Balancing Discipline and Experimentation in Social Media

Businessman with an umbrella crossing between two cliffs on a rope.For small and midsize firms, social media marketing can be tricky business. Being relatively new, social media pegs doesn’t always fit into traditional marketing holes. Owners and marketers within a firm don’t know what to make of social media: is it a technique, a tool, or a toy?

A lot of companies gravitate to one of two extremes when they begin doing social media:

  1. They throw all traditional marketing and business rules out the window and treat social media as an alien life form
  2. They cling desperately to all the old rules and smother their program, barely giving it a chance to breath

As you might imagine, neither of these extremes lends itself to successful social media engagement. Instead, what firms must do is strike a balance between discipline and experimentation — and this is easier said than done. Process- or financial-driven firms dislike diving headfirst into uncharted waters; free-wheeling firms avoid measuring the quality and depth of their dive.

Here are a few suggestions for striking the right balance between discipline and experimentation in social media, drawn from my experience as an independent consultant and more recently working with small and midsize firms in industries as diverse as golf tee times and custom injection plastic molding.

Study social media theory

This sounds boring, but in reality it’s quite fascinating. Business leaders are doing their firms an injustice if they don’t learn enough about social media to guide its evolution within the operation. Understanding how social media works in principle helps us understand where to apply discipline and where to embrace experimentation.

A couple of books I’d highly recommend are The New Rules of Marketing & PR, by David Meerman Scott; and Marketing to the Social Web, by Larry Weber. For the latest and greatest information, Alltop – Social Media is a great place to start browsing quality articles. (Please leave your reading recommendations in comments!)

Organize and empower a start-up staff

One of the surest ways to botch a social startup is to have employees dabble in social media as a sideline. I’ve never seen it work. Whether it’s social media or anything else, a program needs a leader, someone who is accountable for results and empowered to achieve them. An option that’s almost as bad as the dabbling approach is to put someone “in charge” of social media, either because he/she has time or plays a lot of FarmVille on Facebook. The former approach is the blind following the blind; the latter is the blind leading the blind.

The winning approach is to give the program to a qualified leader, and set-up a separate and independent operation/staff. Split social media off from the core operation and you’ll spare yourself the headaches of turf battles and continuous second-guessing. As an independent initiative, the social team can experiment with confidence and still be accountable for results.

Establish clear goals, milestones and metrics

Three traditional rule that should never be tossed out the window are defining programs goals, milestones and milestones … and yet I never ceased to be amazed by firms who do exactly that when it comes to social media.

As I see it, social media experimentation is all about tactics and techniques. This is where companies need to give staff a lot of latitude. Social media discipline, on the other hand, is all about frameworks. There’s nothing magical or mystical about social media: it has the same goals as other marketing programs, it has definable milestones, and its results can be measured with the same degree of precision as any other comparable marketing program.

Over to you – How do you balance discipline and experimentation in your firm? What advice would you give a company just starting out with social media?

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