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Social media hype can often be fatal to any attempt to integrate social media into a marketing strategy. The hype has been enormous. As serious marketers begin to embrace social media as a tool for listening to and communicating with customers, expect the initial wave to fade.

You can find many great articles online about social media. How to get started, convince your CEO that you need it, and how it doesn’t solve all your marketing problems. Social media is gaining a lot of attention. Many people have strong opinions about it. It doesn’t matter what your feelings are about it. This tool needs to be evaluated just like any other new business venture.

Making a business case to use social media is the best way to assess it. Your existing business plan should be your cornerstone. You will be focusing your efforts in two areas: customer service and marketing. Targeting prospects and customers will help you evaluate the potential impact it has on your bottom line. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Do your Homework

Get the facts first, just like you would with any new initiative. If you choose to move ahead, this will be your summary overview.

1) Get a working knowledge of the tools: Twitter and LinkedIn, Blog sites, Facebook, YouTube and SlideShare. Popular tools include ViralHeat and Radian6, Spokesignal and others. Each tool has its own niche within the user community. Be sure to understand the pros and cons for each. Wikipedia has an excellent section about application examples, which I don’t recommend. You can search Wikipedia for “Social Media” to get there. Each example has a link that provides more information.

2) Learn about the trends that are relevant to your audience. It’s easy. Nielson publishes quarterly reports on social networks, just like other agencies. A few paragraphs and a chart are all you need to show that social media is used by your target audience. You can find the latest Nielson report Q3 2011 on their website.

3) Ask at least 10 customers. This is crucial. When social media is used correctly, it’s not about broadcasting ads about your company. It’s about your customers. Talk to them. How do they obtain their information? If you gave them useful information, or coupons, would they visit a Facebook group or LinkedIn group? What type of information would they be interested in? You should make sure that they are open to joining a LinkedIn group. Would they be interested in Twitter? Would they watch a YouTube video? This is a crucial step in building your community. If there isn’t value, users won’t be able to connect. Find the best way to get people involved.

4) Conduct a quick check on your competitors. Which social media platforms are they using?

Step 2 – Incorporate Social Media into Your Business Plan

This is a critical step to evaluate the suitability of social media in existing initiatives and to place it alongside other tools.

1) Include all parts of the plan that deal with communication with prospects or customers. These are your social media entry points. Here’s an example:

a. Customer communications: surveys, newsletters, focus groups, feed-back

b. Prospect communications: Advertising, press releases and trade shows.

c. While social media cannot replace any of these programs it must be present alongside these traditional communication tools in order to properly implement and measure it.

2) Add the best social media tool in each area to complement or extend your existing communication tools.

a. Example: You might recommend a WordPress blog that is targeted at users as an extension of a monthly newsletter you send to end users. You can set it up to encourage comments and responses. You can have it written by one of your customer service representatives or a technical person.

A LinkedIn group can be created for only end-users to announce each new blog. You can also post it as a link to your website. It is a circuit that encourages interaction and discussion, rather than a single newsletter event.

Step 3 – Create an Implementation plan

What will be the execution of the program? Content, consistency, and measurement are key.

1) Choose who will be responsible for the social media program. It is difficult to decide who will be responsible for social media. There are many excellent articles that make this point. It is difficult to change senior executives’ attitudes towards social media. This job should not be given to an intern. This job must be linked to at least one mid-level marketer, with oversight from an executive. This person will be responsible to set the schedule and tap into in-house talent to create content.

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