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9 Digital Marketing Lessons From Top Social Brands

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While there are hundreds of ways to calculate the ROI of social media, the general consensus is that Twitter and Facebook are worthwhile tools that can add a lot of value to your marketing campaign. Of course, the value of social media depends on how well you execute it.

Fortunately, a few big brands have already blazed trails in the digital marketing world. We spoke to social media and marketing experts at MTV, American Express, Xbox, NBA and AT&T to get the scoop on how they learned to hit the mark.

Have some other lessons that helped you achieve digital marketing success? Let us know in the comments.

1. Be Human

“Nailing a tone that resonates with your audience is of paramount importance,” says Tom Fishman, manager of social media and community at MTV. The goal at MTV, he says, is “to sound human and conversational and not be the voice of some corporate overlord.” To that end, tweets are often written in the first person (“we” and “I”) to convey that there are “hearts and faces” behind the screen. Resonating with a particular audience is especially important because MTV has 70 Facebook Pages, covering everything from Daria to Jersey Shore — MTV’s social media crew has to speak in a way that feels comfortable with each audience.

At Xbox, there are 15 people on the Xbox Tweet Fleet, all of whom tweet with their own personalities and “create a collective voice” by being passionate. Each tweeter signs off with his initials so the consumer knows who tweeted at them (American Express also does this). Adds Jerry Kansky, manager of the Tweet Fleet, “We are the consumers, and we know how we’d like to be talked to, so we’re just being ourselves.”

Chris Baccus, executive director of digital and social media for AT&T, notes that it’s important to “be a part of the conversation and not try to own or control the conversation.” While brands can — and should –- use social media to promote their messages, it’s important to be real and not sound like a press release. After all, people are opting to follow you — don’t give them a reason to unfollow!

Something else that’s human? Making mistakes. If there’s a spelling error in a celebrity’s name or the wrong time is tweeted for a Real World episode, “the move is not to delete the tweet and let it go away,” Fishman says. It’s an opportunity to show what kind of company you are, and that human touch (a follow-up tweet with a “sorry” or “oops”) is something the fans appreciate more than sweeping mistakes under the rug.

2. Know What You Want

Every brand has its own reasons for jumping onboard with social media, and it’s important you know your reason and your goals before you start. “It’s not a toe-in-the-water-thing,” says McKenzie Eakin, whose @XboxSupport handle specifically offers technical customer support.

For AmEx, reach and engagement are essential — as a result, assessment is qualitatively focused — it comes down to sentiment and what people are saying more than the raw volume of tweets and Facebook posts. However, Shari Forman, director of online communications and social media at AmEx, does track links and remains cognizant of the numbers to see what kind of content is most engaging.

MTV’s goal is to crystallize communities around shows and bands. While promoting the new show Skins, Fishman says MTV was able to build a hyper-passionate community before the show even premiered. He says it was an eye-opening experience when it comes to “thinking about how to approach special campaigns in a pre-promotional phase.” MTV Vice President of Digital Media Colin Helms told Mashable in January that, “We usually build a community after the show has launched. We did the opposite with Skins.”

3. Listen and Respond

No one likes asking a question and not having it answered. The @XboxSupport stream sends 5,000 tweets per week, and it is the Guinness World Record holder for most responsive brand on Twitter. The average response time? “Three to five minutes, if not faster,” Eakin says. And Baccus says AT&T usually responds within 15 minutes — impressive, huh?

While public messaging is obviously the purpose of Twitter, it’s also a good idea to engage in behind-the-scenes communication with fans. The MTV team responds to every single direct message that comes its way on Twitter. “It’s another touchpoint for the brand,” Fishman says.

Baccus says “social listening” is a big part of AT&T’s initiative. The social team takes note of trends and engages in casual “cocktail conversation” to glean information from customers. The team then uses that information to advocate for its customers within the company. For example, if a number of people in one town are lamenting poor reception, AT&T will send a team to the town to investigate and improve the situation. This kind of active response and proactive troubleshooting is highly valued by customers and easily executed via social media.

4. Diversify and Pace Your Content

Fishman says the purpose of @MTV is to advance the brand’s message, but it’s also important to be “a good source of content for people.” Since MTV is a cultural tastemaker, that content ranges from music and fashion to social issues and politics — the feed provides a lot of relevant information for myriad demographic groups.

At AmEx, Forman focuses on hitting a balance of proactive and reactive tweets. Proactive tweets result from events that are planned on an editorial calendar — promoting Small Business Saturday, for example. Then there are reactive tweets that respond to inquiries from followers and cardmembers. “We’re cognizant of what we’re pushing out, and we know that people are following us for different reasons,” she says.

To figure out what content you should be sharing, pay attention to your followers. NBA fans are passionate about their favorite teams and players, and they want to chat about what happens on the court in real time — the NBA feeds let the conversation flourish. “Our league, team and player Twitter feeds give us a unique opportunity to connect directly with nearly 35 million followers and to help them share in the excitement of our game — the amazing plays, buzzer-beaters and great moments,” says Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, vice president of marketing for the NBA. The NBA feeds often republish “compelling tweets from fans” to share the enthusiasm and show appreciation for their fanatics.

