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In today’s age of sponsored tweets, wacky Facebook campaigns and the Like/+1 button on every single web page (including Privacy Policies), it’s easy to think that social media is the road to success. However, it’s not the silver bullet. Leveraging social media can help you achieve traffic and sales goals; it just doesn’t need to be the core of your marketing efforts.

If you’re contemplating whether or not to introduce social media into your marketing efforts, ask yourself these simple questions. They could help you save some significant marketing dollars in the end OR spend your marketing budget more appropriately.

What IS “social media”?

When someone says the buzz words “social media,” do you really know what they’re talking about? Social media is much more than just Facebook and Twitter. There are other social media websites that allow users to share information with each other. The question for you is which social media website is ideal for your target audience. Some are better for sharing tech-oriented news/information while others are better for distributing images of new products. In fact, in different countries, different social media sites are often more popular than the ones you recognize. So before you decide to jump into social media, research several of the top social media outlets that align well with your customer demographic and figure out how to use them to communicate with your customer base. This isn’t an easy task, as it’s not always obvious which ones are best for your brand; but if you take the time upfront, you’ll be able to be more focused and targeted with your social media efforts.

HINT: When trying to figure out which social media outlets will best connect you with your demographic, first take a look at what social media channels your competition is utilizing. Why do the research if someone has already done it for you?

What are people saying about my brand online?

Social media can help you communicate company news, sales, specials and more with your target market and existing user base. However, social media is also a great tool to handle customer complaints, issues and negative feedback. If you don’t know what people are currently saying about you online, creating a social media profile could open the floodgates for a surge of negative comments. You could basically create a brand-supported platform for your angry customers to show how poor they think your products/services are.

That’s why it’s better to gauge the sentiment of your brand online. This will help you prepare for handling a possible onslaught of customer issues and complaints fed through your new Facebook/Twitter/Google+ profile. So, before you set up that social media profile, it’s important to get a sense for what people are currently saying about your brand online and the challenges you might face.

How do I plan on leveraging social media outlets in conjunction with my existing marketing efforts?

This is a big one. The worst thing you can do is create several social media profiles and start randomly bombarding your followers with ads, auto-generated posts or absolutely nothing. You need to have a social media marketing plan, and that plan needs to snap in with your existing marketing efforts. That being said, you should customize your messages so they are appropriate and effective through social media. The last thing you want to do is have conflicting messages going. If your radio/TV/print messages talk about the quality of your brand, don’t start shooting out tons of sale notifications or cheap prices notifications via Twitter/Google+/Tumblr page. Be consistent in your overall message yet customize for the specific medium being used.

HINT: Some social media channels offer display advertising and paid placement. So don’t just focus on the profile aspect of a social media site. See how you can increase your overall visibility and reach with other social media site offerings.

How much time/money do I have available to spend on social media in the first place?

This one can make or break your social media efforts. You can’t half-ass your social media marketing. Your followers will smell an absent social media profile or automated updater a mile away and won’t stand for such weak/fake engagement. So you need to estimate how much time you have to dedicate to your social media profiles and channels. You also need to estimate how much time your competition is dedicating to their social media profiles and channels. If they’re more active and interactive, then it’s a good idea to attempt to keep pace. Of course keeping up with the Joneses does cost money. So you also need to set aside a portion of your marketing budget for social media support. This will also dictate how much you can dedicate to social media and whether you can tackle several social media channels, one or none. If you can’t provide an adequate amount of support, don’t be afraid to avoid social media for the time being. You can always double up in a marketing channel where you’re currently gaining traction and doing well (increase spend in Google paid ads perhaps?).

Do I really need to hire a “Social Media Manager?”

Browse any online job board and you’ll see tons of posts for Social Media Managers, Coordinators and Experts. This undoubtedly will cause you to question if you should hire yourself a social media professional. Before you make this decision, you have to keep one thing in mind…social media is one marketing channel out of several options. Do you have an expert for each channel? Do you have an Email Marketing Coordinator and a Print Marketing Manager and a Broadcast Media Marketing Specialist? Some companies will, others won’t.

Depending on the size and diversity of your marketing efforts, you may actually wish to separate your social media marketing efforts into its own specialty. Start by:

1) Researching what the competition is doing.

2) Analyzing your current brand sentiment online.

3) Taking a look at your marketing budget.

4) Coming up with a possible social media marketing plan.

You may identify that you only need to fold in any new social media marketing efforts into the responsibilities of your Online Marketing Specialist (or at least hire a college kid to get you coffee, make copies and manage your Facebook page).

Oh and by the way, if “college kid” is the route you think you need to go, you still need to create a social media marketing plan for him/her to follow. The last thing you want to do is blindly put your social media efforts in the hands of a kid who claims to know how to leverage social media for a brand just because he’s on Facebook 12 hours a day.

So as you can see, you shouldn’t venture into social media just because Old Spice had a successful social media campaign. You need to do your channel research, analyze your brand sentiment online, take a look at your budget and then come up with a social media marketing plan that ties in with your current marketing efforts…or forget the whole thing completely. Either way, do your research before you plunge into social media.

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