By Chris Combemale, executive director of the Direct

Marketing Association

Social media networking is the latest digital member to join the proliferating array of direct marketing channels over the past few years. Web-savvy companies are flocking en masse to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube and others in pursuit of the 37 million British consumers that are now active on one or more of the social networks. In spite of these networks primarily being used by people to connect with friends, family and groups with similar interests, research published recently by Insites Consulting reveals that 42 per cent of people also use social media to follow brands they like.

These sorts of statistics understandably turn companies’ heads: a ready-made and defined audience, easy-to-use free channels and tools and a means of interacting with engaged consumers in real time. However, many companies are rushing into social media marketing without first asking themselves important strategic questions.

The ‘me-too’ syndrome, which initially draws many companies into social media marketing, is contagious; companies see their competitors migrate to Facebook and follow without giving it much more thought as to what they’re supposed to do when they establish a social presence.

Getting started

Before your company is seduced by the many obvious charms of social media marketing, you need to consider what your marketing objectives are and whether or not social media will help fulfil them. Without first considering these strategic issues, you can squander precious resources on a redundant social media campaign that yields little in the way of results.

On the other hand, if you determine that social media will enhance your marketing programme, then it could well transform the way in which you raise awareness of your brand and drive sales.

The beauty of social media marketing is its accessibility; you don’t have to be an expert to post content on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn and use the platforms to start conversations with your customers. Here are a handful of pointers that should set you on the way to kick-starting a successful social media marketing campaign.

Pick a social network that gives you access to your audience. If the people you want to reach are on Twitter, use Twitter. If they’re on Facebook, then use that. It’s fine to pick a few social networks, but be wary of spreading yourself too thinly. Maintaining a presence takes time and effort, so it’s best to focus on just two or three.

Each social network has a different ‘feel’. Twitter is fast and furious but LinkedIn is more sober and professional. If you’re not sure quite how to behave, just watch other people for a while before you join in.

Ration the number of sales messages you broadcast. Spread the word about your new products and services, sales, discounts, promotions, and so on, but do so sparingly. Your contacts will soon grow weary if that’s all you have to tell them.

Don’t just broadcast sales messages. Doing so is like walking into a party and shouting ‘Buy our stuff!’ It’s considered pushy and rude. Instead, strike up conversations with people who have similar interests to you, help people out, answer questions, share links, pass on useful articles. Build relationships as you would in any social group.

Use a tool like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck to manage your social networks. You can also use these tools to schedule tweets or status updates so you maintain your presence when you’re busy with other things. Only schedule some of your updates though, otherwise you risk just broadcasting messages instead of building relationships.

Don’t let social media become a distraction. Social media can be all consuming and eat up your precious time. Allocate 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the afternoon. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll get done in that time.

Connect with influential people in your industry. Help them out, re-tweet their tweets to your followers so you’re helping them to spread their messages. Answer their questions. With any luck they’ll return the favour and mention your offerings to their followers.

For more information about direct marketing and social media marketing, visit www.dma.org.uk