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Still have questions about social media's impact on marketing? You shouldn't. According to a new report, "next year, four in five US businesses with at least 100 employees will take part in social media marketing."

If that prediction comes to pass, there won't be much room for debate about social media's significance. But the debates aren't over. Instead, the mainstreaming of social media with marketers means that the most interesting debates are yet to come.

Little more than a year ago, marketers might find themselves being lectured by social media gurus: if you're not involved with social media, you're going to miss the boat. In fact, a lot of the self-proclaimed social media gurus relied on such warnings to drum up business.

But eMarketer's data shows that the days of "you had better get involved with social media or else..." are coming to an end. Businesses have largely bought into the notion that social media is important, and now social media is a legitimate part of the marketing mix. Which creates an entirely new debate: how big a part of the marketing mix should it be?

According to Debra Aho Williamson, who authored the Social Media in the Marketing Mix: Budgeting for 2011 report, answering this question can be difficult. After all, social media covers a lot of area, and many marketers "are still using multiple resources, both internal and external, to create Facebook pages, manage Twitter feeds, develop viral videos and, of course, measure the impact." She points out that there's a lot of indecision around whether or not social media should be handled primarily by third-party vendors (ad agencies, social media shops, etc.) or internally. Companies that decide on the latter face the tough process of determining where social media sits in their organizations.

In Williamson's opinion, marketers may find that dollar amounts and percentages are a distraction. "Even if companies find it impossible to set a specific budget for social media, they can still take a holistic approach," she writes, and she suggests that "marketers should worry less about how much they are spending on social media, or whether there should be a separate budget, and more about whether those dollars are working as hard as they can, producing real, quantifiable results."

This is probably a sensible approach. The best marketing campaigns tend to take the best from multiple digital and traditional channels; it's hard to be effective these days running a campaign in one channel. But marketers should be careful that a 'holistic' approach doesn't serve as cover for mediocrity and wasteful spending. At the end of the day, marketers do need to determine how much (and how) channels are contributing to overall ROI, and spend accordingly. After all, you can't maximize your dollars if you're not actively allocating them based on performance.

This, in my opinion, highlights the real implication of the mainstreaming of social media: it's no longer enough to say "We're on Facebook", or "We're on Twitter." Simply being active in the channel increasingly means next to nothing. As with every other channel, it's what you do with social media that counts.

Patricio Robles

Published 9 December, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2391 more posts from this author

Comments (1)

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Dom Collier, Senior Consultant at Blue Latitude

Good post. I only agree with a bit of it. Any guidance that includes the advice 'marketers should worry less about how much they are spending..' causes alarm bells to ring. Being concerned 'about whether those dollars are working as hard as they can, producing real, quantifiable results', on the other hand, is good practice, as well as common sense.

But an 'holistic' approach (designed to 'treat' the complete system) makes the quantification task challenging, to say the least. Social media channels are complex, immature and fast-moving. Connecting and accurately measuring all the moving parts simultaneously, and the way they influence each other, is, I suggest, impossible. 

This recent post and short slide deck from my colleague Duncan compares the monolithic approach (quite hard to do 'holistic' without being 'monolithic) with the agile approach: http://pulse.bluelatitude.net/2010/12/07/social-media-guidelines-dont-build-monoliths/ 

Joining everything together holistically may be possible at some future point. But for now, with so many unknown and apparently volatile variables in play, specific, hypothesis-driven, lightweight pilots have to be the lowest risk, as well as the most quantifiable way ahead.

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