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From popularity contest to strategic tool: Social media coming of age

Our staff came back abuzz with ideas from the Minnesota PRSA Professional Practices Conference last week. One of the more refreshing lessons came via friend and colleague Gabby Nelson, who leads public relations and social media marketing efforts for Select Comfort. When asked how she and her team can add social media duties to their accountabilities, she replied that they don’t add them like additional tactics, but proved their value and prioritized social media efforts to replace some other, more traditional, communications. In fact, she elaborated by sharing the story of how they tested social media for a sale of a particular mattress, which had no budget for marketing. It increased sales so noticeably that executives practically fell over themselves to let them do more.

She’s shared the stories many times, but some of the people I’ve talked to seem to miss the point. The moral of the story is not that social media works. (Psst, that’s not a secret anymore). And the moral is definitely NOT that we should all be Tweeting and Facebooking more. Gabby and her team are my heroes for two very strategic insights that represent much more courage and broad-based business acumen on their part:

1) Social media must be tied to a strategic business objective. Gabby and her group determined social media was a way to reach certain audiences efficiently with targeted sales messages (later adding customer service and other conversations). And because they took that approach, they were able to prioritize it over other communications tools with less ROI. And they tested it. How many of us have the courage to let tactics go away? Too often today, we see organizations scrambling to add social media profiles to their to-do lists, only to have them languish with no purpose. Start with the business objectives, the brand and the audience – let those be your guide and prioritize.

2) Without a content strategy, social media is just a popularity contest. Public relations, by definition, maintains two-way relationships with key audiences. Social media can be a great tool for monitoring the environment, but all too often there’s no ongoing strategy for engagement. We have to stop asking silly questions like “How many followers do you have?” and start asking critically, “What do you have to say that anyone cares about?” Content can mean everything from surveys and testimonials to instructional videos and product information. And that means we as practitioners must know our business and the audiences inside and out. Social media without a focused purpose is like any other “junk mail” and will soon be filtered out, much like our e-mail spam filter, which I’m told filters out more messages than it lets in by a wide margin. Saying you have 2,000 followers is like saying you have 2,000 e-mail addresses; it has little strategic value unless you know how to use them. Instead, let’s focus on what we have to say, what our audiences want, and what we need out of our conversations – let that be your content.

Gabby’s Select Comfort team did more than just start tweeting and Facebooking. They put social media in the strategic spotlight for scrutiny, with measureable business objectives and a clear content strategy. Those are magic words in PR. Let’s hope that as social media comes of age, we hear them more often.