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The 3 Types of Social Media Strategy

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Do you have a social media strategy for your business? Can you articulate what a social media strategy is? Don’t feel bad if you answered no.

LEGO TroopersI’ve been meaning to write this post for a while and have talked around the issue a few times. If you think I talk a lot about social media here and on Twitter you should talk to me in real life. Over the last few months a few people have blogged about my thoughts around social media strategy that I haven’t shared here. This post is an attempt to pull those various thoughts together.

First Shannon Paul asked me the very dangerous question: What’s missing from most social media strategies? The correct answer of course is the strategy. The following is an expanded version of the answer I gave her.

Defining Social Media Strategy

When people talk about their social media strategy they are usually talking about their Goals (their desired outcome), or the specific tactics used to achieve their goals. A strategy is neither of these things. Strategy may be one of the most misunderstood and misused terms in business, probably because every business expert has their own definition. How strategy was explained to me in my MBA program was:

  • A business strategy is creating operational alignment between all functions and activities of a business.

A communication strategy is a subset of the business strategy. If you buy my professors definition then:

  • A communications strategy is the alignment between all the mar-com groups and their activities in support of the business strategy.

The communications strategy supports the business strategy by communicating the various messages (primarily the companies value proposition) to the various stakeholders of a company (the value proposition is different to each stakeholder). Stakeholders being customers, shareholders (if applicable), employees, partners and anyone else who is impacted by a company. For a company like Microsoft (client) or HP (former employer) that pretty much means everyone.

Therefore a social media strategy,for PR or Marketing, is a subset of the communications strategy. It should support the communications strategy in supporting the business strategy.

So to answer the question: “What are most social media strategies missing?” They are missing organizational alignment with the overall communications strategy which is often not in full alignment with the business strategy to begin with.

Because they are not aligned they are not achieving efficiency. This is why we mostly see one off social media campaigns that don’t accrue to anything.

This problem isn’t unique to social media. It plagues all comms groups; advertising, marketing, PR etc because we often work in our own silos and fail to achieve alignment.

This is no small task and I doubt that true strategic alignment is achievable; we’re imperfect people in imperfect companies. But it starts by first understanding clearly the overall business strategy and then making sure we are aligned to that and not our own personal or department goals.

The question then becomes do you have a social media strategy? Think about that before you answer. Over the last year I have noticed three different strategies for adopting social media (one strategy is to not adapt social media at all but that’s a topic for another post). At the SXSW Social Media Breakfast I presented briefly and talked about the three kinds of strategies. Aliza Sherman was in attendance and captured these three approaches on WebWorkerDaily (go read the comments, they’re great).

The Bolt On Strategy

This is where most businesses are today (assuming they’re doing anything) and really isn’t a strategy in my view because it’s not optimized with existing efforts and resources, it’s more of a phase companies go through. This is the way every company starts off. This is the toe-in-the-water, stop-gap approach. What this looks like is the one off blog, Twitter account or Facebook page that isn’t integrated into anything and many people in the company might not even be aware of. This isn’t a bad way to start, there’s a lot of learning that happens in this phase but it’s not really a strategy.

The danger becomes when more and more groups within the business start bolting on their own individual efforts. The end result is what I call Zombie Media: social media with no brains.

Optimizing Social Media For Your Business

This is the phase more advanced companies are actively working towards. When you use social media as part of your business for any length of time you will quickly realize that you are not getting the most out of your efforts. For all the external output you create you (initially) create multiple extra cycles internally.

Does this sound familiar?

  1. Someone says something bad about your company on Twitter or on a blog or in a comment to a blog or on your Facebook page.  What happens next?
  2. An email is sent out with a screen grab and (maybe) a link to the offending statement.
  3. Multiple people hit the “Reply to All” button in Outlook and the first line reads something like this: “Adding [so-and-so] or [x-team] because (some reason that really means I don’t want to/don’t know how to deal with this).
  4. Repeat step 3 a few more times and the issue gets escalated further and further up the chain.
  5. Now your entire day (and maybe the next) is spent managing the email created by a tweet.
  6. If you’re lucky you get a response to that person (assuming you decide to respond at all) late that day or sometime the next.

Point #6 is, of course, dependent on the fact that you have at least made it to the Bolt On Strategy. How quickly you respond is a direct reflection on how far you are along the spectrum towards optimizing social media for your business.

Within this strategy you have clear decision makers, clear roles and responsibilities and have allocated the right resources to social media. To date this is as far as I have seen any company go.

Optimizing Your Business for Social Media - Beyond Marketing

To me this is the Holy Grail. I don’t think any company has achieved this strategy (some like StockTwits are close). There is an alternative definition of strategy that I have used that I like better than the first one I gave (I know that’s cheating).

Strategy: Art and science of planning and marshaling resources for their most efficient and effective use.

Sounds kind of close to the first definition but without all the business lingo. There’s a key difference though: operational alignment vs. most efficient and effective.

If you think of social media as only a communications channel you will never achieve this strategy. If you perceive social media as the most disruptive resource since the Internet and the Web then you will begin to see the possibilities.