Brands have to be careful not to push too much content — no one wants to hear from a brand more than they hear from their friends and family. The NBA frequently polls its fans to find out just how much content they want. With those responses in hand, “We try to guide ourselves accordingly” and not let too much “uncurated information” clog the feed, Brenner says.

5. Inject Yourself Into the Conversation

We know that responsiveness is important, but there’s another related trait that’s crucial, too — preemptive tweeting. When someone tweets about a problem with his Xbox — even if he’s not tweeting at Xbox — the Tweet Fleet team responds. In fact, someone on shift is responsible for “engagement finds” — tweeting at users who mention Xbox to let them know the Tweet Fleet is there to offer support for technical issues.

And when something big happens in your industry or your brand has exciting news, get out there and share it. Brenner says game highlights and player milestones are heavily shared because social media has become what NBA Commissioner David Stern has called, “the digital water cooler” — a single place where passionate fans can gather and talk about the game in real time. In February, when Celtics guard Ray Allen broke the all-time 3-point record, @NBA tweeted:

It was retweeted almost 2,000 times, driving “Ray Allen” to the #3 worldwide top trending topic on Twitter.

6. Get Feedback in Real Time

Because the Tweet Fleet fields kudos, comments and complaints about Xbox, it is able to relay important information from the consumers to its tech and development teams, which can be incredibly useful for troubleshooting.

At AmEx, Forman says she and Hamouly closely monitor response to tweets and Facebook posts — are we getting new followers? Are people responding? Are they engaged? -– to make their social marketing efforts more effective. It’s test and learn — if something falls flat, they fix it.

A perfect example of this flexibility is AT&T’s “Plead Your Case” Facebook app campaign. AT&T discovered a high dropout rate — people weren’t clicking through to the end. Instead of letting the campaign fail, the AT&T team made some quick tweaks based on the real-time data it was collecting from the app. The result? More than 90% of people went through the entire process once the fixes were implemented.

Another AT&T lesson involved an email blast sent from the VP of general marketing. It was a broad and generic email that outlined how much money AT&T was spending on infrastructure. The email outraged customers, and the team manned the Facebook Page for 48 hours, compassionately responding to every single post within ten minutes. “It really changed the tone of the page and within 24 hours, the sentiment totally changed because we were engaging and responding.” Lesson learned: AT&T now personalizes email messages and geotargets its email blasts.

7. Know Your Audience

Eakin says that the Xbox audience is so diverse — moms, dads and kids — that the same tone doesn’t fly for all tweets. She says her tweeters take the extra few seconds to click on a user’s Twitter handle to find out who they’re talking to, because a working mother should be spoken to differently than a 14-year-old gamer. That personalization is simple to implement, and it goes a long way.

In addition to knowing who your audience is, you should know where it is. AmEx has an international following, so Forman geotargets posts on Facebook for promotions and contests. “Recognize that you’re casting a wide net and be specific about who can benefit” from what you’re offering, Forman says — or else you could get some angry messages.

8. Know the Platforms

Twitter and Facebook are not interchangeable, and you should have a different approach for each. In general, Twitter is more of a two-way conversation — a brand’s Twitter feed is a timeline of responses to customer inquiries, “thank yous” for nice tweets, brand updates and conversational dialogue. Facebook, however, is more of a community -– the wall can be treated as a sort of bulletin board for announcements. Having Facebook posts push to Twitter and vice versa isn’t the best idea — the platforms serve different purposes.

AmEx’s Small Business Saturday campaign lives on Facebook, where it has more than one million fans and was one of the fastest-growing Facebook Pages during the early days of its creation. Though the campaign also had a Twitter handle (@SBSat), the Facebook Page had the unique opportunity to build a community –- and target more people, thanks to Facebook’s immense user base.

The NBA embraces both platforms pretty equally. “We want to be where our fans are — and we have worked hard to engage our fans and develop a strong presence on each platform,” Brenner says. The NBA has more than 200 players on Twitter and more than 50 players on Facebook. The NBA, player and team pages boast nearly 100 million fans on Twitter and Facebook combined.

In terms of post volume, brands typically can communicate more on Twitter than Facebook before annoying their followers, thanks to Twitter’s @replies, which are hidden from users’ feeds if they are not following those mentioned in the tweets. Forman and her AmEx partner are active Facebook users, and they use their personal experience to guide and inspire their posting schedule on Facebook and Twitter so as not to overwhelm their followers.

9. Create a User-Centric Experience

Social media has changed the way we market — billboards, print ads and commercials were always one-way. Now, brands engage in dialogue with the consumer, and communication has become a two-way street. Fishman says that, for this reason, you must make sure that the most important thing is to be “100% user-centric.” He adds that everything the MTV social team does is first assessed through the lens of, “How are we adding value for our users?” MTV’s TJ campaign also drove home the commitment to the users –- TJ Gabi fully dedicates her day to blogging, tweeting and interacting with the users and “isn’t beholden to some of the priorities that we are at the corporate level,” Fishman says.
Part of this user-centric experience can be thanking and rewarding the users. When someone “likes” your brand or follows it on Twitter, he’s publicly endorsing your company and becoming a brand ambassador. And so, he should be acknowledged. Forman says a huge part of AmEx’s social media campaign is making its cardmembers feel special -– they have exclusive access to concert tickets, travel giveaways and special discounts.

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