  • Number of incoming links
  • Topic trending (to measure how often people are talking about you)
  • Twitter sentiment (how people on Twitter feel about a topic)

How do you measure success?  Mashable’s got a good list of tools you can use to measure a lot of these things, along with a discussion of social media ROI.   Some tools to start with:

Google Analytics:  It’s a good detailed look at who’s visiting your site, where they’re coming from, and what they did while they were there.
Twitter Grader:  Social media is all about influence, and we are now starting to see a whole slew of tools for measuring influence based on what you’re posting, and what people are posting about you (or reposting from you).
Feedburner:  OK, maybe I’m old school even talking about RSS syndication at this point, but aggregation (through Google Reader and other tools) is only going to get more popular, not less, so it’s worth mentioning.  When you run your feeds through Feedburner, they give you a pretty nice set of stats. Is it “social” …?  OK, probably not, but it’s still important.
Social mention:  Like it says, “Like Google Alerts, but for social media”.
TweetReach: Measures how many people saw your content, even after someone else picks it up and runs with it.

As we go along, I’m sure I’ll start amassing some additional tools, and I’ll be sure to update this post.  In the meantime, feel free to leave your favorites in the comments.

What are we shooting for? I’m literally starting out at the beginning; though I’ve got years worth of postings on this blog, I’ve moved it to a new URL, so it might as well be brand new.  I also created a new Twitter account, and a new Facebook account, so they’re all starting out at zero. (I’ve had my LinkedIn profile for years, but I’ve never really done anything with it.)

Now, I really don’t know how things are going to work out, so I think it’s silly for me to plan a goal for the end of the year at this point.  Instead, I’m going to set a quarterly goal, and re-evaluate when we get there.  So by April 1, 2011, I would like to have:

  • Web traffic of greater than 100 hits per day
  • At least 50 RSS subscribers
  • At least 1 comment to the blog per week
  • At least 100 Twitter followers
  • At least 1 re-tweet a week
  • At least 5 incoming links

Hopefully, we’ll have blown by all these numbers, and we can set a more robust goal in April.  I’ll see about putting up a page somewhere where you can monitor things with me.

Moving forward

So in moving forward with social media, the first thing we had to do was to decide what we wanted to accomplish, and in my case, it’s simply to raise awareness that I’m here, and show what I do.   I’ll be doing that by creating content and interactions aimed at providing value for other developers in the fields in which I like to work.  I’ve settled on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook (in addition to this blog), and I’ll be working according to a regular schedule.  Finally, I’ve set some fairly modest goals for the next three months as we ramp up, just so we can get the feel of how things are going.

I don’t expect things to simply explode; the days of “if you build it, they will come” are long over.  But I do hope to have some fairly positive results when I re-evaluate progress in the spring.

Some additional resources you might find useful:

The POST Method: A systematic approach to social strategy

How To Develop a Social Media Strategy: A Roadmap for Integration

The Key To Developing A Social Media Strategy

Ongoing List of Social Media Strategies from Enterprise Corporations

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