How many of our Twitter followers are real buyers? What percentage of our tweets do followers actually see? Are those new Facebook likes really valuable over time? Certainly you’ve posed similar questions to your marketing team or agency.
Getting answers to questions like these is challenging work—and well worth the effort. But even with access to so much data, we can still tell very little about customers and prospects by observing their relatively passive social network participation. To really understand behavior, we must rely on a concept that is both so simple yet so poorly applied in social marketing that it borders on stupidity: stimulus and response.

Most classically-trained marketers understand the concept of introducing an offer (stimulus) and waiting for a response. And over the years we’ve learned to not just measure uptake, but also to understand more about why and when a prospect actually becomes a real marketing-qualified lead. Significant investment is made in refining this process, but I hear too many stories about this discipline not finding its way into social engagement.

Before I go into five discipline-building tips, I must offer one strong caveat: I’m not saying that you should simply treat social networks like any other channel – these are venues for strategic brand storytelling, not lead gen repurposing. So, with that said, I offer five steps for bringing stimulus/response into your social marketing strategy:

  • Listen first. Take the time to understand your audience before engaging them – it’s okay to listen for a while. Don’t even think about promotion until you’re sure you understand the community’s vibe.
  • Earn your way in. Don’t think offer first. That will probably deliver new followers, friends, members and circle joiners who are undoubtedly there for the wrong reasons. Share, help and tell stories before you even think of asking for something.
  • Tailor, don’t generalize. Why not segment your followers, friends, members, etc., for more targeted, relevant campaigns. Sure, it takes more time, but you’d be surprised at how much more lift you get when you really understand what makes different segments unique. Generalize and you’ll just be another marketer to your audience.
  • Stimulate in bites, not batches. A campaign within social networks needn’t always be a fully-integrated, highly-structured program that relies on aggregated metrics alone. This is especially true in B2B marketing where five well-nurtured social contacts could actually make a salesperson’s quarter. Try to understand a few prospects better through bites of engagement and tailored offers and see what that yields.
  • Study responses by hand. If you’ve listened, earned your way in, tailored your campaign and taken the extra effort to engage in bites, you likely have a good idea of who’s who in your strategically-expanding social ecosystem. Look at who they are, study commonalities and refine your content strategy to match your ideal prospects. Don’t simply generalize anymore.

We love data at Greenough. We pore over it daily, but we also understand that social marketing isn’t driven by data alone. Yes, stimulus and response works well with highly-structured data analysis, and you should have a plan for that too, but don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and use it like a conversation instead of simply a scientific probe.

Scott Bauman is executive vice president at Greenough.