Social marketing is a lot like sex. There's a lot more talking about it then actually doing it. I don't mean that most people are not using social media to connect with their friends, follow topics of interest, and talk almost endlessly about what they think of the brands they interact with on a daily basis. But social marketing is more than social media.

As Phillip Kotler wrote in the 1970s, "Social marketing seeks to influence social behaviors not to benefit the marketer, but to benefit the target audience and the general society." It's more about understanding what is important to your target audience and listening to them, than extracting insight from that learning and applying it to the way in which you communicate and create experiences for your customers (which, by the way, is a lot more than counting likes or feeling good about the sentiment analysis of your brand).


Ultimately, the value of social marketing is in the ability to add the dimensions of time and context to all of your marketing targeting, messaging, and measurement across all your existing and future channels. It is the promise of real-time, omni-channel customer experiences that are engaging, relevant, and persuasive. It is the fourth stage of social marketing maturity.

What are the first three stages and how do we advance our brands towards the fourth stage? Let's start by looking at each stage:

Stage 1: Experimentation -- Everyone got a Twitter account and set up a Facebook page because everyone else was doing it. At this stage we saw the introduction of various social monitoring tools such as Radian 6, Visible Technologies, and Alterian SM2 (now SDL SM2).

Stage 2: Social customer services -- What started out with the hiring of a couple of college students or the self-determination of some employees within a company turned into dedicated groups of employees. These groups were formed sometimes in marketing, PR, or customer service and they used the social monitoring tools to listen to what was being said about a brand. They specifically listened for customer problems then reacted by reaching back out to the person posting and trying to resolve their issue.

Stage 3: Community building – At this stage, companies are using the social technologies, not just to listen but to engage with the public, build communities around their brands and find expression for the loyalty felt by many of their best customers. This stage is manifested by generating large numbers of likes on Facebook, followers on Twitter, and building out your board on Pinterest. Ideally these communities are being used not just to promote a brand's products, but to gather intelligence about consumers within a specific area of interest. The value of this data collection can then be used to inform messaging, product development, and campaigns. This is the logic behind the purchase of Radian6 by and the purchase of Alterian SM2 by SDL. It is not just a new advertising channel; it a central vehicle for customer experience and customer relationship management.

Stage 4 – Real-time integration of the dimensions of time and context -- While there are only a few companies which are beginning to have mastered stage three and are ready to evolve to the fourth stage, this is where all brands should be headed, not just because customer experience is the right thing to do, but because it is the smart business thing to do. The fourth stage of social marketing is the real-time integration of integration of the dimensions of time and context into the targeting, messaging, publishing, and measurement of customer experiences that are engaging, relevant, and persuasive. 

It's not enough to rely on demographics or psychographics anymore. It is behavior and attitudes that matter the most when brands are competing with a non-stop barrage of media and an audience that appears to have ADHD all the time. Short attention spans and the multi-tasking mindset of today's consumers make it imperative to join rather than compete. The message has to be not only targeted according to needs and desires; it has to reach the bar of relevance within the specific context of the individual's mindset at a particular moment in time.  Otherwise it will be lost in the dust and the noise.

How can marketers reach the fourth stage of social marketing? While that's the topic of another post, the obvious answer is to gain experience and expertise at the first three stages, especially the third stage of social intelligence. To do this well, you will need to embrace technology and begin using one of the more robust social applications such as Radian6 or SM2.

Once you have learned how to understand what's relevant to your audience from a context and a real-time point of view, then you're ready to implement real-time contextual publishing.

However the real determinate of success will be whether the brand embraces customer experience as a discipline and values its role in making your company truly customer centric. Only then will you be ready for the fourth generation of social marketing.