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Lessons From 15 Years Of Social Media Marketing

It’s time to double down on what we’ve known for a long time and realise the channel’s full potential and power, argues The&Partnership's senior strategist

By Tony Wright

After many years working in social media, I’ve seen a lot of things.

From launching frozen Yorkshire Pudding on Facebook, to bribing a Destiny’s Child member to tweet about ‘light but indulgent choccies’ and being DM’d by a celebrity astrologer trying to land freebies every few days.

There have been lots of highs, some lows and a lot of lessons along the way.

As social media marketing reaches its 15th birthday (using the Facebook Brand Pages boom as a rough stake in the ground) a lot of things have thankfully improved.

Gone are the days when a brand's social media is outsourced to a mysterious agency, or when its social team consisted of one person in the corner of the basement floor.

Nowadays, social media teams have well and truly grown up; comprised of multiple teams and disciplines working across the customer journey, from acquisition through to loyalty and customer care, overseeing influencer marketing along the way. Its impact and importance is well and truly recognised.

But whilst the channel’s platforms, practices, purposes and returns have largely matured, there are still a big handful of entrenched topics that continue to hang around agency and client Zoom calls.

These topics have outlived endless creative proposals to send FMCG goods into space on a live stream, have outlived the labour-intensive notion that around-the-clock social outreach can own a category - and they’ve even lived to see the day when the wild-wild-west of influencer marketing has cleaned up its act with rate cards, contracts and transparency (okay, sort of).

These topics aren’t complicated, they aren’t worth the recurring meetings and playbooks we invest in them, and they need to once and for all find their place in-between Bebo and Vine in the social media graveyard.

Here are the 6 lessons we (should) have all learned by now…

Put Social At The Heart Of The Action

Social media has evolved into being the digital shop window of brands and increasingly, the digital shop checkout too. The channel is a brand’s most constant, always on, accessible consumer touch point, so needs the same love and attention as any other.

The day-to-day work of social media strategists, managers, creatives and designers define and maintain how consumers view a brand. They are on the frontline, establishing its tone-of-voice, executing its look and feel, landing its messages and constantly learning about target audience attitudes and behaviours towards the brand, its products and everyday life.

Social media must not be seen as a standalone channel for executing what’s defined upstream or an add-on. The gulf between brand planning and social needs to end, with social firmly in the mix, being considered for achieving business and comms objectives, standing toe-to-toe with all other channels. This way it can fulfil its potential as well as enhance other channels in the mix.

Get Real About Reach

Social media marketing has witnessed as many ‘organic reach is dead’ presentation slides as it’s churned out monthly content plans, yet brands continue to burn hours and budgets developing and publishing work that’s barely ever seen.

A very small percentage of brands (usually young, fun and agile) get by a little without spending and there’s an argument for ‘keeping the lights on’ depending on your customer service volume. But let’s face it, if you aren’t properly promoting your social efforts, you’re almost certainly wasting lots and achieving little.

In traditional channels, an activity’s eventual media budget and plan typically starts being developed as early as creative and production thoughts start flying around. It should be no different for social, where the best creative and media approaches are fully integrated. The creative then lives in the right places, in the right ways and at the right times, whilst the media plan enjoys the most appropriate work for its chosen platforms, products and people.

(Best) Practice What You Preach

Many a social media pitch or proposal has included an opener about the thick fog of content pollution plaguing our feeds and the importance of not pumping more meaningless content into the content landfill.

Yet brands and their agencies continue to do just that. They need to stop producing stuff for the sake of it, understand the environments in which they’re playing and double down on purpose.

We need to practice what we preach and follow through on what works, while stopping what doesn’t. This can be difficult - there’s often no incentive for an agency to pushback on creating content and they often end up, zombie-like, filling in a content calendar ‘just because’, pumping out daily content to fill the feed.

Stop Chasing Yesterday’s Lightning

If you wrote a dotted history of social media creative, you’d soon see that the most entertaining, memorable and impactful efforts largely happened yester-year.

You’d also notice 10-year-old moments that are still acclaimed to this day such as Oreo’s ‘Dunk In The Dark’, despite the brands behind them clearly having enjoyed one-offs rarely rivalled since. North stars and best practice quickly become dated yet linger as out-of-date industry gospel.

As social media has matured, platform environments have become increasingly rigid and santised whilst brand efforts on them have become more templated, predictable and dull. The game has changed but we often fail to realise it.

So much effort in social is spent chasing techniques and tactics that, by design, no longer work. Lighting generally doesn’t strike twice, and rushing to stand where someone else stood in the hope of getting hit is pure insanity. Yet that’s what we do, when we pile on to try to follow one-offs.

Put Everything Into Breaking The Feed

Brands forget to be ‘audience first’ as often as they say it, frequently missing the mark when it comes to providing audiences they’ve managed to be noticed by with something purposeful, that entertains or informs in an interesting way and which provides a moment of joy and satisfaction.

The routine approach of brands establishing a set of content pillars aligned to their product/service and audience interests is broken. It’s a full competitor set doing this, that creates the ‘sea of sameness’ we criticise at every competitor set review, for serving the same people with the same interests, the same stuff.

To avoid sleepwalking through category conventions in social, brands need to establish strong points of view to build content around, packaged with attitude and a strong visual identity. Just like in any other channel, social creative needs to find tension and cultural resonance. Only then will they stand for and offer something different to the competition and be noticed in people’s scrolls.

We need to ask ourselves, honestly, if what we’re publishing is going to provide some form of value. Will it stop people in their scrolls? Will it have them tap ‘like’ and comment? Will they make a purchase, save a bookmark or forward to friends? Only keeping the audience experience front of mind can ensure the brand’s efforts are ultimately rewarded.

Go Further & Wider With Platforms & Practices

When you talk about a brand’s social, people’s minds typically default to properties on Facebook or Instagram, but the channel is so much more, consisting of a growing number of platform opportunities and practices.

Owned channel activity is just one piece of the puzzle and brands will do well to think about the different forms of earned social, from UGC and reviews to influencer and ambassador programmes - as well growing social commerce opportunities. Social ecosystem slides that simply have Facebook, Instagram and YouTube logos in a row don’t summarise a good strategy, they summarise laziness.

Social media as a marketing channel has had a colourful childhood, packed with both reward and regret. Where it’s been an afterthought or rushed, activity hasn’t reached its full potential. Where efforts have been comprehensive and considered, brilliant things have happened.

The years of agencies and brands musing over the true value of social media are thankfully largely behind us, with everyone now aligned on the channel’s ability to serve a key role and deliver business and brand impact. Through our own experiences and those of others, we have a mountain of knowledge on what the best way to do things are.

To make the next 15 years as exciting as the last, we need to learn our hard learned lessons, and focus on inventing what’s next, rather than trying to recapture what was. The future is bright for social, but only if we can learn from our past.

Tony Wright is senior strategist at The&Partnership


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