The Missing Ingredient in Most Social Media Strategies

by Shannon Paul on February 14, 2010

Elephant pictured in the side rear view mirror of a parked car

What is the missing ingredient in most strategies I’ve seen? Actual strategy.

However, before I can really show you what a strategy is, it helps to understand what a strategy isn’t.

What a Strategy Is NOT

  • Strategy is not a plan
  • Strategy is not a timeline
  • Strategy is not a goal
  • Strategy is not what tactics you will use to achieve your goal

Perhaps the confusion is a result of the fact that many of the above elements are included in the overall strategy document or presentation. However, skipping or skimping on the actual strategy piece is never a good idea.

What Others Say

Rather than simply assert my own opinion on the matter, I asked a couple other experienced people in the industry what they thought about this phenomenon.

David Binkowski speaking at a Media Bistro conference on social media

David Binkowski

“Most people don’t even know what strategy means, let alone how to create one,” said David Binkowski, senior vice president of Word-of-Mouth Marketing at MS&L. “Strategy isn’t “Let’s create a Facebook page” unless your  goal is “How can we copy cat every other company out there?”"

“Usually when people talk about their social media strategy they are usually talking about their Goals (their desired outcome), or the specific tactics used to achieve their goals; a strategy is neither of these things,” said Tac Anderson, social media director at Waggener Edstrom.  “Strategy may be one of the most misunderstood and misused terms in business, probably because every business expert has their own definition.”

What I Say

When I think of strategy, I like to keep this quote handy:

“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”  – Sun Tzu in The Art of War.

Strategy is not focused on ROI, but on winning. If your strategy is built to win, trust me, you will generate positive ROI and have clear means of proving it along the way. The reason I am reticent to ever judge the merits on someone else’s social media efforts are that I do not know what their strategy is…. all I see are their tactics. Perhaps the particular effort was a calculated loss in a long-term strategy. How am I to know without more information?

Let me be clear, I am all about good measurement and tying business value to social media activity, but many seem to be putting the cart before the horse. I think the knee-jerk reaction to make social media engagement conform to some type of business equation has misplaced the emphasis in many peoples’ minds on what it actually takes to create, sell and implement a social media strategy.

How to Bring Strategy to Your Strategy

Tac Anderson

Tac Anderson

Tac has plenty of smart things to say on this matter. To him, social media strategy (like any other business strategy) is all about organizational alignment:

How strategy was explained to me in my MBA program was that a business strategy is creating operational alignment between all functions and activities of a business.

A communication strategy is a subset of the business strategy. If you buy my professor’s definition then a communications strategy is the alignment between all the comms groups and their activities in support of the business strategy. The communications strategy supports the business strategy by communicating the various messages to the various stakeholders of a company. Stakeholders being customers, shareholders (if applicable), employees, partners and anyone else who is impacted by a company.

Therefore a social media strategy would be a subset of the communications strategy. It should support the communications strategy in supporting the business strategy.

So to answer your question: “What are most social media strategies missing?” They are missing organizational alignment with the overall communications strategy, which is often not in full alignment with the business strategy to begin with. Because they are not aligned they are not achieving efficiency. This is why we mostly see one-off social media campaigns that don’t accrue to anything.

Strategy is not an easy concept to define or explain, but it is much more a creative process than charting out numbers and listing tactics.

Steps to Defining the Strategy in Your Social Media Strategy

  1. Push for clarity around the overall business strategy
  2. Push for clarity around the strategies you feel social media should be in direct alignment with; i.e. marketing, communications, customer service, human resources, etc.
  3. Ask yourself, how will you extend this strategic alignment to the social web? *hint, do not list tactics to answer this question, but rather focus on guiding principles or rules of engagement.
  4. Ask what experience/reaction do you want people to come away with when they interact with your brand/company online.
  5. Is your strategy proactive or reactive? Will you actively seek people out, wait for them to find you/mention you?

I’m sure there are many other points to consider. Focusing on the strategy piece really requires mental discipline since you must keep your focus on what is truly essential without getting caught up in the tactics.

My point here is to help others get clearer on what strategy really is — if your “strategy” document is a goal with a list of tactics, know that what you have is not a strategy but a goal with a list of tactics.

So much of the discussion around proving the ROI of social media seems to be about proving the business value of the tools. This entire argument is misplaced.

Using the tools to accomplish real business goals is what we should be trying to do. To do this, businesses need to understand how social media strategy aligns with their overall business strategy. A list of tactics simply won’t cut it no matter how cutting-edge or innovative they may seem at the time.

What are your thoughts on strategy? Can you add some points to the list I started here? Beyond that, I’ve been noodling with this idea for awhile because there seems to be a lack of direction around the actual strategy piece. Does this help? If you have questions, please let me know in the comments — let’s see if we can work on this together.

Follow David Binkowski and Tac Anderson on Twitter.

Photo Credit: exfordy
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