Blurring the Lines

Recently, I posed my question to a diverse audience: “At your company, who is in charge of social media marketing? Raise your hand if it’s the marketing group.” A few hands went up. “The public relations team?” A few hands again. “Market research?” Once again, only a smattering of hands was raised. “So I guess most of you aren’t using social media at all?” I suggested. “Must be your lawyers are in charge.” That struck a chord. Laughter all round.

So, who’s in charge of social media marketing at your company? At many companies, no one’s in charge because the legal team is still assessing the risk. The first thing to do is to fi nd an appropriate executive to accept the risk. That tells the legal team that you’ve heard their advice but that you believe the business value of social media outweighs the downside. But who is that appropriate executive?

It’s Marketing

It seems obvious. If it’s social media marketing, shouldn’t you put the marketing folks in charge?

Perhaps, but whether that’s a smart decision depends on what kind of marketing people you have. Traditional brand marketers steeped in television advertising might struggle a bit with social media marketing. Word-of-mouth marketing has migrated online to be christened viral marketing, but most marketers have never lifted a finger to get customers to talk to other customers. Marketers accustomed to paying for advertised messages might be shocked at how much harder it is to foment word of mouth.

Social media marketing depends on your customers wanting to tell other customers something good about your product or service. What you’ve been paying media outlets to say about you won’t cut it. You need a message that is interesting, entertaining, appealing, and just plain hard to keep quiet about.

It’s rare that trained marketers pull this off. As discussed in my last column, Blendtec launched a terrific viral marketing video series, obliterating iPods and other unlikely objects in its blenders. But it was not a marketing plan that started the series – grinding up weird stuff was part of their product testing.

Marketers who’ve grown up screaming, “Act now and get, free, an ice crusher!” doubtless have little chance of getting their messages listened to, much less passed on.

It’s Public Relations

So, if not marketers, then should it be public relations? Or Corporate Communications, as they so often like to be known nowadays? Good reasons exist for such a decision.

PR folks have long faced the problem of enticing others to pass along their messages. PR people have spent their careers talking editors, producers, and reporters into covering their “news” and getting customers to pass along a story seems like a similar challenge.

Moreover, social media requires listening, not just talking, which any good publicist knows how to do. Tracking what’s being said about your company in cyberspace is just as important as in mainstream media. Someone who knows how to respond to a media crisis has valuable skills that can be employed when the blogosphere and message boards light up over some issue.

But PR people have limitations, too. For one thing, they tend to respond to a problematic press story based on how much influence the source possesses. They burn the midnight oil when the New York Times prints something, but don’t break a sweat when it’s the Picayune Press. That approach works fi ne for mainstream media, but it’s harder to judge the effect of a customer’s opinion in the social media space.

A public relations professional might not be the best person to assess its influence.

It’s Market Research

So, who could gauge the importance of a customer’s opinion? Perhaps market researchers, because they have spent their lives understanding customer feedback – divining the importance of opinions based on prevalence.

Market researchers use focus groups, surveys, and other techniques to tease statistical signifi cance from the noise of customer feedback. They collate the information and analyze it so that your company can take action. Surely that’s the right kind of experience, yes?

Well, maybe not. After all, market researchers are great at listening but not terribly experienced with sending messages. They don’t know how to convince an audience, preferring to find out what the audience thinks without contaminating their opinions. Marketing depends on getting customers to buy what you are selling, which requires some persuasive powers.

It Requires Cooperation

So, we’re back to where we started. Social media marketing requires the persuasiveness of a marketer, the media savvy of a PR pro, and the listening ability of a market researcher, all rolled into one. Now, maybe you’ve got someone like that lying around at your company, but I’d call that a long shot. What can you do instead?

Break down the walls. It’s not easy, but social media marketing, like many types of Internet marketing, require that you abandon the traditional barriers that cordon off each profession from one another.

Perhaps you need your market research people to learn to use reputation monitoring technology to listen to the Internet conversation about your company. They can use their well-honed analytics expertise to assess the meaning and importance of what your customers are saying.

Then you need your communications people to step in. Some of that Internet chatter might be coming from blogs – your PR folks can help you treat them like press. But they can also use their experience to concoct the kinds of messages that customers will pass along.

Your marketing team can work with the market researchers to understand what kinds of stories might persuade your target markets, and your PR folks can help design them. In fact, IBM has just reorganized all three teams under the same executive – more companies might take that same approach.

Now, will having your teams work together solve all your social media challenges? Of course not. Even the best teamwork will leave you with normal challenges of crafting appealing social media campaigns. But at least you’ll have every possible person working together to do so.