Everyone is talking about it, and lots of us are entertaining thoughts of expanding our networks through social media but what does that really mean? I thought I had a pretty good handle on it — conceptually anyway — but after speaking with a good friend and expert in the field, Martin Sage, I realize I still have a lot to learn.
Martin breaks it into what he calls “social’s two faces” — two separate concepts that share some overlapping elements: social media marketing and community building.
Simply put, social media marketing is the use of third-party social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, YouTube, and Second Life, for example, for straight advertising (versus content) and for syndicating your message to existing audiences already gathered in those spaces.
Community building on the other hand, is the creation of a private network (or community space) on your web property, and gathering your audience there for communications purposes of your own choosing.
The overlap comes from the ability of both of those concepts to play off of one another to share traffic, syndicate/aggregate content, or both.
For all of you tech-savvy folks out there, I’m simplifying things here (and maybe too much so), because in my experience, the lingo around social media can be so inaccessible that it defeats the purpose of what social media is meant to be: a means to reach out to and communicate with an audience in an accessible way.
Looking back six years or so, getting good “positioning” on search engines —search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) — was the preferred way to reach your target market and drive traffic to your web site.
Nowadays, SEO and SEM are only two weapons in an increasingly sophisticated arsenal of online marketing tactics that offer businesses new opportunities to profoundly improve connectivity with their target market.
Social’s two faces offer businesses the chance to give their clients added value. One of the greatest value-adds a business can provide, is for their clients to have an opportunity to learn (without being on the clock), by having easy access to aggregated information that is of use to them.
This could come in the form of a white paper, a magazine article, an opinion piece in a mainstream publication, the podcast of a news story — any shareable content that might be useful to them.
Within a social environment — be it LinkedIn or your own private network — clients can then react and respond to that content, giving you the opportunity to observe and gain actionable insights into their preferences, behaviour, and opinions.
Martin also pointed that in his experience, many businesses leap before they look when it comes to online marketing. Most often it’s through their failure to define the objectives their Internet marketing plans are supposed to serve, which leads to an inability to measure success and ultimately quantify return on investment (ROI).
Accordingly, the first thing to do before you start down the Internet marketing highway is define your objectives! Is it building a community? Is it a client retention play? Acquisition? Both? Is it to increase the value of your offer by having a vibrant community? Or are you looking for media traction to build brand awareness, and drive traffic to your web site and ultimately, to you?
Yes, you and your firm are brands worth building.
Take for example the office my firm opened up in Second Life. Fabulous idea, customized virtual digs, avatars that embodied our desired selves . . . but what was the purpose of opening the office? What was our business objective?
In hindsight, of course, it was about drawing attention to the fact that our firm has legal service providers who are savvy about and interact with available technologies, and to build a community online.
On the plus side, we ended up on the cover of Canadian Lawyer magazine, were interviewed countless times and I (my avatar more specifically) looked great in my custom-made suit.
On the downside, we were stuck out in Zurich, which might as well have been a virtual version of Pluto, and some random blogger took a shot at us in an online forum about opening an office in Zurich — without realizing that it was in fact, a virtual version of Zurich and not the real city . . . and so it goes.
You have to take the good with the bad sometimes. At the end of the day, the experience was fantastic, but be careful, there are some pitfalls that should be considered, particularly for legal service providers, before embarking on marketing in cyberspace.
The Internet offers a singular space in which to give all clients access, all the time, to you and to observe their reactions.
Effectively, you can put yourself in the position of being able to put your finger on the pulse of what interests them and drives their business decisions. For legal service providers, this means being able to get valuable insight into your clients’ needs at a much lower cost.
In the past, the only effective way to do this was to conduct surveys which were expensive and had to be short in order to keep the reader’s attention long enough to complete it — if they were even willing to complete it. Now, we are able to create our own online community centre and see how our community responds to us, and to each other.
By provoking a response, we can lead AND learn. It’s the latest form of social engineering and can be done in a totally legitimate way, which can have great value for all concerned, as long as you bring best practices to the table.
Fast forward: you have built an online community space on your web site, populated it with added-value content for your existing clients — and prospects — leveraged social networks like Facebook (you even bought ads against profiles to target a key audience), Twitter, etc. and siphoned some of their traffic your way, AND successfully stimulated a robust conversation within your community that you are able to observe and syndicate to the wider online discussion through social media services like Technorati, Digg, Flickr, etc.
So where is the downside in all of this?
Risk for one thing.
As fantastic as it all sounds, there are certain risks inherent to engaging in online social media marketing, particularly for the legal community. Social media marketing is not something that should be undertaken lightly: business opportunity notwithstanding.
Yes, anyone with access to a computer with a browser can blog and post away, on their own site or on someone else’s, but for lawyers, we need to:
(i) be mindful of not providing legal advice online;
(iii) be mindful of applicable (and jurisdiction specific) intellectual property, defamation, and privacy laws;
(iv) consider any impact on existing and future contractual arrangements;
(v) be aware not just of infringement of pre-existing copyrights, but also the creation of new copyrights because of your firm’s use of social media (who owns what);
(vi) develop and require adherence by all personnel to firm policies regarding use of social media; and
(vii) get consent (be it from the author of a work or a senior member of your firm) if you are in doubt.
These, and other areas of potential exposure to liability, need to be considered when engaging in social marketing online.
It’s all about asking yourself where you want to fit into the wider conversation, what the risks are, finding the appropriate fit for your particular business, and putting a clear business case together so that you aren’t walking into fog without a clue about where you are going.
Your plan can always be modified once you are underway, but you’ll spend a lot less time and money in the long run if you at least have one to start out with.
Throw out some (well thought out) sizzle folks, and they’ll come begging for steak.
Sarah Dale-Harris is a lawyer in the intellectual property, technology & interactive entertainment groups at Davis LLP. She can be reached at 416-365-3522 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. She thanks Martin Sage of Shabeen — an interactive marketing agency in Montreal specializing in both social media marketing and online community creation — for patiently assisting her with this piece. Martin has had his fingers in the Internet since the early 1990s, and has worked for companies across Canada for the better part of 15 years. He can be reached at email@example.com or on LinkedIn at http://ca.linkedin.com/in/martinsage.