Marketing Monday: The difference between knowing the tools and knowing what to say

Online retailer Zappos has a great reputation for engagement and voice on social media -- that takes both a strategy and good tactical implementation

Online retailer Zappos has a great reputation for engagement and voice on social media — that takes both a strategy and good tactical implementation

Would you let your summer intern set your prices because she knows how your cash register works?

Would you let your teenage nephew respond to a legal claim against your business because the lawyer emailed it as a Word document and your nephew knows Microsoft Office better than you?


Please tell me you said no.

Then why do so many people put their business electronic communications — their website, their blog, their social media accounts — in the hands of someone young and unfamiliar with the company?

This is not to sound age-ist. I’m confident there are many smart, savvy young people doing excellent, professional work.

But just knowing how to post to WordPress or being active on Facebook or Instagram does not make someone the right choice to speak on behalf of your business. You need to know the difference between your business communications strategy and the tactics to get it done.

A recent MIT Sloan Management Review article headlined, Procedural Versus Strategic Approaches to Social Media, speaks to this difference. It begins:

Many companies turn to interns or freshly minted college students to staff their social media efforts. But that’s a risk: because these inexperienced employees are not well versed in their new company’s organizational culture or strategy, it is often difficult for them to meet organizational objectives with social media initiatives.

More dangerous, younger employees don’t know what they don’t know, which can be a recipe for disaster when companies hand these rookies a social media megaphone to speak on behalf of their company.

I have taught social media to both undergraduate and graduate students since 2006. Undergraduate students typically have a strong procedural understanding of social media tools. They use social media frequently, employ a wide range of features, readily experiment with the newest social media platforms and are often savvy at integrating or separating content for separate audiences. Because of this sophisticated procedural understanding, most think they understand social media well when they begin class.

Yet, this procedural understanding is not the same as understanding how to achieve business objectives with social media. By the end of the class, most undergraduate students comment how little they knew when they started and how much they still have left to learn. It is striking that many of these comments come from students who had already worked as social media interns at major companies.

Social media might become a channel for customer complaints, sales leads, media relations and more — and if businesses assume that comfort with Twitter is the same as knowing what to say and how to say it, when to escalate an incoming concern to someone more senior or how to create messages that connect with business goals and priorities, they might be disappointed with the results.

And to be fair to the smart, ambitious young social media managers out there — if you’re going to give the keys to an intern or young new hire, have you as a manager taken the time to clarify and communicate your business goals to that front-line person? Have you spelled out your expectations about tone, responsiveness and messaging?

The article’s author, Boston College‘s Jerry Kane, who has been researching and teaching social media and social networks since 2005, goes on to say:

Companies may find it easier and more effective to train existing managers about social media than to teach new hires about the strategic goals and direction of the company.

Likewise, the most effective organizational social media initiatives may be partnerships between younger employees demonstrating and experimenting with social media technologies while more experienced employees harness that enthusiasm and those ideas to give them strategic direction. This brings together the best of both worlds, combining procedural and strategic know-how.

I think of this as being like the best partnerships in creating marketing materials like a brochure. A copy writer, a photographer and a designer might all contribute their expertise to make something attractive, while someone like a sales director or company owner gives input on what the goals are for the piece. They all have a role to play, and both strategy and tactics should be part of the conversation. Do this font and this image convey the right tone? Who are we talking to and what do we need to say?

What if managers educate young hires about the business goals and what they hope social media will do to help achieve those, while tech-savvy newcomers teach the business leaders how to search for tweets and how to post to social platforms from their phones, for example? Could the result be so much better than either might get on his or her own?

If you want help getting started defining your strategy, as a foundation for the tactics for implementation:


Categories: career

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1 reply


  1. Marketing Monday: Use online criticism as insight into customer perspective « Newvine Growing

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