We’ve worked with a lot of companies over the years developing social marketing platforms and programs. One promising trend is that we’re dealing with fewer IT folks acting as gatekeepers for web-based marketing programs. I attribute this mostly to the rise of SaaS products that reduce the complexity of integration and allow marketers to focus on strategy and execution. I’m also seeing more tech-savvy marketers gaining influence in decision-making roles, speeding adoption of marketing technology.
What I don’t see is a faster pace of agile execution in marketing. Marketing technology is a challenging space. There are always new tools and technologies and it’s hard to keep up. But it’s been this way for the past 20 years. Today it’s social media, but yesterday it was CRM, and SFA, and CMS, and SEO—the list goes on and on. It’s time marketers adapted to this perpetually changing environment with strategies for leveraging new technologies in ways that minimize risk and maximize potential. Instead, there’s still far too much paralysis of analysis.
Every year, I see major projects that include many months of detailed research, planning, long meetings, and zero execution. Despite black-belt processes to identify business objectives, map critical success factors, profile engagement scenarios—everything in the business consulting toolkit—companies drag their feet getting to the point of actually doing something. The two biggest hurdles we see among marketers are technology selection and program ROI. These two issues can stall marketers for months while they research vendors and grasp at a compelling business case they can sell to the CEO. So in the interest of speeding marketers along the path to agile market development, let’s destroy these hurdles.
With technology selection, just adopt this simple truth: You are going to fail. So get it over with as quickly and cheaply as you can. The more time you spend planning some monumental RFP for an overarching social marketing platform, the more costly and crushing your failure will be. Marketers instinctively know this, which is why they get caught in paralysis of analysis—anything to delay the point of impact. But you can reduce the risk and cost substantially by dramatically reducing the scope of your initial project. Instead of buying a platform to engage your entire customer base, start with one component to test with selected customers.
There are dozens of low-cost, trial and open source social media components. Determine what form of interaction you think might ignite the community you want to build, and choose a low-cost component to test out your assumptions. Maybe it’s Twitter. Maybe it’s Facebook. It could be a blog or a forum, or even a small Ning network. Whatever you do, don’t buy a value-pack from some agency offering a one-size-fits-all Twitter Facebook Blog deployment. Choose one and focus on how to really make it work your company. Keep your test case on a small scale and use the project to learn what works and what doesn’t for your community. Your failure won’t look like failure, it will look like agile and intelligent prototyping. And because the cost is low, the worst anyone can say about it is that it didn’t work. But now you’re smarter.
Destroying the ROI hurdle is just as easy. If you don’t already have a clear case for ROI on your project, there isn’t one. If you’re planning a social marketing campaign to drive customer acquisition, then chances are you already know how to calculate ROI. If you’re trying to build a community, or drive more market engagement, forget about ROI—you’re in the domain of Brand Equity, and it will cost you more to measure it than it will to get started building something on the cheap.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you can’t measure the value of social media—but ROI is usually the wrong metric, and it’s become a reflexive roadblock among marketers who are afraid to take action. I don’t want to be flippant about this, but marketers need to bring a little balance to the justifiable demand for performance accountability. We do need to be accountable, and we do need to show that we’ve thoroughly vetted the investments we’re making. But when you’re in a competitive market that demands innovation, you have to get in the trenches to help innovation along, instead of just putting up roadblocks to every project that doesn’t come with a business case tied up in a neat bow. By the time a general business case for any solution has been accepted by the market, it’s no longer going to give you a competitive edge.
The best approach I’ve seen from a marketing group that needs some space to innovate is to allocate a percentage of their budget to emerging marketing programs—anywhere from 2 to 10 percent depending on your taste for innovation, but I recommend 4 percent as a guideline. Boards that are spouting received wisdom about innovative cultures can put their money where their mouth is by sanctioning a small percentage of the budget for programs that may not have a clear cut metric for ROI. Having a dedicated budget then puts a greater focus on how programs are selected, and how performance against business objects should be measured rather than just a slavish devotion to fitting innovative programs into an expected ROI formula.
If your program sponsor or CFO is stuck on the lack of demonstrable ROI, even when you’re putting forward the kind of low-risk, low-cost project we’re talking about here, then let them know there’s another important metric you’ll have to face up to in the future if you can’t find the space to innovate: opportunity cost.