Lee Odden

Best and Worst Practices Social Media Marketing

Lee Odden     Online Marketing, Social Media

Search Marketing Social Media Google Trends

Social media is hot, just take a look at Google Trends to see the comparison between topics like “search marketing” being eclipsed by “social media” in terms of search volume and news references – at least according to Google. Along with all that “hotness”, there’s good and bad when it comes to the way companies are beginning to engage social media channels.

Search Marketing Social Media Twitter Venn

On Twitter, the difference between mentions of  “search marketing” and “social media” are even more pronounced. Of course this is by no means a formal assessement, but it gives you an idea of what people on the web are paying attention to and in some cases, what they expect.

Most people learn about new things in terms of what they already know. Any number of companies have taken this approach to heart and entered the social media world oblivious to the formal and unwritten community rules and treating social channels simply as another dumping ground for current advertising assets.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s some amazing digital creative that’s being produced (TV commercials and ads) that are well received on sites like YouTube, Digg and StumbleUpon.

But for the most part, many marketers are not exactly sure about the difference between best and worst practices when it comes to participation with the social web where intentions are commercially motivated. Identifying best and worst practics is a work in progress of course, as communities develop, grow and change.  It’s best to start out with the basics that will hold true regardless of these changes:

Social Media Best Practices:

  • Start with a plan, not tactics.  Research and build a Social Media Roadmap involving:  Audience, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics, Tools/Technology and Metrics.
  • “Give to get” – Successful social media marketing programs involve listening and participation. That participation centers around giving value before expecting anything in return. This is not “sales” as you know it. But companies can definitely increase sales as a result.
  • Commit resources & time to be successful or you may very well fail. It’s important to forecast labor hours, who, what, when, how and where with the intention of succeeding, not just experimenting. If a social media effort is successful, scalability will be an even bigger issue if you don’t plan for it.  Hiring a community manager for example, may not be justified when a social media monitoring program is started or with a new company, but a job req and understanding of the role should be ready in case it’s called for.
  • Be transparent with intentions & your identity or you may alienate the very audiences you’re trying to connect with.  Objectives, strategy and doing your homework about a community should make it pretty obvious what types of commercial messages are appropriate.  Being transparent about intentions might come in the form of stating a purpose:  “Brand XYZ has created this Facebook page to help consumers make better choices about Topic XYZ”.  It’s fine if goals are to increase sales, but participation should be focused on providing the kind of value that facilitates sales – not attempting to make sales directly. When is the last time you purchased something other than a virtual cupcake on Facebook?
  • Understand, you do not control the message.  Old habits die hard and there’s a tendency to want to treat social media participation like advertising where the ability to control messaging is the norm. Once information or media is available on the social web, people will inevitably mash it up, stretch it, pull it and reshape it according to their interests. Brands need to protect their identities, copyright and intellectual property for sure, but rather than “controlling the message” marketers should encourage the mashup and creativity.
  • Welcome participation, feedback and co-creation. As comfort levels rise with social web participation, companies will see opportunties to encourage participation with communications, especially with brand evangelists. Developing relationships and community within social communities on the web can facilitate buy in, provide invaluable feedback and crowdsourcing opportunities.
  • Metrics should roll up to objectives and objectives should be relevant to the channel.  More than a few companies see evidence of other social media efforts ranging from Superbowl commercials on YouTube to social participation during and after President Obama’s campaign, and “want that too”.  Direct marketing is the lens through which many social media efforts are first viewed, with a tendency to focus on action “A” resulting in “B” outcome. Social media marketing is more like public relations than direct marketing. It’s more like providing resource “A” results in “action “B” that influences outcome “C”. Metrics for success need to consider the pre-goal performance indicators like number of “friends”, comments, links, etc as well as commercial outcomes influenced by social media participation.

