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Three Phases of Social Media Maturation

At Strategic Communications Group (Strategic) we've been through the cycle.

From start-up to execution and now ROI evaluation, we have lived the maturation
of social media and digital public relations programs. Our client work has also covered
a broad spectrum of organizations, with representation of global firms like British Telecom (BT), Microsoft, Spirent Communications and BearingPoint, as well as emerging growth companies such as GovDelivery and Epok.

During the last few weeks I have made the swing visiting with clients to share the best
practices and lessons learned we've picked up along this journey. It was during one of these discussions at a Starbucks tucked in a corner of a shopping mall in Washington, DC that a client helped define the three phases of a social media initiative.

Phase One: Pockets of Innovation

Strategic typically engages with a client in a pilot program environment, with the scope of work aligned with a funded requirement, such as a product launch, thought leadership campaign or industry conference. I assumed this pilot methodology was easily digested because it kept the budget (and risk) reliably modest.

While this is partly true, it's also apparent that certain individuals within an organization emerge as champions of social media. They may recognize that their customers and partners have become engaged in social networks and online communities. You have to fish where the fish are, right?

Or, perhaps it is a competitive threat in which an upstart has stolen away mindshare and momentum through their use of social media as a thought leadership platform.

Regardless of the reason, the social media champion correctly concludes that how companies position, brand, promote and identify leads has shifted. Their desire is to drive innovation in their communications program in a meaningful and measurable way.

During this initial phase, the social media program wins funding, a strategy is defined, an editorial content direction is agreed upon and tactics move to execution. The benchmark is to attract a community of readers, which is carefully tracked on an ongoing basis.

Phase Two: Bridging to Pervasive

There is a proverb that states success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. This has proved to be spot on when it comes to a social media campaign.

As readership grows, the word spreads internally about the transaction generated through social media tactics. There may even be instances in which direct sales and business development opportunities are identified through online channels. This resonates across multiple departments within a company, such as marketing, sales and product development.

This internal buzz stimulates action. Others in the company closely track the campaign and begin to invest more time engaging in their own social media activities. LinkedIn profiles are updated. Discussion groups are joined. Twitter feeds spring up.

For our social media champion, this second phase is about accelerating readership and encouraging dialogue. The editorial content strategy may evolve and multi-media elements – such as video, podcasts, customer Q & As, etc. –are incorporated into the program. We also see a more consistent flow of comments, as well as other examples of readers reaching out to engage.

The promotion strategy to drive interest and amongst target audiences also becomes more effective and efficient. There is now a baseline. Readership and participation is measured with hot topics and themes fed to the sales organization as a form of real-time market intelligence.

Phase Three: The Last Mile

With the social media program now established and clicking along, our champion turns to the issue of ROI attached to measurable benchmarks.

At Strategic, we view community, conversation and awareness as surely the starting point. Is there an appropriate way to cross this last mile to identify members of our engaged community as sales leads, potential partners or new hires?

It's in this phase that interaction with the organization's sales team becomes paramount. Thought leadership-based lead generation tactics – such as educational Webinars – combined with good old fashioned sales outreach must be defined and put in place.

Although we never stray from what's appropriate in social media participation, the last mile phase is all aboutifying the spend to date and making a business case for continued investment.