Regardless of technological change, the future of social media will be dictated by the community’s rapid adoption of new media forms. Change occurs dynamically in online communities as new applications develop. Though behavior changes, relationships must be maintained. That means successful marketers must use flexible strategies as they move forward with their online efforts.

At any given time, there seem to be hot social media networks and new technologies. Whether it’s Facebook or Mahalo or another social network du jour, marketers will be faced with a consistent challenge of finding new ways to use media forms to engage the community. Like water, the marketer must move with the community and learn the newest technology’s impact on communications. And also like water, this type of activity follows the path of least resistance.

It is important to note that as the “webolution” continues, marketers should avoid getting bedazzled by the hippest, newest media forms. We’ve seen them come and go. Excite, Prodigy, AOL, Friendster, MySpace (fading, but still relevant) and, increasingly, Yahoo are all brands of the past. These passing technologies demonstrate that we cannot get too focused on specific technologies. Why? Because they will evolve, change and, in some cases, disappear.

True strategy is independent of social media form. Instead, like all great marketing strategies, it revolves around the organization’s community. If a marketer understands its stakeholders – really understands them by listening to them and understanding what motivates them and how the organization can provide value for them – then an all-consuming strategy is possible.

Thinking Liquid in a Dynamic Environment

“Water adopts the shape of its receptacle, it is sometimes a trickle and sometimes a wild sea.'”

Marketers are better served by liquid fluidity in their thought processes and approaches. If a marketer elects to reach stakeholders with a content-based strategy that can be communicated across a wide variety of media forms, then anything is possible. The marketer can adapt to sudden changes as well as newly emerging technologies as social media continues its march forward.

This liquid approach toward social media strategy makes sense. As the natural and rapid evolution continues to unfold over time and communities evolve, their consumption of media will evolve too. Marketers who use a value-based approach can then take the communication strategy and offer it to the community in whatever form it wants.

Consider the way Dell Inc. handled its own nightmare in the blogosphere. In 2005, the company was dubbed “Dell Hell” by widely read journalist and blogger Jeff Jarvis in response to a horrific customer service experience he had after buying a new laptop. The episode struck a chord with readers and was soon repeated and shared all over the Internet. Jarvis continued to chronicle his frustrating dealings with Dell customer service, at one point commenting, “Public relations must be about a new relationship with the public, with the public in charge.”

With its hand forced, Dell actively began revitalizing its tainted brand image by taking steps to show it was listening to its customers, not providing lip service. The company got its customer service reps active on social networks like Facebook, where users were already exchanging stories and information about Dell products. In addition, Dell created its own communities like IdeaStorm (“Where your ideas reign”) so that customers could offer suggestions for not only improving Dell’s service, but for sharing work advice on a broader range of technology topics. The company also established Direct2Dell blogs as another channel for customers to talk about their issues – and for Dell to listen to them.

Dell’s response to the situation wasn’t about implementing any one form of social media; it was about adapting to whatever media type the community was already engaged in. Dell adapted its efforts to suit the consumption patterns of diverse communities, and, regardless of media form, the strategy and message were always the same: We are listening. The end result was an Oct. 17, 2007, BusinessWeek Online story written by Jeff Jarvis entitled, “Dell Learns to Listen.” Dell went from hell to heaven.

Creating the Strategy

The social media strategist must understand that the execution of a winning strategy requires superior content, continued innovation and ongoing creativity.

Content is written and initiatives are designed to educate or inform readers, listeners or viewers about a particular or general subject matter. Successful strategy revolves around fulfilling a mission and serving the community with the information that it cares about. Unfortunately, too many marketers fail to understand what the community really wants – or they fail even to try. This often leads to failed marketing initiatives and rants from bloggers, like Jeff Jarvis, some of which spread to the larger blogosphere.

Marketing minds have to understand the importance of creating a mission-oriented strategy for their social media efforts, regardless of the media form. This enables execution with individual tools in different media forms to stay on track and creates value for the community by providing regular, prescient content.