Social Media Worst Practices:

  • Being fake in any way isn’t good for anyone on the social web. Early on, companies like Walmart and Sony (via their PR firms) tried to fake their way into making consumers believe sites like the Sony PSP blog or the Walmarting Across America blog were authored by impartial brand evangelists, when it wasn’t that at all. Both Sony and Walmart have learned from those mistakes and now have social media sites that follow many of the best practices above. Some say failure with social media is a sort of “rite of passage”.
  • Not listening. How can you learn anything if information is only flowing one way? Listening is really the most important step in learning about social communities on the web. It’s important just starting out and even more so on an ongoing basis to monitor conversations, sentiment about brands and identifying influentials to engage. Lucky for companies, there are abundant social media monitoring tools to choose from.
  • Being oblivious to formal & unwritten social rules. It pays to lurk a bit before participation with social communities, especially when you have commercial intentions.  Aspire to “speak like a native” when embarking on social media journey to improve your brand visibility and to encourage relationships. Social networking, news and media sharing sites all have Terms of Service guidelines, but the community itself will have guidelines for behavior that can only be understood by observing and participating.  Ignoring these guidelines risks alienation by the community.
  • Being pushy or overtly salesy in messaging and communications and expecting traditional marketing outcomes are common behaviors by companies that see social media communities simply as content distribution channels for existing marketing programs.  Overt commercial messages, especially sales solicitations are outright tabu in most social communties. A social environment amongst “friends” and likeminded individuals isn’t going to accept interruptive messaging. Think of barging into a conversation at a party trying to sell something to people who are talking about their favorite movies and sharing baby pictures – and the disdain that behavior would encourage. Provide the kind of information that facilitates choices that lead to sales, and you’ll go a lot further.
  • Approaching social media channels as silos – Many companies approach social media via individual web sites rather than as a collaborative effort. An example would be a company that starts a blog within one division and another that starts something on Facebook and yet another creates a group on LinkedIn or Ning. Not working together is inefficient and can create mixed messages for consumers that participate in more than one social media destination for the brand.

Update 07/2009 thanks to Hillary Danni Davis

  • Not staffing appropriately

Actively listening and building relationships with communities is a full-time job. Also, its imperative to ensure community managers have the skill sets needed to articulate their objectives for social media in addition to utilizing tools that will resonate with their audience.

  • Not having a mechanism to assess ROI

CEOs that ultimately give the green light to pursue social media marketing are concerned with the bottom line. Its essential that a social media strategy includes mechanisms to assess business value. It might be a value placed on increased product awareness, solid sales leads or cost savings due to a reduction in support staff due to social media tools. ROI is easier to obtain if there is a stated goal for the social media campaign. Regardless of how value is determined, social media needs to be validated as a profitable marketing channel.

Learning from companies what they think of social media as a topic and opportunity over the past few years has been enlightening.  Our digital marketing and public relations agency gets to talk to a substantial number of companies each month that need help making sense of where social media might fit within overall marketing and PR efforts. Those conversations vary, but an increasing number of client side marketers clearly aware of the social media marketing fundamentals.

In those cases, companies simply want help from someone that has the experience to guide them in creating a social media strategy, specific supporting tactics and dealing with measurement issues. Other companies really have no idea how to proceed and need a focus on education and an audit that will help them create a social media roadmap before getting into specific programs.

What’s encouraging is that more companies are looking more seriously at the challenges and opportunities of social media participation. Others understand that social media is not a destination, but rather an indication of consumer behaviors aided by technology. Successful social media marketing isn’t about the tools, it’s about the people.

If nothing else, remember that social media is about the C’s:  Conversation, Connections, Community, Consumer, Control, Creative, Collaboration and Content.  Do: listen, be transparent about your intentions, “Give to Get” and have a plan. Don’t: Be fake, interruptive and focus only on short term sales.

Need more data on justifying social media marketing in your organization? Check out the new report from Marketing Sherpa: “What Works and What Doesn’t in Social Media Marketing and PR“.

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. This is a great post for companies/brands that are interested in pursuing social media, but are unsure of what it all means. I think the most valuable lesson people should take away from this post are the “worst practices.” By avoding those, you will be at least 70 percent successful in your social media endeavors.

    I’m really trying to push for it at my company, this post will help to strengthen my case, thanks!

    • Thank you, glad it was helpful. There’s certainly some low hanging fruit when it comes to best or worst practices with commercial social media involvement. It’s best for many companies to walk before they run – and before that, develop a plan.

  2. Great stuff…

    it’s amazing! the chart!

