The rise and rise of social media marketing

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David (left) and Mei Ying share their views on social media marketing.

oon yeohBy Oon Yeoh

The phrases online media, Web 2.0 and social media get bandied about quite a bit when you talk to people about the evolution of Internet media. Is there any difference among these catchwords? Or do they pretty much mean the same thing?

Ask 10 “experts” and you’ll get 10 different answers for there is no precise definition for any of these phrases. My own take on them is as follows. Online media, to me, is any form of content that is delivered over the Internet. Basically any website would be a form of online media.
Web 2.0, meanwhile, refers to the interactive web. That is, online content that you can respond to. You can comment on blogs, respond to YouTube videos and so on. These are examples of Web 2.0.

Social media takes it a step further. It’s online media that is interactive and has a community aspect to it. So, it’s not just interactive but there’s a network effect involved. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn – all these are forms of social media.

Once social media burst into the local public consciousness – around 2010, which was when the uptake on Facebook and Twitter really shot through the roof in this part of the world – business owners soon started taking notice. They might not have understood what social media was all about but they couldn’t help but notice all the young people were on it. And soon enough, older people and even senior citizens were on it. This is a platform you can’t ignore.

Companies understood advertising and they understood public relations but they didn’t quite have a grasp on social media marketing, so many of them sought outside help. I spoke to two social media practitioners – one a freelancer and the other the general manager of a digital communications agency – about the local social media marketing scene.

Freelance social media consultant, Teoh Mei Ying, started off her career working in sales and marketing. This eventually led to public relations and eventually to social media marketing.

“I started using social media personally a lot while I was doing PR and I suppose it was a natural progression,” she says. “I was following David Armano (global strategy director for Edelman Digital) closely and realised that social media could really complement some of our PR work. So my interest for social media as a marketing and public relations tool grew from there.”

She eventually left her agency to become a freelance consultant when she noticed that a lot of companies wanted to try out social media but could not afford to pay the kind of fees that specialist digital agencies were charging. “I wanted to fill that gap,” she said.

An integral part of communications

David Lian has taken a different career route and far from leaving corporate life, has risen through the ranks. He is now the GM of Zeno Malaysia, a digital communications agency. Having been in the business for more than a decade, he has seen the rise of online media, Web 2.0 and social media – and how they all changed the way communications functioned.

“Technology has always been a passion of mine, and I literally witnessed this thing called social media explode in front of my very eyes. I recall thinking that “this is what my clients need to start thinking about in their communications initiatives.”

Together with the explosion of social media, there was also a mushrooming of so-called “social media gurus”, so much so that it’s hard to tell who’s for real and who’s not. There’s no accreditation for social media. Anyone can call themselves an expert. And many do. So how can companies determine which ones are worth engaging? What should they be looking for?

“Tough question!” replies Mei Ying. “I think businesses should check out the Facebook Pages that the consultant is currently managing. They should also do a bit of reading and understand social media marketing before speaking to a consultant, or else they wouldn’t know if the consultant really knows their stuff.”
David’s observations are that most early “social media experts” were really just early adopters of social media platforms and, as such, they were in a position to help their clients understand those platforms. The problem is that they aren’t trained communicators. “Just because you know how to do an interesting post doesn’t mean you understand the implications of talking to a wide community,” he says. “The best way to tell the difference between a good consultant and a bad one is to ask them how they would measure the success of their work.”

So, how do you measure social media marketing? According to David, the appropriate metrics depend on the goal of the client’s campaign. A good consultant should be able to listen to your problem, present you a solution, and measure the effectiveness of that solution against your original problem.

“For example, if your goal is sales, then you should really be measuring if social media is part of driving people to a certain point of sale, then measuring how well it did that job,” he says.

However, David is quick to add that it’s important not to just view things in terms of sales and the bottom line. “You shouldn’t discount the by-products of a good campaign as well – things like engagement, a growing community base etc. even though these aren’t the metrics that you’ve designed your campaign against.”

Mei Ying says that metrics differ for each client, and that they also differ for each campaign. “If a campaign is to launch a certain product, then sales matter, but if a campaign is to increase engagement, then the engagement rate matters,” she says. “But a few key metrics are always important to every client, namely the number of fans, the reach, and engagement rate.”

One of the key challenges of being in the social media industry is coping with the rapid and constant changes. Books written about social media become out of date in less than a year (I should know, having written one myself).  So, how do these two keep abreast of developments?

Surprisingly, both give very similar answers. Of course they read up on the current trends but more importantly, they feel it’s doing the work itself that keeps up to date.

“I spend a lot of time strategising content and campaigns for clients based on their target communities,” says Mei Ying. “Each community reacts differently so no matter how much you think you know, you’d still need to test things out on each community to find the best fit. And of course, the communities evolve too, so you just have to keep testing things out.”

David has the advantage of a research unit within Zeno, which he says “helps a lot” but generally it’s the daily work of managing his client’s campaigns that keeps him on his toes, “constantly trying new things and increasing our knowledge on what works and what doesn’t.”

In other words, social media marketing is something you have to do to know what works. You can’t just read up on it and expect to be able to do it well.

So what’s the social media scene going to be like a few years from now, given how fast things change? Again, both give remarkably similar answers.

“At the heart of it, nothing will change because it’s still fundamentally public relations and marketing we’re talking about,” says Mei Ying, “The only difference is the medium. That might change.”

“How humans communicate will constantly evolve,” says David, “but what makes for good communication will probably always be based on the same fundamentals.”

Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant. 

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