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Social marketing strategy: Why you need one and how to design it

When it comes to social marketing strategy, what matters most is that you have one. Lena J. Weiner examines the best tips for formulating one.

Social CRM marketing can seem like a double-edged sword -- it's an inexpensive way to engage with customers and get the word out about new products, services and events, but some business owners find the large number of platforms and potential social media pitfalls overwhelming.

There are also conflicting opinions out there regarding the value of social media in a business environment. Some feel that social CRM is a marketing option that pays big dividends, while others disagree.

"Some business-to-consumer companies get into social networks for the wrong reasons -- out of fear, due to pressure from competitors or misinformation from marketers," said Marc Gordon, owner of Fourword Marketing and author of The Edge Factor: Ten Proven Marketing Tools to Help Your Business Get It and Keep It. "Ask yourself -- do we need to do this? Do our customers want to hear from us every day?"

Gordon likes to use the example of plumbing. Would a plumber's customers want to scroll through pictures on Pinterest of bathrooms that have been worked on? Would they want to see frequent tweets about clogged shower drains? Well, probably not. Gordon adds that many business owners become overwhelmed and experience social media burnout if they attempt to engage customers via multiple platforms, defeating the purpose of incorporating them into your customer engagement strategy.

A real strategy, not just chatting

Social CRM and social marketing are new channels of communication that both businesses and individuals are still trying to untangle, and there are many contradictory views regarding them. Many people in marketing think all companies, big and small, need a social media presence.

"Ultimately, if you have an interest in connecting with customers, you should use social CRM," says Tim Peter, president of Tim Peter & Associates, a consultancy in northern New Jersey that specializes in digital marketing.

Alternatively, Gordon suggests that people keep it simple and stick to a single platform that will reach the most customers -- and don't forget the old standards. "One thing a lot of companies are forgetting about but shouldn't is email," he said. "It's incredibly powerful -- it doesn't get lost in a stream, you can include as many links as you want, you can make it graphically rich and you end up right in someone's inbox."

What experts agree on is that companies need to create an official social media strategy -- an active plan to work with whether it's highly involved or simple in nature. That's certainly better than haphazardly trying to engage with customers via every new social network that comes along

"Let your strategy drive the social channels, not the other way around," said Peter, adding that organizations should chose platforms based on the needs and behavior of customers. In other words, use the platform -- Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn -- that makes the most sense for the customer base.

Gordon adds that the values and culture of the company should be represented in digital marketing decisions. Organizations that decide to get professional help with social media activities should look for consultants who fully understand the company's needs, values and customers.

Social media -- it's for the dogs

Terry Meyers is the owner of Cause to Paws, a pet shop in Brookline, Mass. As a neighborhood hub for pet owners, Cause to Paws hosts social events for dogs and their owners called Yappy Hour, Halloween parties for pooches and even recently held a "Bark Mitzvah" for a dog that was turning 13. It's a place where animal lovers can meet others who are passionate about pets.

Fans of the shop can expect frequent email letting them know about upcoming events and deals, and Meyers frequently posts news and pictures on Facebook, including updates about her own pets. She knows firsthand the benefits of having a social marketing strategy that engages customers.

For more on social media strategy

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"Customer engagement is why I actually survive," Meyers said. ""[The goal of] building a community around this store and outreach to my customer base is why I'm still here."

Meyers relies heavily on email, but is also a fairly prolific Facebooker. Meyers also has a Twitter account, but saves time by having it automatically update her Facebook status as well. But have Twitter, Facebook and email actually helped Myers bring in new customers? "I think so," she said, "especially when people pass stuff on that I've posted or sent out."

The strategy works largely because Meyers doesn't spread herself too thinly across multiple networks. But Cause for Paws does have a few key channels open that help it interact with and engage customers. Each social media channel refers users to the shop's website, allowing Myers to use it as a hub, rather than attempting to rely on a single social network as a primary Web presence. The strategy is in harmony with her shop's values of community engagement and pride in being a small business.

The key to successful social marketing and social CRM is to select channels that make sense for the business. Experts say it's important to understand who customers are and be true to the organization's values. If the business can afford to hire someone to tweet multiple times a day while hosting a Google hangout and Facebooking all at once, maybe that's a route to take -- but there are plenty of organizations that survive and thrive by picking just a couple of social media channels and keeping social simple.

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