    I also like the give to get principle you mentioned…

    a lot of people go about social media with a “drunk networking mentality” (as i call it)

    thanks for the post!


  3. Give to get is huge. I also really like how you worded this:
    “It’s fine if goals are to increase sales, but participation should be focused on providing the kind of value that facilitates sales – not attempting to make sales directly.”

    • Exactly – once marketers get the idea that they need to show a real understanding of the needs of the customer, rather than predicting needs and presenting an offer, they will have realized one of the most fundamental and important distinctions between traditional advertising/marketing and doing so on the social web.

  4. Very well written – thanks for sharing this Lee!

    I look at the above graphs and wonder how some topics and incidents might have been missed in the trending because the two terms share the same acronym (i.e. SM). I catch myself using SM to describe social media more than writing it out (and one other variation I’ve used is “social web”), but nonetheless a very compelling and persuasive element to your article. I especially like the best/worst practices!


    • Thank you Joseph. I really meant the phrase comparison to be an interesting lead-in to the post. ie, the good stuff (best/worst practices). There are many more term comparisons I could probably do and should.

  5. This post will be gold dust to my organisation in trying to harmonise all our social media aspirations. I am particularly struck by the ‘what not to do’ point about starting work in silos in different social media arenas, its so easy for that to happen in a medium sized organisation where lots of people are reaching points of knowledge at a similar rate but from different angles and ‘just experiementing’ with their own area of work.


    • Thanks Christina. A lot of advice around social media centers on the functional marketing topics, but anyone can do that. What helps companies scale is the logistical and organizational insights gained from having implemented these kinds of programs. That’s why companies hire consultants – to save them time and money as well as speeding the time it takes to see a return.

  6. Excellent post Lee. The message is obviously a very softly softly approach in Social Marketing. Listen and then gain others respect by being informative, then authoritative leading to subtle promotion.

    Not too long ago many marketers and corporates felt all they had to do was blast an ad to the Social Network thousands and they would make their fortune. Thankfully, they soon realised that wasn’t to be.

  7. This is the Cluetrain Manifesto rephrased, but it’s all true I suppose.

  8. Erik, you could say that about any blog post talking about the social web. Goes to show how insightful Cluetrain was in its time.

  9. This fantastic and comprehensive article. I especially like the part about the messaging not being controlled by you. The power has always been in the hands of the consumers but social media is showing just how much power that actually is. Great blog.

  10. Hi Lee,

    Some great nuggets in here. I particularly love your advice about avoiding silos, which of course is really a consequence of not starting with–or sticking to–a plan.


    • You bet, thanks Daria. In a lot of companies, it’s easier to start of with independent projects within specific depts or business units because it’s easier to get on leader’s sign off than getting a consensus amongst several.

      I think if organizations can at least get a mid level buy in, they’re better off than implementing a social media marketing program independent of what’s happening in the rest of the organization.

  11. Lee, great points, and well thought out. I’d add that, given the huge time suck social media can be, it’s helpful to have a plan not only for what you do/do not want to do, but also for how much time you’re willing to commit to doing it (and then sticking to that amount). So easy to get caught up in searches and replies on Twitter or answering questions in FB or LinkedIn groups! Having a plan keeps it doable.

    • You’ve got it Dave. A plan makes the effort more efficient and management. A plan can be flexible too, since these are still new days on the social web. Social media addiction is a lot more prevalent than most talking heads will admit. 🙂

  12. I’m sorry, but I just could not get past the Google Trends graph. “Social Media” and “Search Marketing” are hardly similar terms. Try “Social Media Marketing” and “Search Engine Marketing”. Or another fair comparison would be “Social Media” and “Search Engine”. Also, just because “Social Media” gets talked about a lot or searched for a lot does not mean it is more effective. Just more interesting and more researched. Maybe now I’ll read the rest of the article.

    • I’ve been there too Corey, jump to conclusions before reading the post. LOL

      The social media and search marketing comparisons have nothing to do with effectiveness, but with popularity of the terms. It’s a creative lead-in to a post about social media.

