Content marketing, social media, and painless dentistry

For many business executives considering how they’ll communicate with customers or other businesses, there are two words that strike terror into their very hearts: social media. Some companies have accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and so forth, but post only occasionally or fail to tie those communications in to the company’s overall communications strategy.

An apt analogy is that social media is to a communications strategy as flossing is to brushing: strategic and regular use of social media is that important extra step that improves on the results provided by your other communication activities. Unfortunately for many business people, while using social media is something they know they should do, it’s really, really tough to get in the habit of doing it with any regularity.

Social media can be especially difficult to embrace because it’s more complicated than simply writing a 140-character post and hitting “send” every day. New outlets pop up all the time, and it takes thought to determine which one is the right one to reach your audience. And it’s not without risks; just ask any number of companies who’ve posted what were intended to be harmless Tweets or innocent Facebook posts that exploded into reputation-damaging gaffes. However inept a flosser you might be, you’re not likely to slip and slit your jugular. And often—unlike a good checkup at the dentist—the rewards for social media use might not be readily apparent, leading many companies to associate a lack of clearly definitive metrics with a lack of value. Finally, unlike flossing, where your image is right there in the mirror, when you’re using social media it might not be immediately apparent who’s seeing your message.

Using social media doesn’t have to be a chore and, in fact, can be a valuable experience. As part of your thought leadership strategy, social media can be a great way to engage your target audience and expand the reach of your message. Use Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or other industry-appropriate channels to link to your company’s blog posts, white papers, and content on your website. Twitter has proven itself a wonderfully interactive tool to live-tweet your company’s events, expanding the reach of the event outside the conference room and engaging participants using a designated hashtag. Use LinkedIn to promote your thought leadership efforts and encourage discussions around your messages. Many organizations, such as TED, are adept practitioners of these tactics and have established social media presences as a critical element of their content-marketing strategy.

Plenty of sources offer social media “rules” and the like. Ultimately, when you choose to embrace social media, success is largely a function of applying the same fundamentals you should be employing in other aspects of your thought leadership strategy. Such a strategy—understanding why you’re creating content, who you’re trying to reach, and the best vehicle for reaching that audience—is, of course, the middle element of the thought leadership cycle, the others being content development and distribution.

This strategy, along with your distribution plans and your message, should inform your decisions about which social media outlets you choose and how you use them. Think about your audience: are your customers glued to Twitter, or do they check LinkedIn every day? Think about your message: which social media vehicle lends itself best to bringing your audience back to your website? Finally, what is your audience saying about your message on social media? Respond when appropriate. For many businesses, this opportunity to receive rapid feedback and communicate directly with their customers offers some of social media’s greatest value. Several brands, including Nike and Zappos, offer real-time customer support via Twitter. While that sort of service may not fit your company, it’s an example of how social media can be used to improve the bond with a target audience—and not just serve as a repository for content pitches.

Done right, done thoughtfully, social media use can become a critical part of your content marketing efforts. It takes some work, and it takes commitment. But it doesn’t have to be like pulling teeth.

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