HP is currently the top global PC manufacturer. There was time though when Dell was the top dog and the Investor darling. HP had an unmatched sales channel and there was no way anyone would easily beat it. That is until Dell built a business that was optimized for to the Web, completely bypassing the channel (something they’re now trying to go back and build). Eventually HP matched Dell’s price through acquisitions, scale and building out there Web sales but it was expensive and the Compaq acquisition almost sank the company (it didn’t help that Carly was CEO).

Amazon (client), Netflix and Google have all built businesses optimized for the Web.

Facebook and Twitter have built businesses that enable social media but I have argued that even they are not strategically optimized for social media (I think they’re really close though I just feel like they focus too much on acting like a “real” business - another post). In order to optimize for social media you can’t just address the technology you have to look at the cultural shift that is happening. Businesses need to realize that collectively and globally our priorities are very different than they were ten or even five years ago.

In a previous post I tried to define what some are calling the social business. I’ve adapted that definition slightly to show what a social media strategy would look like.

A business strategy that is optimized for social media will use social technologies to build collaborative relationships across all company stakeholders.  By leveraging social technologies in an open and transparent way businesses will regain and build more trust among stakeholders. This increased trust will result in greater knowledge creation, which the same social technologies have the ability to capture, organize and distribute at a yet to be seen level of efficiency. By building collaborative relationships with all company stakeholders using social technologies, businesses will be able to quickly create and capitalize more innovation.

Business Model vs Business Strategy

At this point some of you may be thinking that I’ve crossed over into talking about business models and not just strategy.  A business model is how you make money. Amazon’s business model is the same as Barnes &  Noble’s but their strategy is optimized for the Web by doing away with physical locations.

One Final Note

If you’re still reading this 1,400 words later, I congratulate and thank you. I fully admit to being a social media Kool-Aid drinker (strawberry kiwi) but I am not saying that the only strategy is throwing out your old business model and strategy and rebuilding it around social media. Very few companies can, will or should create a strategy like this. Just like most companies do not have a business optimized around the Web. Most will end up with some version of the second strategy.

But those few that do will be the next Amazon, Netflix and Google of their industries.

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Photo credit by Balakov

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About Tac

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.

  • http://www.ubervu.com/conversations/www.newcommbiz.com/the-3-types-of-social-media-strategy/ uberVU - social comments

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by pingmicro: The 3 Types of Social Media Strategy http://goo.gl/fb/nX7fP http://j.mp/KnowMore...

  • http://twitter.com/ebbynezer Chris Ebbesen

    But what must they align to?

    If I could add to the collective regarding this post, I would have said the first alignment that must take place is an alignment towards a purpose: a reason for existing. In short, what would the world miss if said organization disappeared tomorrow.

    Start from purpose and then move into your business and communication strategy, your concepts, tactics and ways to measure.

    That is the first step towards moving your marketing model to the “Relationship Era”.

    Thank you Tac for this great thought post.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Strategy has to align to the biz goals & ideally there's a higher purpose behind your business, but that's a whole separate battle :) Thanks for the comment Chris.

  • http://twitter.com/ebbynezer Chris Ebbesen

    You are right, it is definitely a different battle, but before I move on, your purpose doesn't have to be lofty, or “green”, or charitable in some way. It could be to feed the world, meaning that you sell whatever food in whatever market that people will buy, thus feeding the world.

    The idea is to be able to trace back everything to that purpose, keeps you aligned :)

  • http://www.heidi-miller.com/ Heidi Miller


    Great post, lots of food for thought. I'd like to hear more about “operational alignment.” I'll admit to not knowing exactly what that means. What does it look like? How would an organization go about promoting it? What are some examples of organizations with operational alignment fed into a social media strategy that we can do a scientific/marketing dissection on?

    The lab is open. Let's take it apart and see how it works.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    There are two analogies I use for operational alignment. One is the analogy of a machine with all the cogs working together but I really don't like business/cog analogies. The one I like better is playing chess (because I really like chess). When you play chess you have to know where all the pieces are, which pieces are capable of doing what and the same for your competitors pieces. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a knight to save your queen. If you played chess like most businesses run the knight would never make any sacrifices because it has no idea that the queen is in trouble.

    If you think about something like Starbucks, My Starbucks Ideas site, this is a good start. They're taking customer ideas as a part of collaborative product development. this is integrating social media into product development but it also acts as marketing and to some extent customer service. Now that's what's happening on the outside, the workflow on the inside would tell us if it's optimized or just bolted on.

    Does that help?

  • http://www.hapiheart.com/ Tiffany Wheeler

    Hi Tac,
    What you describe is resonant of Systems Theory - it isn't really new when you look at the universe. All successful (long lasting) processes require a matrix of inter-connected, symbiotics parts and functions. What social (digital) media has done is introduce a new species into the ecosystem of business marketing/comm. It's helped move us from Analog Age to Digital Age, much like the Industrial Revolution forever changed socioeconomic conditions. Let's do a tag-team T&D post on this: MBA meets Nature. Our shared goal is to create language and metaphor that clicks with clients and colleauges. There's a story here.