Another successful corporate player in the social media realm is Cisco Systems. Cisco’s entire product line is driven by growth in telecommunications networks. The company is using social media to promote the power of collaboration, which, in turn, promotes the growth of the network. Consider the tools Cisco uses for engagement: video, blogs, user-generated/content and podcasts. The medium doesn’t matter; they’re all used to demonstrate the benefits of collaboration. The marketing message remains consistent.

And that’s really the rub – taking the time and effort to create content that’s truly of value to the community so they’ll keep coming back and bring more people with them. This requires 1) knowing what the community wants; 2) understanding the intrinsic value the company can offer to meet those wants; and 3) being creative enough to deliver this value in a way that’s interesting and compelling.

It seems simple. But simple is not easy.

The one major pitfall to avoid in an organizational content mission is trying to overtly promote the company. This error remains one of the most common reasons corporate social media initiatives fail. Companies want to market themselves. Too many regard social media as just another way to promote their wares. This error creates blogs that are never read, community sites that no one joins, videos that are never played and podcasts that buyers don’t download.

Principles Before Tactics

In increasingly diverse and changing environments, successful social media marketers should also focus on principles rather than tactics. This recognizes that social media is popular because it embraces freedom of speech. A two-way discussion cannot be controlled, and conversational/ relationship marketing needs core building blocks such as honesty, transparency and other fundamental values. And these values should serve as guidance no matter the environment.

The following principles demonstrate that marketing communications and public relations are about building relationships with the community as a whole as well as with individual members.

Relinquish message control: Social media experts have been touting the need to relinquish message control for years now, but businesses are still struggling with the idea. Yet relationships have always been at the heart of traditional PR. And it’s no different with social media marketing. Controlled relationships are considered dysfunctional at an individual level and dictatorial within a large community. Since social media is inherently two-way, a controlling entity that enters the community will be met with anger, distrust and either rebellion or deaf ears by key stakeholders.

Honesty, ethics and transparencies are musts: This isn’t about baring trade secrets or intellectual property. It’s about basic human interactions that create a strong foundation for long-term, two-way mutually beneficial relationships. Follow the Golden Rule: Treat others as you’d want to be treated.

Participation within the community is marketing: Creating content and posting it online is not enough; that keeps you in a one-way relationship. Get out there into the customer’s realm. Comment and contribute to larger community groups and social networks. Read customer-maintained and other relevant blogs (or vlogs and podcasts) and interact with the writers. In short, your organization cannot become respected by the community unless it is part of the community.

For example, Coca-Cola garnered great respect in the social media marketplace when it launched its Virtual Thirst campaign in Second Life. By letting participants create their own unique Coke machine dispensing experiences, the campaign provided an effective vehicle for the company to engage the denizens of virtual worlds. And, more important, by demonstrating its grasp of the very personal nature of Second Life, Coca-Cola was embraced by the community.

Build value for the community and inspire them with compelling content: This strategic principle dates back to the classic marketing tome Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, by Al Ries and Jack Trout. When looking to “market,” know your community. It is only by listening, reading and understanding them that you can serve them with valuable information. This translates into creating content that fulfills that mission, regardless of the technology or social network.

And that content can’t be a stream of corporate press releases. Often companies recognize the need to build value, but when it comes time to take action, their content is the same old corporate drivel. The community wants information that educates, entertains and solves problems. That is the kind of content that will get them engaged. It will foster the kind of two-way dialogue that provides the company with insights into what customers want and, in turn, will show customers they matter to the company as more than just product consumers.

Parting Thoughts

Social media will continue to change as technologies advance, but that doesn’t mean that marketers need to shift their strategy every time a new online tool is introduced. Rather, marketers need to remain fluid in their approach toward conversations with the community. Readiness to adapt to new media forms and a reliance on social media principles will enable marketers to succeed in their endeavors.