Your business does NOT need or want a social media strategy

by John Ribbler on January 9, 2013 · 6 comments

Ben Comer, founder of Social Sidekick, inspired my first rant of 2013. Check out his time-saving solution for online communication at http://socialsidekick.net

Ben Comer, founder of Social Sidekick, inspired my first rant of 2013. Check out his time-saving solution for online communication at http://socialsidekick.net

I was sitting at my desk early this week, struggling to write the first Ribblog post of 2013, when (by fate, luck or divine purpose) I received these questions from a young entrepreneur:

How do you define a social media strategy? How do you explain that to a prospect and/or client?

I soon learned that my friend is not the only one interested in the answers. Each month, more than 200,000 people search the term “social media strategy” (or a close variation of it) on Google. My knee-jerk answer was:

Anyone endorsing or selling social media strategies has no idea what the word strategy means and is unlikely to help anyone compete.

Because the smarmy answer is just too smarmy

But, there is more to the issue. (Those wishing to skip my pedantry and read the less nuanced answers click here.)

Virtually every authority defines strategy as a general (big picture, undetailed) long-term plan of action for achieving an organization’s goals. Strategy can also feature the vision, philosophies and values that guide a company to gain advantage over its competition.

Why are definitions important? Unless all members of any team (organization) have the common understanding of everything going on between them, they will be ineffective. Serious business people must know the difference between strategy and tactics, which involve the specific programs, plans, actions, tasks, assignments and resources used to fulfill the long-term strategy.

Social media (as well as advertising, public relations, sales, etc.) are tactical methods that can advance the corporate strategy. Although new, dazzling and full of potential, social media are among many tools that leaders can use to meet either a tactical or strategic goal. But, deciding when and how to use it is not strategic any more than an engineer’s decision to use explosives, and not machines, to remove a large boulder.

You do not need a social media strategy any more than a carpenter needs a table saw strategy.

Then, why does the world teem with experts proselytizing strategies for CRM, marketing automation, brand journalism, blogging, loyalty, inbound marketing, social media and on and on? I have two theories. They are not mutually exclusive.

    Archetypal Strategist & Tactitian

    These images of an archetypal strategist and tactician are used in digital games. Which job would you prefer?

  1. Without licensing and accepted standards, marketing-related professionals casually use words to suit their purposes. Contractors, barbers, plumbers, electricians and real estate agents — not to mention real professionals like doctors and lawyers — have to learn the precise meanings of terms they use. But, in the huckstering professions, the greatest minds are those that deftly make up words, imply meaning where none exists and thrive on the edges of truth.
  2. With no restrictions, everyone prefers being a strategist, not a tactician. In the same way that IBM would rather sell “Solutions for small planet” than “computers and related services,” no agency is going to win an account pushing “solid methods” when the competition is offering “killer strategies.”

Here is the (perhaps) useful information

Now, I’ll answer the original two questions and hope you see why my nit-picking harangue is relevant.

Question 1: How do you define a social media strategy?

Answer 1: In deciding why and how to invest valuable resources on social media (unless your marketing budgets are not accountable to results) you must:

  • Predict the various benefits that the effort can deliver to the corporate strategy including both tangible and intangible results.
  • Assess the potential value gained by the social media effort versus using the needed resources in other areas.
  • Understand whether your use of social media can deliver an advantage against your competition and how you will make that happen. (As opposed to doing it just because everyone else is doing it.)

After doing all that, you will be able to create and execute a tactical plan that may play an important role in furthering the corporate strategy.

Strategy vs Tactics

This diagram produced by The Accelerator Group was designed to help explain the difference between strategy and tactics. It makes absolutely no sense to me.

Question 2: How do you explain that to a prospect and/or client?

Answer 2: In deciding how to explain anything to a prospect or client, I listen and observe before opening my mouth. If the person already knows or appears likely to understand the concepts described above, we will likely have a substantive conversation and come to consensus on the best way to deploy social media. If the prospect represents a silo within the marketing function of an organization that builds strategies for everything from Super Bowl parties to Christmas Cards, I generally walk away.

  • http://www.jbnimblegroup.com Nicole Klein

    Thanks John, you really made me laugh and get charged up this morning. In developing my own conversations with clients (read: new website, capabilities presentations, proposals, etc), I’ve been working on how to explain this exact same thing. You must begin at the beginning: 1. Who is your audience? 2. What does your company need them to do? 3. Where do you engage with and enable them to do business with your company? 4. Now the How can be answered, and yes, Social Media is likely one of those ways, though depending on the answers 1-3 it may not have the highest priority.
    Frankly, I love planning the tactics and implementation, but if the client can’t answer the first 2 questions, we need to track back.
    The paper airplane analogy, paired with your comment, really gave me a chuckle…Thanks again for a great article!

    • http://ribblog.com John Ribbler

      All these specialties and strategists remind me of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Player Piano” about a time in the future when every middle class person has a PhD. In one scene, Mr. Haycox, a farmer expresses his disdain for two real estate salesmen who are crowing about their doctoral credentials saying:

      “I’m doctor of cowshit, pigshit, and chickenshit,” he said. “When you doctors figure out what you want, you’ll find me out in the barn shoveling my thesis.”

  • http://forbes.com Tom Groenfeldt

    Great, and much needed in the business. In my LinkedIn account in the Green Bay area there must be a couple of dozen people pushing social media, and no one appears interested in buying it. You mention potential value versus resources in other areas but don’t explicitly mention costs — because Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook are free, right? Only sort of. On my Forbes financial technology blog the buttons are in place to link to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and a couple of other places, so social media use is encouraged and made fairly simple. Promoting a single blog can still take up to an hour, especially if I tailor blurbs to specific groups. And that’s just my time as a single operator — no committee to answer to, if you exclude the golden retriever and German shepherd who occasionally butt into my deliberations.
    Don’t overlook the time costs of social media, especially in an organization with a painful approval process, and we have all seen that occasionally.

    • http://ribblog.com John Ribbler

      Doing social media properly takes time and smarts. Business people getting the most out of it are those who personally communicate with customers and prospects in a purposeful (not necessarily strategic) way.

  • http://www.octanecorp.com Harry Hallman

    John, great thoughts for 2013. I agree you do not need a social media strategy, you need a marketing strategy and social media is a tactic you employ. One of many.

    • http://ribblog.com John Ribbler

      Harry, Thanks for your comment. I’m actually surprised at the positive response. I was afraid that few people would appreciate the practical importance of knowing why words mean what they do.

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