Billboarding vs. Onboarding in Social Media Marketing

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Firms approach social media with two distinctly different styles, which we can think of as billboarding and onboarding. The reason I call them “styles” is because in many cases, they are not well thought-out strategies but rather tendencies or temperaments. However, it’s important to be aware of which style you are using, because each supports a somewhat different set of objectives. In this post I’ll describe these styles in the hope it will help you shape or sharpen your social content strategy.

Common Attributes of Billboarding and Onboarding Styles

Billboarding, which is basically an old-school, one-way communication model, has these tendencies:

  1. A high volume of publishing on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, with as much as possible prescheduled.
  2. Business-oriented content, primarily or exclusively.
  3. Emphasis on quantity rather than quality of connections.
  4. The use of automated feeds, with similar or identical content being shared across all social platforms.
  5. Content driven by SEO and topic popularity.
  6. A strong reliance on metrics.
  7. Primary objectives of brand awareness, conversion, rankings, or direct lead generation.

In contrast, onboarding is an engagement model, emphasizing two-way communication, and usually looks like this:

  1. Less frequent posting (usually) published in real time.
  2. A blend of business-oriented and personal, one-on-one or one-to-group communication.
  3. Emphasis on quality rather than quantity of connections.
  4. Unique types of content being shared on each social platform.
  5. Content driven by audience interest, originality, and intrinsic value.
  6. Less interest in precise statistical analysis.
  7. Primary objectives of brand loyalty, thought leadership, or referrals.

A couple things to keep in mind. First, neither of these approaches is intrinsically good or bad, although most social media thought leaders are attracted to and favor an engagement model. Second, the characteristics I just outlined are tendencies, not rules. A firm could embrace a fervent onboarding style and still concentrate heavily on metrics; a firm with a billboarding style could focus entirely on sales conversions and yet produce exceedingly high value content.

General Differences
Do you have a billboarding temperament or an onboarding temparement? Here are a few ways you can tell.

  • Billboarders are looking for sales leads and orders; for people to tell their networks, “This firm has a great product. You should buy one now.”
  • Onboarders are looking for referrals; for people to tell their networks, “This firm is sharp. They can help you.”
  • Billboarding is transactional; onboarding is relationship oriented.
  • Billboarders care what you do; onboarders care what you think.

The Ultimate Style Driver: Your Audience

If you can’t decide what style you have or need, don’t despair: the world is hardly as black-and-white as I’m describing it. The good news is, if you listen, your audience will tell you whether they want billboarding or onboarding. Let me give you a couple examples.

This audience wants information. One of our clients offers glass block for sale in both retail and wholesale markets. The company is just starting to blog a little bit and put some content out in social channels. After a false start or two it became apparent that there wasn’t much interest from contractors and remodelers in having conversations — after all, these folks are busy pounding nails, not keyboards. However, people in the trades need accurate information and need it quickly. A billboarding approach makes sense because it informs potential customers about important features of the product, especially ones that are not well known or can solve an important building issue.

This audience wants conversation. Here’s an example that might surprise you; it certainly surprised me. TSI offers highly technical performance measurement solutions. (When I say technical, I mean technical: we’re talking about gizmos to measure nanoparticles here.) My assumption was that their audience, which includes researchers, scientists, and techno geeks of every stripe, would be highly interested in the clinical consumption of data and not even slightly interested in dialoging. Turns out, the client’s community is very engaged and eager to talk about any number of topics. (And I learned a valuable lesson about stereotyping!)

Social Media, One Step at a Time

Quite often, firms evolve from billboarding to onboarding. Once the glass block company builds up momentum and reaches a critical mass of connections, it may find people interested in supplying user-generated content such as before-and-after remodeling photos. When your social media connections sense consistency and legitimacy, they warm up to interacting. In a business setting, most of us are reluctant to interact with complete strangers … unless there’s a problem. If your brand is not already a known quantity, an aggressive engagement strategy right out the gates could backfire badly. It may be much more productive to “warm up” the audience by pushing useful content rather than getting a cold shoulder by pushing awkward conversation. This is the danger, incidentally, of starting a social media program by copying the tactics of an established brand with an engaged community. What works for Victoria’s Secret on Facebook won’t work for you on Day One.

Over to You

What about you? Are you a billboarder or an onboarder … and why?

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