Word-of-Mouth and Referral Marketing Blog

What is social media marketing?

It’s a term that’s thrown around so much, and so lightly, that it’s become rather meaningless. This post is an attempt to re-interpret the meaning of the term.

As always, let’s be clear about the parts before we take a stab at the whole.

We’ll start with some technical definitions.

“What is social media?”

Social media is the convergence of communications and publishing.

(To be more precise, it’s any system of nodes that have equal capacity to publish and subscribe to information. Here’s a blogpost that we wrote to explore this properly: What is social media?)

“What is marketing?”

Marketing is the deliberate communication of value, intended to influence consumer decisions.

Put the two together and we have… “What is social media marketing?”

Social media marketing is the deliberate use of social media’s key features to influence consumer decisions.

We’re arguing that anything described as “social media marketing” must utilize the core features of social media. Think about it- the term is otherwise incredibly imprecise and unhelpful!

Let’s not conflate “social media usage” with “social media marketing”.

  • Being on social media doesn’t mean that you’re doing social media marketing.
  • Posting on social media doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing social media marketing.
  • Responding to customers on social media doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing social media marketing.

When does it count, then? Let’s begin by by exploring some counter-examples.

“Is X social media marketing?”

  • You make a really good video on YouTube, and it goes viral.
  • You did something really funny in your offline store. Customers took pictures of it, and that went viral on Facebook and got you a bunch of new sales.
  • Your customer support rep sent someone a highly personalised response in the form of a cute limerick, and it made front page of Reddit. Lots of new signups.

Is any of that social media marketing? Only if it was deliberate.

  • Free-rider problem. All the above cases benefit from social media’s existence, but have little to do with the deliberate management of social media. A social media manager who claims credit for these things is practically enjoying a free ride… unless he masterminded it in advance.
  • The inverse is also true. You can’t blame a social media marketer if a customer’s horrible experience goes viral. That’s the nature of social media. Every individual has equal power to publish information, so word can spread really far and really fast, beyond the influence of the most charming, talented social media marketer.

Social media marketing is best interpreted as one facet of a much broader marketing strategy.

  • It doesn’t make sense to think about social media in a vacuum. The stuff you’re going to be posting ought to be synchronized very intimately with the rest of your overall content strategy. Your blog, your videos, your infographics, whatever you have.
  • “Specialized social media marketing” feels like premature optimization. You could optimize it, and if you have a large marketing team, you might have a specialized “social media marketer” You’ll need a pretty big team before it makes sense to have someone with a deep specialization in the finer nuances of social media. You’re probably better off having SEO or content specialists.
  • Content first. It makes much more sense to have a sort of “central content factory” or a “distributed content network” (depending on how many people you have in your team). Social media is then a channel to monitor and massage the propagation that content.
  • Social media as a channel to be observed and managed. Do this well and you’ll maximize the returns on our inbound marketing. The actual management is relatively trivial (be thoughtful, be fun and spontaneous, don’t be insensitive) compared to the hard problem of creation of quality content (requires creativity, deep thought, lots of knowledge and experience).

Final verdict: Use the term with precision! (Or skip it altogether.)

  • We’ve gotten very pedantic about the term “social media marketing”. But this is necessary, for the purpose of intelligent discussion! Otherwise it becomes a weaselly term used to propagate vague, imprecise ideas that don’t actually mean anything. It’s very annoying.
  • You probably need somebody to manage your social media presence. This could be you, this could be an in-house employee, and it could be some 3rd party solutions provider. We recommend keeping it in-house. (Social media also happens to be a great opportunity to do market research and analysis, and the returns on that might ultimately be worth more than your social media marketing efforts- but that’s outside of the scope of this post.)

Other posts in this sequence:

  1. What IS social media?
  2. Why is it so hard to define social media, and why should we care?
  3. What’s the difference between ‘social networking sites’ and social media?
  4. Why are people so annoying on social media?
  5. How did online social networks disrupt traditional media?
  6. How will social media change the way we live and consume?
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Visakan Veerasamy

Visa is ReferralCandy's former Blog Editor [2013–2018]. He also co-founded Statement.sg, a fashion ecommerce label selling witty t-shirts. He's mildly Internet-famous for his elaborate Twitter threads. He hopes to enjoy a glass of scotch onboard a commercial space flight someday.

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