It’s time we draw a clear distinction between social media and social marketing. 

Social media is the popular clique at school – you must be pretty, possess a unique skill (the QB, point guard, cheerleader), be a confident bully or be super cool and slick (think James Dean).  You’ll be excluded from the cool table at lunch if all you’ve got is a sandwich and a chair.

Social marketing is American Idol.  Yes, it’s a popularity contest, but you don’t have to be the best singer to win.  You need to be well-packaged, know you demographic very well, feed them with rich content and let them make you famous.  You don’t need to win the other guy’s people over, just yours (until the end, when you’ll need to capture a few “undecided” votes to win). 

So what does this have to do with businesses struggling to understand social media?  Everything.  You can’t DO social media.  You’re part of it if you belong.  Is your brand unique?  Is your CEO enigmatic?  Are your customers fanatical?  Welcome to the post high school version of the cool lunch table.

You can, however, DO social marketing.  You can listen to your customers and prospects (really listen), package your offering accordingly, feed them with content (especially content they can repurpose and reuse) and let them make you famous.  Welcome to the real-world version of American Idol.  Clay Aiken probably didn’t sit at the cool table, but he’s now more popular than thousands of erstwhile high school QB heroes!

So, here’s 10-step process for any business – large or small – looking for a way forward with this social media thing.

  1. Honestly assess your standing in the marketplace (i.e., the social media conversation) – don’t just sit down at the cool table and expect things to start happening.
  2. Listen closely (or have your agency do it) to what customers and prospects are saying and learn the “art of conversation” in your marketplace.
  3. Begin to actively participate in conversations (through LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed, etc.)  – don’t ask for anything until you’ve paid your dues.
  4. Strategically package your offering (even change your product/service) to meet the needs of your customers and prospects.
  5. Develop interesting content that your customers and prospects want (blog posts, videos, tweets, etc.) – this does not mean marketing content in the traditional sense!
  6. Continue your active participation in the conversation – continue to identify “social media” influencers (and the channels they use – blog, Twitter, etc.) relevant to your brand (started in step 3).
  7. Develop realistic measures of your impact in social media (the conversation) – don’t assume that a measure that makes sense for one brand (# of Twitter followers or number of YouTube video views) is right for your brand too.
  8. Constantly take stock in your social media standing (but be realistic – remember, you don’t need to win over the other brand’s customer to win).
  9. Constantly refresh your social marketing tactics (is it time to move into mobile blogging, viral videos and online communities?).
  10. Don’t forget the “undecideds” – they may lead you to unexpected innovation and more profits down the road.

So, there you have it.  Social media isn’t practice area or discipline; it’s a state of being.  Social marketing, however, is a discipline, and it’s one that requires focus, insight, expertise and creative execution.  Now go off and become the idol of your marketplace.

– Contributed by Scott Bauman. Follow him @sbauman