Mastering Social Media Strategy: Interview with Sherrie Madia

“What are you doing?” In the early days, Twitter’s founders had no idea that those four words would spur a media and marketing revolution. Nor did Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg envision that his software would become such a powerful business tool.

But social media has evolved. These days, even if you own something as nondescript as a rock tumbling business, you’d be remiss to ignore social media’s potential benefits for your company.

Sherrie Madia PhD, Director of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, is an expert on how businesses can successfully integrate social media into their marketing campaigns. In The Social Media Survival Guide, Madia and co-author Paul Borgese detail how companies can boost their social media ROI, strategize for when consumers switch to other social media platforms, keep social media campaigns alive in the longer term, and more.

We caught up with Sherrie to learn more about making social media work for business.

BP: I have some friends who have been very successful at social media. They just seem to be naturals. Are they exceptions to the rule? Why should anyone have a social media plan in the first place if it’s so easy to succeed when you’re just good at it?

There are couple of things going on here. One, it’s a fast medium because we see people just tripping on things and becoming millionaires. How do they do it?

My information, based on the clients and companies we talk with, is that the kinds of people you’re referring to are outliers. They are outliers in the sense that without a plan, even if you see an immediate spike or instant success–and that’s a hard thing to find–the question is, will these efforts be sustainable? If you don’t have a plan to keep the content going, or a plan based on an objective, you might find your measure of success isn’t necessarily driving home to your objective or to your returns.

For example, one of the common problems that companies encounter is that they think they want quantity. The question is why? What are those million followers or fans going to do for you?

Walking through a plan really helps an individual or solopreneur or a large global company to get a sense of “why I am in this space and what I hope to get out of it.” Sometimes it’s quantitative, sometimes it’s a return, sometimes it’s an increase in sales. Other times, it’s establishing a support system or a public relations effort, or an audience of brand ambassadors, or an awareness campaign. It’s vital to have a plan first so you can be highly strategic about the kinds of content you’ll create or the kinds of channels that are going to work best.

Have you attracted the right fans, followers and friends? It’s not just about creating a group of lots of people, that’s more of the old-school way of doing things. This is about attracting the right people to your campaign. Beyond that campaign, it’s about attracting those people to your long-term engagement strategy in the online space.

BP: Should everyone have a plan? Even my friend who has tons of followers and is on Facebook and Twitter all the time?

Absolutely. If your friend is that successful in that space, chances are she’s doing it an awful lot. There are famous and infamous cases of bloggers who spend 60 hours a week doing this stuff.

The question is about quality of life. What is the return? Is she seeing a drive in advertising sales? It’s vital to get a sense of “how am I networking my networks and what’s the next step?” Just because I have fabulous engagement, is that success enough?

It’s really about a question of how you are measuring against your objectives. So if it’s about having a tremendous following which equals success, great–it works without a plan. But most companies are not just looking for a stream of followers. They are looking for a new pipeline or a customer base. So the plan becomes important.

We’ve also seen companies become highly successful with the campaign, but not make a longer term plan. Victoria’s Secret is a great case in point. They had a tremendously successful campaign on Facebook. At the end of that campaign, they packed up and went home. They left a really rich target audience on the table because they didn’t stop to shape a longer-term strategy and plan.

BP: I’m glad you’re addressing the work-life quality issue. It seems there’s a lot of quiet suffering in that space.

There is. We need to think of why we engage in social media in the first place. We engage because psychologically, if you look to our hierarchy of needs, we like to tell our stories and share information. We begin to shape a presence in that space. What happens when we stop posting? We disappear.

If you’ve got a following, if you become the most popular person in your Facebook network or LinkedIn space, you tend to not want to lose that status. People find that it’s an obligation they create for themselves. If they are getting value, great, but if it’s just become a habit, then we need to stop and reconsider.

BP: I have a number of friends who have started their own blogs. They’re working hard, but they aren’t getting a response. What could they do to build more of a community and get more engagement from the social media space?

It doesn’t start with the blog, it starts with research. You first want to figure out, before you sign on to a platform, figure out where your target group is. Because if you’re spending 8 or 12 hours a day writing your blog, you want someone to read it. Any content generator needs to know what their objective is, and what they want to get out of it. That starts with research.

