Social media in 2012 will be about engagement over followers and ROI

2011 was a landmark year in the corporate use of social networks, as business models swiftly changed in response to the growing influence of social media. Nearly all brands were re-considering their social outreach stance – whether businesses were forced to change in response to a crisis, or they recognised the strategic potential of building a two-way conversation with customers. Brands realised if they didn’t invest in their own social reputations, their competitors gladly would.

For companies in a range of industries – retail, travel, software, entertainment – social is no longer a “nice to have” option, but a vital business tool. In this column, I’ll highlight two trends I suggest you pay close attention to in 2012:

Emphasis on engagement, not fan or follower count

In 2011, having clear social marketing objectives will become increasingly important. We’ve identified three stages of goal development as companies mature their social media marketing efforts:

Growth of the brand presence (fans, likes, follows and subscriptions)
Engagement of the brand audience (comments, shares and user generated content) Monetisation of fans (qualified leads, or sales driven from social pages)
Last year, social marketers focused primarily on growth (fans, followers, likes, check-ins and sign-ups), especially in the UK. In a recent “Wildfire ROI of Social Media Survey” of UK audiences, 85% of marketers stated that “growing brand awareness” was the key benefit of social media.

If 2011 was the year of growth, we see many indicators that 2012 will be the year of engagement, as brands look to activate the fan bases they’ve worked so hard to build. A growing minority of marketers (25% according to our survey) will pursue third-stage monetisation goals as well. No matter which goal your business pursues, I suggest you offer up the kinds of social experiences users like. This Chief Marketer report highlights several:

Learning to stand out and claim “share of voice” in a noisy crowd, by using social tools, will be the skill to master in 2012. Two UK companies already lead the way in savvy social marketing: Benefit Cosmetics UK and Yorkshire Tea. While taking two vastly different approaches to social, both have had great success engaging fans.

Benefit Cosmetics, without using any traditional advertising built an enviable global reputation, nearly tripling its fan base to over 120,000, in the last quarter of 2011. How? By focusing purely on building awareness through fun and quirky online content like pictures and videos, giveaways and beauty sessions.

Yorkshire Tea, on the other hand, took an integrated approach and built its social media campaign straight into its overall, multi-channel marketing plan. It’s campaign followed the movement of ‘Little Urn’ across America. The success of the Little Urn campaign was determined, in large part, by social networking, with delighted Facebook fans following every twist and turn Little Urn took. They requested visits from him, messaged him, and even recommended him to friends that were “in need of a brew.”

Hand-in-hand with its Little Urn outreach, Yorkshire Tea ran a competition for 30 days, resulting in 13,000 visitors to its Facebook page and a 25% increase in its fan base. You’ll see creative approaches like this taken by more and more brands in 2012, as they launch campaigns that integrate interactive, engaging experiences into the overall marketing plans of the brand.

Change in measurement and standard metrics

2012 will also be the year that companies begin to truly examine the return on investment (ROI) that social media brings, using the more traditional financial measure of revenue relative to cost as a standard. The good news is that more sophisticated tools are coming online to help discerning executives evaluate social ROI: whether they are looking for quantifiable boosts to brand perception, referral sales, new customer acquisition, or customer retention.

Company executives will also ask marketers to set and achieve business-relevant goals in 2012. Social strategy will be set by working backwards from individual business objectives, to the campaigns best suited to achieve them. Marketing Directors will look across all marketing channels and select social, based on its ability to deliver specific results that matter to the business. We expect marketers to call on social marketing for monetisation of fans, measurable increases in brand advocacy, influencers gained and campaign success in sales and reach.

The biggest lesson for 2012 is that the brands that most successfully translate their social audiences into sales and brand advocates, will not necessarily be the same brands with the largest fan bases. A high ROI will be the reward for deftly providing consumers with engaging, interactive content and marketing campaigns.

If your brand hasn’t taken the time to plan a social strategy already, 2012 is a ripe time to shift the way you think about social media. It’s time to integrate your social and traditional marketing across all channels, and define business objective-driven measures for your brand’s success. There’s no room to be left behind.