      • Interesting. Is Google Trends really a measure of the “popularity of the terms” or just that more people are trying to research and understand the subject. Is it more popular or just more confusing? I honestly don’t know. It might make for an interesting post, though. I should probably do that sometime soon instead of just commenting on other people’s blog. But hey, it’s Friday . Either way, Thanks for the insightful post, Lee. I always enjoy your comments and sessions at conferences.

  13. Great article Lee. Thanks for sharing that. I agree with Dave about the “time suck”. It’s vital to have a plan and discipline. I particularly liked your last paragraph on the C’s, listening, and give to get.

  14. Avatar Fernando Martínez de la Vega says

    Great insight Lee, makes it a lot much clearer how to approach correctly any comprehensive web strategy. Just started last month in Outward Bound (in a tiny country) and this post will certainly help me to point out my advice to them on how to achieve a “real and relevant” presence on the web.

    • Excellent Fernando and congrats! Hopefully we post additional useful information for you as well. If you ever need our expertise, just let me know.

  15. “Not listening.” I spend a ton of money on books, seminars, technology and a slew of other products and services. If I’m a customer or a prospect and contact someone via Twitter or LinkedIn and they don’t reply, I usually find another source for the same product or service. I spend too much money to have to accept the old way of doing business. The best part is that advertising cannot reach me. I don’t watch TV. I don’t listen to the radio. I filter out everything. I use Twitter, my communities and my friends for news, information, trends. So big business should listen – I have many friends and clients that are just like me.

  16. Excellent tips, but I have to wonder about the “Start with a Plan” part. So much of interactive social media today is growing and evolving and changing so quickly that to start with a plan is sometimes impossible. On Twitter, for example, flexibility has been more important to me than planning.

    Steven @sdweathers

  17. Hey Steven, You make a very good point about the need to be flexible – the social web is inherently in a state of flux.

    The idea of forging ahead in social media for business without a plan keeps agencies like mine pretty busy, especially after businesses experience unsuccessful efforts to reach justifiable objectives.

    While it’s easy and fun to experiment with social networks and tools at an individual level, a business purpose involves the kind of accountability that requires efficient, and at the same time flexible, use.

    Setting goals, creating a strategy and a plan are key to being effective on the social web. A plan needs to be flexible and true to the objectives at the same time.

    • Cool. Thanks for the clarification — or I should apologize that my comments above were made after I read your article with “me” in mind as audience; now I realize that companies are seeking your help. Indeed, corporations would need a plan if they are going to jump into the realm of social media. Keep up the good posts.

      • No worries it’s a good distinction I think – the difference between a commercial venture into social media by a company and one by an individual. Representing as a corporate identify successfully within social media is a tricky thing. Showing the company personality via people that work for the company is often more effective but not as easy to manage.

        Great job on the Foreigner Perspective show by the way. Am watching the Earthen Tower episode right now.

  18. Thanks for the great article! A lot of times, the decision-makers think that just because something is new and works for others, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work for them. Social media is not just another dumping ground and you have to participate – not just for your own interests but to share in knowledge that you may have for others. Again, great post!

    • Thanks Kandi – I’m glad the post was useful. To me, the best part of posts like this are the comments and discussion that happen as a result. Really appreciating our readers for taking the time to contribute. Thank you.

  19. Nicely written. I didn’t know much about social media marketing but i definitely learned something here. It seems that the most important aspect here is sharing. Thanks for such a useful and helpful post.

  20. Thanks for the great post. We are trying to get our clients to understand Social Media marketing. Lots of people still think of marketing in the old fashion way, (believe it or not, some people are only coming around to Search engine marketing), and are even more clueless when it comes to Social Media marketing.

  21. Thanks for showing the good side and the dark side of the force! lol But do not you think sometimes if we are too much focused on social media, we loose the hindsight that makes us enable to follow the best practices?

  22. Lee,
    This is a great reminder that despite the fact we’re using Web-based tools to communicate, human rules of engagement still apply. Don’t be a disingenuous, self-serving prick and people might actually want to hang out with you…maybe even buy from you…but certainly be more apt to listen to what you have to say. It also is never a bad idea to do a little research or have a little experience before spouting wisdom, be it at a dinner party or a meet-and-Tweet.

    Seems like that gets lost among the apps and widgets.

