By Steven Van Belleghem published January 4, 2013

4 Steps to Strengthen Your Social Media Channels

social media channels for content marketingA large number of companies are thinking about their next steps in social media, and one of the key factors in any social media strategy is the channel/content debate. Companies are struggling to capitalize on their use of social media channels. To provide some guidance, we would like to share our approach on how to make effective use of social media channels in order to spread content. (To read all the details about this philosophy, feel free to download the full paper here.)

4 steps to effective social channel use

Evolving from a checklist approach to social media to a more effective way to integrate social channels requires a new mindset. Many marketers see social media as an additional broadcasting channel. This point of view limits the impact and possibilities of the new media. The new mindset is about seeing social media as a possibility to build a strong relationship with your audience and to change the “likes” into active ambassadors. To build it, you need to go through four distinct phases:

effective channel use for content marketing

1. Channel and content strategy: The first step consists of formulating a clear vision on the role of each of the online touch points. Apart from defining the goals and content of each of the individual channels, this phase is also about deciding how those channels interrelate.

In this phase, define which touch points are most likely to help you reach your social media (and broader business) objectives. But instead of creating social silos for each of the touch points, you are going for an integrated approach, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The truth is that all online channels are interrelated. Consumers can be routed from channel A to channel B. So here, companies should focus on creating a “content-conversion” plan, where you outline every touch point where a (potential) customer can come into contact with your content.

Next, you need to determine at which of these touch points is conversion to your objectives (reputation management, community building, lead generation, etc.) most likely to occur. All other social channels should then support traffic generation toward these conversion points.

When mapping out your conversion touch-point plan, define the trigger for each touch point that makes it possible to move on to the next. Furthermore, try to keep the lines as short as possible: The more steps that are necessary to reach the touch point where your business goals are realized, the harder it is to achieve high conversion rates. The easiest way to implement this is to use your own site/blog as the content conversion point. Social media are traffic builders to your site. It’s a very simple yet very commonly used approach.

For example, for companies working in the knowledge sector, SlideShare can serve as a useful converting touch point. SlideShare is a social network site where people can share presentations (PowerPoint, etc.). This is the ideal place to showcase what your business can do and what you have to offer. On this platform, it is easy to directly convert a reader into a sales lead.

effective content sharing

2. Build reach: To increase the return on content creation, it is advisable to build reach in the early phase of your online plan. In this phase, the hard part is maintaining a balance between creating relevant content and being able to attract a large set of “likes” and followers.

There are two ways to build reach: the slow approach and the fast approach. The slow approach builds reach over time by investing in quality content that spreads naturally. To succeed in this approach, you need three things: good content, a fixed rhythm, and a lot of patience. As big brands usually lack the last ingredient, we recommend choosing the fast approach, which consists of the following seven factors:

  • Conversation-worthy campaigns: Invest in social campaigns to boost the reach of your social channel activities. These are campaigns developed specifically for social media that fits with the DNA of the brand, but has the intention to attract a lot of people to your social platforms in order to build reach.
  • Rhythm: A one-time campaign won’t do it. You need to create content on a consistent, continuous rhythm.
  • Contests and free stuff: Giving away some of your products is still an effective way to build reach in the short run (although there’s no guarantee of quality). Many companies are afraid that they will attract “low-quality” followers with this strategy, and this is indeed a risk. But even once these followers are on board, the challenge is to convince them to stay with you through all of your content efforts (see step 3, below).
  • Social advertising: To grab the attention of your audience, you need to advertise your campaigns and content on social channels. In order to catch the attention of those who “liked” your page, social advertising helps to get your message higher on the timeline of your target group.
  • Employee activation: A company should always have more fans than employees. If your own employees don’t follow your content, how can you expect your customers to be interested? Train and facilitate employees to become active ambassadors for your social channel activities.
  • Offline communication channels: Building reach goes beyond online channels. Try to mention your online channels in all your communications: TV commercials, print advertising, banners, point-of-sales material, etc., to emphasize your efforts and catch potential customers across their favorite media and consumption habits.
  • Partner up with other major brands: If you have a good relationship with brands that have a large social reach, you can always ask them to share your brand content (or a competition) with their fan base.

3. Persuasion through content and interaction: Once you’ve attracted a significant number of followers and fans, you need engaging content to keep them interested. While the threshold to get a consumer to follow your brand is very low, it takes a huge effort to keep your audience members engaged once they have indicated their interest.

Research conducted by InSites Consulting has shown that the average consumer actively interacts with no more than five brands on social media. This means your brand needs to be part of this select little group. Also, recent research published by Fast Company has shown that fans won’t dislike your page if they don’t like the content; instead they will “hide” your page. This means competing for the attention of your own followers with big love brands like Apple, Coca-Cola, and Disney. And let’s not forget, your toughest adversaries when competing for the attention of your followers comes from those followers’ friends and families. After all, people joined Facebook to keep up with the lives of their friends, and not to be exposed to branded content the entire time.

The conclusion is obvious: This evolution is raising the bar for companies to be able to engage with consumers on social media.