  • http://twitter.com/shelholtz Shel Holtz

    I've been spreading this post around, Tac. Good stuff.

    What you refer to as optimization is what I've referred to as the “organic” level of organizational social media engagement. That is, it's what happens as a matter of routine, daily, at all levels of the organization. Systematic social media is the stuff that needs to be managed, lest the company find itself with eight Radian6 accounts, four from CustomScoop, three from SocialRadar, and so on, not to mention a dozen different outside agencies and consultants. Campaign-based is the short-term stuff (like Dell's Facebook campaign for green computing ideas). I suppose the three can be formed into some kind of model.

    Just another way to look at it, I suppose…

  • http://paulgailey.com/ Paul Gailey

    I frequentely got bitterly accused of sacrificing my queen ? all to often when playing chess, and my best games were the ones where I happily did that and the pawns ? became promoted. My opponent was obsessed with protecting his queen and whenever I was asked why I “did that” I just said my strategy was to win.

    If a customer centric company can organise it´s pawns - it´s frontline staff - to contribute to it´s social media activity, I´m convinced the res ult is more effective than a queen centric execution. Zappos?

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Great point Shel. We've been calling this “the new normal.” It's just the way work will be done moving forward.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    I find it interesting that social media is making companies more “organic” in the way they work. A T&D post sounds like a good idea.

  • http://www.promotioncomplete.com/?p=341 Promotion Complete :: Uncategorized :: An Insider’s View to Working for a PR Agency - with Meghan Sager

    [...] The 3 Types of Social Media Strategy [...]

  • http://twitter.com/JGoldsborough JGoldsborough

    Tac, don't let anyone ever tell you your posts aren't thought provoking :) . Lot of great points here. First, I think it's really important for for us to continue to have the conversation on what goals, strategy, objectives and tactics really mean. So many of us think we know or think we should know and therefore don't actually talk about them and learn from how others see them. What you've done here is an important step in that perspective sharing. Here's my other favorite G,S,O,T post from @ambercadabra (I look at this weekly as a refresher): http://altitudebranding.com/2009/12/how-to-crea…

    There are a lot of reasons so many companies can't get beyond the “bolt on” stage that have little to do with employees' understanding of social media. Often times, as you highlighted in your 6-step process above, it's the back-end processes and silos that cause a brand to stumble on Facebook, Twitter or a blog. Jane in PR really wants to help you with your complaint, but she doesn't work in customer service, doesn't have access to your account and also can't find the guy in product who can fix the issue you're having for others. The real obstacle or facilitator toward optimizing social media for your business is culture. And you could argue that culture is a strategy. Consider 2 scenarios.

    Scenario 1: A company has goals of driving sales and superior customer service, a strategy to focus first and foremost on the customer and a strategy to empower employees as brand ambassadors. Scenario 2: A company has a goal of driving sales and producing results by following processes. Employees are put in a box, taught to fend for themselves and the strategy is they do ONLY their jobs and everything else will work itself out. The most empowered person at this company is the CEO and no one makes a decision/change without his/her approval.

    Now, tell me which company has a better chance of reaching the optimization point you mentioned above? Better yet, which company is going to be more successful when it comes to the bottom line? Which company is wasting resources?

    Finally, I think Shel raises an interesting point about the three types of social media. I'd argue organic and systematic are the most important to the company's brand perception and in many cases, bottom line. But in a marketing-first society, campaign usually wins out. Of course, there are companies like Chick-Fil-A that adopt their brand as a campaign and last time I checked they were doing just fine :) .

    Thanks for starting this conversation. I hope it's one that you'll continue. Lots to discuss and digest here.


  • http://twitter.com/drofsocialmedia Brian Prenderville

    Hi Tac

    great article, I'm the guy over on socialmediatoday that printed it off to read it with a glass of wine !

    Enjoyed it so much that I posted a response to it on my blog http://www.socialmediadoctor.eu entitled “The Challenge of Social Media: A response to Tac Anderson's “Defining Social Media Strategy” http://bit.ly/a3bJyw

    Best Regards

  • aaronsavage

    It’s a great post and it is very refreshing to find someone who actually understands what strategy is. My issue though is that there is a lot of talk about social media strategy when the business needs a joined up online marketing strategy much more.

    My rationale is that if you focus on social media, the temptation is to immediately leap across into tactics such as Twitter and Facebook. If you think in terms of an online marketing strategy (of which social media is a constituent part) your focus is on the customer. I talk to clients about the journey that the customer must make from first contact, through engagement and trust building to the point of first sale, and then on to repeat, cross and up sell, regular sale and finally retention and referral to begin the process again (apologies for the long sentence!). Social media cannot do all of that alone, but unless you attempt to do all of that your strategy isn't complete or commercial in nature, and all marketing should be.

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  • http://www.manuprasad.com/blog/2010/10/social-scaling/ Social Scaling | b r a n t s

    [...] of this post has been written on before, thanks to an earlier note by Tac Anderson on the ‘3 types of social media strategy‘, and David Cushman’s excellent presentation the same [...]

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com/yes-you-do-need-a-social-media-strategy/ Yes You Do Need a Social Media Strategy | New Comm Biz

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