    Thanks for refresher.
    -Mark Evertz

  23. Saw this via a tweet from @chrisbrogan. Yes, it’s all about listening, engaging, being helpful and human and not behaving like an orthodox ‘megaphone’ one-way marketeer, I guess. And about being relevant.

    Thank you for this. Alex Grech.

  24. Thanks for the great insights. I think outlining the worst practices is equally important. We can learn so much from the failures of others. Just as important is for us to share when things haven’t worked and to know that it is okay to learn from mistakes. Thanks for this incredible post!

  25. This is a great blog post. You bring up some good points, specifically “Give to get” – as funny as it sounds, giving just to give is actually more powerful than giving to get. The Giving works either way, but I’ve found more powerful results when I don’t require anything from the people I give to.

    Brian Campbell

    • Avatar Mark Leonard says

      I also agree that this is a great blog post. I am a believer in giving as do many folk. However when it comes to marketing strategies using social media, especially the larger companys that are new to this marketing medium, are finding it a challange. Everyone of us needs to first, listen and watch what is actully happening with web2.0 and social media, second, align yourself with social media experts and third, take action.

  26. Developing relationships using social media takes time, but it is so worth it. Those who just jump in with a message to ” buy my stuff” are definitely not getting it. Thanks for sharing the difference between doing it the right way and the wrong way!

  27. Great blog. I found this on Twitter and was very impresses by your insights.

    Thank you.

  28. Lee, your Best Practices should be required reading for anyone involved with or considering social media marketing. They’ve been picked up by Chris Abraham at Marketing Conversation where I first noted on them.

    I especially connect with your first and last practices–”Start with a plan, not tactics” and, “Metrics should roll up to objectives.”

    These two are near and dear because they are so often missed in the wave of excitement that surrounds social media. Commenting on the topic in a related blog post (”Strategy First, Tweets Second.”) I recently wrote, “If you’ve begun to explore social communities, like Twitter, but haven’t been able see real benefits, don’t blame the medium. More than likely, you haven’t strategically connected your objectives to your audience and the medium.” I believe strategic considerations are vitally important both to starting off on the right foot and to achieving success.

    Thank you for pulling these seven best practices together (and your worst practices as well), Lee. They benefit us all.

    Read my post if you like at:

  29. Paul…you are so on the money with this I had to say DING! DING!
    “If you’ve begun to explore social communities, like Twitter, but haven’t been able see real benefits, don’t blame the medium. More than likely, you haven’t strategically connected your objectives to your audience and the medium.”

    Cheers to you..off to your blog post, which I will likely share, shotgun style.

  30. Avatar Marianne Snygg says

    Great content! Well spoken. AND, I learned even more. Thanks so much. You’ve given me some ideas for my next Tweet and Blog.

  31. Avatar Brian O'Toole says

    Great tips..thanks for sharing

  32. Great info. I have been in companies that just don’t understand the value of Social Media Marketing and are missing a great opportunity. I think in time, they will do a 180 about face and throw money at their marketing efforts here, which will tell me that they still won’t get it. Sooner or later they will, but it takes an understanding of how this marketing works and a willingness to play the game right. You hit the nail on the head with this blog post.

    Tony Eldridge

  33. Excellent article Lee. It’s important to have a plan and discipline. The last paragraph was especially poignant.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  34. Avatar Oscar Del Santo says

    This post is simply terrific in as much as it stresses the importance of espousing the right philosphies and thinking behind social media success.

  35. This information is very helpful to those that are working on getting their company recognized by many people from all over the world. It is important to understand that the internet is a very difficult place to be recognized and any and all information is helpful. Understanding the market and listening when any advice is being given can be of help to new companies. It is also helpful to understand what not to do because that can be just as or even more detrimental as not putting enough of the correct information on the site.

  36. Thanks Lee – it's clear that social media is progressing at an incredibly rapid rate. We've put together a broad article on WOM advertising and your comments would be much appreciated… http://www.marketing-made-simple.com/articles/w

  37. Avatar Jerome Nickerson says

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  38. Avatar Jerome Nickerson says

    Backlinging your website to social media sites is a great way to add traffic to your online business. Don't try to backling or post a bunch at one time. Take a few mintues to read the information . Its a lot of great info you will discover. Check out my website on free online marketing tools.