Three elements are key in this particular phase:

  • An editorial calendar: Make sure you know what your content updates will look like at least three months in advance. Remember, content planning consists of three layers: big campaigns (very intense), projects (recurring thematic themes), and content updates (small content sparks).
  • Creative content: Drawing up the perfect content plan is probably the easiest part of the long road to success on social media channels. Coming up with creative content that consumers will talk about is the real challenge. It’s not an exact science, and there’s no such thing as a foolproof plan, though at its core, it’s really quite simple: Building content that conquers the hearts of your followers and friends requires highly creative people. Adding creativity and design to the content increases the chance that people will see it, “like” it, and share it. There is an overload of content, so you need to make sure that yours stands out in every detail.
  • Operational conversation management: In this phase, consumer engagement is one of your key objectives. To succeed, you need top operational conversation management, which is about listening to what people are saying and reacting when necessary. (In my first book, “The Conversation Manager,” I describe every aspect on how to manage a conversation as a brand.) Have a person or a team ready to interact and engage with your audience. Be fast, empathic and listen to your fans so they will commit to your brand. Follow the conversations in real time and be ready to respond.

4. From “likes” to ambassadors: The final phase is the most difficult part. In this phase, you are looking to create a small army of active ambassadors. Where the previous steps focused on winning people’s hearts through great content, in this phase, the challenge is to create ambassadors — people who will promote your brand to their friends and family.

Here, the key question to ask yourself is: “What do we want our fans to say about us and how can we facilitate this?” Succeed in identifying the answer and creating content to support this goal and you will be rewarded with positive and impactful conversation about your brand.

To convert your “likes” into ambassadors, the following factors are essential:

  • Broad consumer involvement: If you involve your customers in your decision-making flows, they will be more committed to your brand. People are more emotionally involved when they feel they are part of the team and that’s how you create ambassadors. So content planning is not just about sharing cool content or asking evident questions; it’s also about asking your customers for feedback on your performance. Use your content to ask people’s opinion on all things related to your company, and remember to thank them for the input they provide.
  • Consumer consultants: If you have in-depth questions concerning a new project or product, you should turn to your die-hard fans on social channels and invite them to join a closed community to discuss these topics. This makes them feel like they are really part of the team, and essentially you’re hiring employees that are not actually on the payroll.
  • Questions and answers: Put meaningful questions to your audience, as we explained in the first bullet point. Once your fans start giving you inspiring feedback, be sure to return the favor and keep them in the loop. Let them know what you did with the feedback and why certain remarks were used and others were not. Be open about what use you make of their feedback. Gain their trust be being honest.
  • Branded utility: Think of applications that bring added value to your fans. Look for content that is both highly relevant to your audience and in line with your business. Once again, you need top creative people to invent these applications. Once fans start using the utility apps, it is a great way for them to talk about your brand through the application.

Toward an integrated content marketing loop

These four phases are obviously not entirely sequential; there is an overlap between phases 2, 3, and 4. In our strategy, it’s not that hard to define the necessary actions for the various steps. In real life, though, we need to be flexible enough to adapt to consumer needs at a moment’s notice. Once a certain stage is reached, phases 2, 3, and 4 become iterative steps in an eternal loop designed to build reach and create more ambassadors.

social media channels, content loop

I am convinced that most companies could use their social channels more effectively. The problem is that most companies only focus on steps 2 and/or 3 of this plan. Most brainstorms start with the question, “What should we share on Facebook?” By taking that discussion to a higher level, you will change the way you look at social media touch points.

Acknowledgement

The paper is based upon a series of research projects conducted over the last two years, the experience gained from numerous workshops with our clients, and an in-depth discussion with social media experts Erik Van Roekel (@evr) and Matthijs Van Den Broeck (@mgvandenbroek).

And of course, I’m looking forward to reading your comments and your feedback in the comment section. Thanks!

For more tips on successfully integrating content marketing and social media, read “Managing Content Marketing” by Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi.

Cover image by Bigstock

Author: Steven Van Belleghem

Steven Van Belleghem is the author of The Conversation Manager and The Conversation Company. Next to that, he's a Professor at the Vlerick Management School and Managing Partner of InSites Consulting. His passion is helping clients in making strategic marketing decisions. Together with his team, he’s helping companies get a grip on the current consumers through branding, advertising and conversations. You can follow Steven on Twitter @StevenV Be.

Other posts by Steven Van Belleghem

  • Jessie Wood

    Great article! Most articles like this just say the same things over and over, like, “engage people,” which is worthless. This was actually helpful, and gave me some great ideas for how to move forward.
    One question: under “Branded utility,” what kind of applications that bring value to the fans are you talking about? Could you be a bit more specific or give me an example?
    Thanks!

  • Sarah Bauer

    With two year’s worth of research and testing behind these steps, I don’t doubt that this could be an effective plan for businesses of all sizes. Thank you for the compiling, testing, and reporting!

    Turning “Fans” into “Advocates” presents quite the challenge, but I think it’s one that can be conquered with loads of thank-yous. Showing unexpected, generous gratitude to those who champion your brand can encourage them to do more, and amplify your positive brand persona even further.

    Looking forward to improving our social media presences with these steps this year!

    Cheers
    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

    • http://twitter.com/StevenVBe Steven Van Belleghem

      Thank you :-)

  • http://twitter.com/LeonAltman Leon Altman

    Your advice about inviting feedback from customers and turning that feedback into a conversation is a valuable strategy. It takes some courage…but turning likers into brand ambassadors offers big dividends.

  • http://twitter.com/sanderbiehn Sander Biehn

    Very interesting post. I work in B2B complex sales and am interested in how to then cultivate the ambassadors to influence and become thought-leaders for potential buyers. For me, it is all about the intersection of Marketing and Sales. I would enjoy hearing more on that topic.