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How to set effective corporate social media objectives

iStock_000014421434LargeWhiteMany organisations active in social media fail to understand the need to set clear objectives for their participation, putting the desire to join in before considering why they are bothering in the first place. It’s an understandable approach in some ways; social technologies develop incredibly quickly and no self-respecting marketer wants to be seen to be behind the curve. And with agencies and software vendors even more eager to demonstrate their capabilities, it’s easy to get sucked into employing social technologies for their own sake before at the very least having an idea of what it is you are trying to achieve.

In the excellent book Groundswell, Forrester Research analysts Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li outlined five objectives that companies could pursue:

  • Listening – to gain a better understanding of your customers
  • Talking – to spread messages about your company
  • Energizing – to accelerate word of mouth among enthusiasts
  • Supporting – to help customers support each other
  • Embracing – to integrate customers into business operations

Josh and Charlene argued that each of these five objectives correspond to existing business functions – research, marketing, sales, support and development respectively – the only difference being that they require a new level of engagement with the customer, using the social technologies that those customers are now using to communicate with each other.

What are objectives anyway?

The problem I have with these is that they aren’t really objectives. For me, listening, talking, energizing, supporting and embracing are things that an organization may choose to do in order to achieve a goal, but they’re not the goals themselves. Anyone familiar with ‘SMART’ objectives (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound) can see that a listening objective expressed as ‘gain a better understanding of my customers’ isn’t specific and cannot be measured in anything other than a binary response (you either gained a better understanding or you didn’t). A more substantive approach to objective setting is therefore required.

There is a multitude of social media marketing objectives for just about every business, so it’s impossible for me to tell you what yours should be. However, I suggest that they can all be stated in terms of three different – although not mutually exclusive – categories.

Financial objectives

Objectives that are intended to derive revenue or save cost. An example could be to increase market share for a particular product by a specific number of percentage points, or to save $250,000 in distribution costs. Financial objectives are usually communicated in money or percentages and can be relative or absolute (e.g. increase or decrease by a certain amount, or achieve a specific number of sales/leads).

Reputation objectives

Objectives that contribute towards increasing or protecting the reputation of the company. Examples here might include increasing brand preference amongst a customer segment, or reducing the rate of customer churn. Reputational objectives are often communicated in relative terms (e.g. increases or decreases), but can also be absolute (e.g. something happened or didn’t happen).

Knowledge objectives

Objectives that enhance individual or organizational knowledge and understanding. An example might be to learn what customers think about a particular issue, or how they respond to a new business process. Educational objectives are almost always absolute (e.g. we learned something or we didn’t).

Why are they needed?

It could be argued that every objective is designed to influence the only outcome any CMO should care about: selling more products and services. That makes a lot of sense, but if you think social media marketing is going to single-handedly achieve your financial objectives you will be extremely disappointed. To paraphrase the famous comment about advertising spending (usually attributed to Lord Leverhulme), you may know that half of your social media marketing budget is wasted but you won’t know which half. So unless you set objectives for this specific channel that you can accurately measure then you are never going to know whether it is helping you achieve that ultimate business goal. Not surprisingly then, the type of objective has a significant bearing on the metric and method used to measure whether or not it has been achieved.

This method of objective categorization should also help the social media marketer how to decide which objectives are actually relevant. There is little point setting a financial objective for a social media activity designed to understand customers’ views on a proposed new product or service (although as previously stated, that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t contribute to some kind of financial outcome as a result of the findings contributing to an improved product that would sell better).

Setting SMART objectives for social media

The ‘SMART’ mnemonic for objective setting is thought to originate from an article in the November 1981 issue of Management Review. A widely accepted management tool – particularly in employee appraisals – many senior executives are familiar with the concept, although fewer are perhaps able to write objectives that comply with all the criteria. Some might argue that SMART objectives are not appropriate for social media activities, where there is a need for both experimentation and flexibility to change direction very quickly. But remember we are talking about objectives here – i.e. the goals of the activity. How you go about achieving those goals is not part of the objective setting process.

If you’re not familiar with it, the SMART mnemonic is:

  • Specific: be precise about what you want to achieve
  • Measurable: make sure the objective is quantified and can be easily measured
  • Attainable: ensure you have the resources and personnel to deliver
  • Relevant: make sure the objective is aligned to company goals
  • Time-bound: state when the objective must be achieved by

Examples of SMART social media marketing objectives might therefore include:

  • To reduce the number of negative mentions on the first five pages of Google search results for the company by half by the end of 2010
  • To achieve 25% of the share of voice online for cardio-vascular medical equipment vs. our three largest competitors by September 2011
  • To increase the number of in-bound sales leads from electronic channels from 1,000 in 2009 to 4,000 in 2012

In summary

In most cases, social media marketing objectives should align with and support overall marketing objectives. Some might even be components that contribute towards an overall objective (for instance, the last example above might represent the 10% contribution towards overall in-bound sales lead targets that social media marketing has been identified to deliver). It stands to reason then that if overall marketing objectives support business objectives, then so too will social media marketing objectives.

Whilst you might think that specific objectives for social media marketing are unnecessary, without them it will be impossible to know whether or not this new form of interaction is delivering any kind of value to your business at all.