They need to find all the people who will help them accomplish their objectives. Are they in a system of following a blogger? What kind of value are they getting there? Are they engaged in Facebook and what sorts of content are they finding of use in that space? Where’s the target audience that will find value in their message, hear my message, and so forth?

If you find that audience stream, what do you want them to think? For example, you could see that there’s always a built-in traffic chute on one fabulous blog. Perhaps you could start by being a guest blogger on that blog.

“If you blog, they will come” is simply the wrong strategy. We know there are over 100 million English language blogs alone, and growing, and growing, and growing. The competition is immensely steep. You need to stop and do some research to figure out how to make your social media strategy work.

The other advice is that f anyone is new to the social media space, don’t try to swallow the universe. We see companies do that a lot. They try to take on every network at once and find there aren’t resources enough to do it. It takes too much time, or it wasn’t what they thought they wanted, so the strategy fails.

You always want to start small, do research first, get a sense of where your target group is. Then you figure out the best network to start with. And there is no one best network. What network should you be on?

It goes back to what your objective is. Your objective might not call for Facebook. Your objective might not call for a social media component at all in some cases, depending upon your demographic, where are they, and so forth.

Rather than run to what we think is the largest, bigger thing, stop to get a sense of what your objective is. That will really dictate the best one to three platforms to start with.

BP: Do you have a tip or two on how an individual or company, someone wanting to make money or direct traffic to their website, could increase their social media ROI?

There are two things: Be consistent and be real. “Be consistent” speaks to the fact that you want to create an atmosphere by which your followers, fans, and people who have opted in have something to expect. You want to position yourself as an ongoing, reliable source.

Everything we do in this online space is about shaping ourselves as trusted advisors or sources for knowledge and experts in our industry. So being consistent s one of the smartest things that anyone can dousing that space for business.

The start, stop, stop for a blog this week, but busy next week, or a blog today, and then came back, that doesn’t work. People like routine. They like to know what they can expect out of this store for information.

A couple companies do get it right. Dunkin’ Donuts is one where their lead twitterer will tell you, “Have a great weekend, I’ll see you on Monday.” Now we know I’m not going to expect any tweets on Saturday or Sunday. Great.

Even if you do have to take a hiatus from your content, give the people following you something to look forward to. “I’ll be turned off for a month, but stay tuned for an exciting topic on X when I return.” Okay great, we know to come back.

It’s the companies that just simply walk away, get busy, forget about it, find little value; they are creating a brand negative for themselves. So even if you are a solopreneur, or a blogger out there, you don’t want to create that brand negative.

Then, there’s being real. We know that authenticity sells in this space. The days of institutionalized, package content pushing out the messages only that we want our consumers to hear those days are gone. People don’t want that. It’s a savvy audience in this space. They can spot a poser or a pretender in no time at all, and it’s all about accountability.

We can create any image we want in the online space, but we have to make sure it’s sustainable in the offline space. So whatever it is you’re creating, position yourself as some topic in a field, be prepared to take it away with you into an interview session or any other engagement or anything offline.

When you positioned yourself like this, but what I see is something different, there’s a gap. That’s when reputations and images and brands fall apart.

It also goes to aligning what you look and sound like in all the different outlets. You can’t have a pet fish avatar on Facebook and a professional headshot on your Twitter account if you’re syncing those up trying to present an image. That’s not what people want to see, they want to see consistency across the board.

BP: What I’m hearing you say is that when I’m online, I feel a sense of anonymity. I can be who I want. I may feel like no one can see me, but in a sense, it’s actually me, Drea, walking into the Internet every time I’m online.

That’s right. If you have a cartoon fairy as your avatar, that’s who we think you are when you’re applying for a job. We know that 83% of companies require their recruiters to check out a candidate’s social networking spaces. So people are looking at how we convey ourselves. There’s a lot of learning that has to take place in that space. Employees and individuals are still not realizing all of the implications of what they’re doing in this space.

Sherrie A. Madia PhD is Director of Communications at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches Social Media and Communication Strategies. She also serves on the Advisory Board of EyeCatcher Digital, a tech strategy and marketing firm. With fellow social media strategist Paul Borgese, she is coauthor of The Social Media Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Grow Your Business Exponentially with Social Media (Second Edition).