These questions are asked by marketers, and answers pondered by agencies industry wide daily. Thankfully "Our CEO asked if we should experiment in Second Life" has waned over the last year (just over a year ago this question rolled off the tongue of pretty much every client I worked with).
I only get frustrated with these questions because they are asked without respective objectives associated with them. Can you blame me for wanting to do things the right way?
In the spirit of never wanting to be left behind or out-marketed, and the desire to harness the next big thing to sustain or grow their businesses, marketers are somewhat susceptible to industry peer pressure. (Wikipedia defines peer pressure as: "the pressure exerted by a peer group in encouraging a person to change their attitude, behavior and/or morals, to conform to, for example, the group's actions.")
Social media growth is one of the biggest media trends in digital media history. Marketers and agencies want to simply "fish where the fish are." But the problem is that consumers aren't fish, and social media is far from a simple habitat. Tapping into this exciting media shift is not as simple as moving to a new fishing spot and bringing along the right bait, but rather living in the ocean and becoming a fish yourself. Social media marketing is a commitment to participation, immersion, transparency, engagement and authenticity.
I've read too many fluffy case studies where what is not included (i.e. results in the context of specific objectives and investments) tells a more interesting story than the hyped up story that is publicly released. In fact, many examples of social media marketing generate far more exposure via PR than the actual intended consumer based social media engagement. There are many examples of forced social marketing: "Presence" versus "participation," if you will. Social media approaches that accomplish nothing but PR are not long term strategies with sustainable futures.
Of course there are also instances where the marketer did nothing wrong. Just like any marketing approach, you win some and you lose some. The major difference is that when you fail within a social media environment , you may be failing in clear sight of your most valuable consumers and brand advocates. So how you fail is actually the differentiation between a tree falling in the woods with nobody around to hear it and a televised building implosion.
Additionally, success is all relative. The scale of success is sometimes tied to your brand, product or category and whether it is in sync with the innate attributes that drive engagement (i.e. health insurance or legal services are never going to be as engaging as fashion or entertainment), and how much effort you invest in becoming part of the active ecosystem. Over time, we'll find that financial and sweat investment levels in social media marketing will reflect consumer engagement variances, not the other way around.
Some Questions to Ask When Shaping Your Social Media Strategy
Start with "Why?" What are your specific objectives? Engaging and developing brand advocates? Establishing or expanding your consumer feedback loop? Creating additional media reach? Dissemination of marketing activation like coupons, incentives? (Answers: Yes, yes, maybe, maybe)
Next, think about the methods of engagement. Does the combination of your existing brand personality and assets lend themselves to engaging consumers, or do you need to create new assets and a brand personality extension to accomplish your objectives? If you have a brand personality and have or can easily create assets that will help engage consumers, deepen relationships with and develop new brand advocates, your investment to return ratio will be higher. However, if you have to reinvent your brand persona, invest extensively in asset creation, and over-think your participatory appropriateness for this environment, then you are beginning to force a square marketing peg in a round social media hole.
In either case, remember that you must commit to participation -- this has become the "5th P of marketing" in the new media era. Whether you manage this process in house or have an agency manage the efforts, be committed to commitment itself, develop clear objectives, dissect your approach and be transparent and authentic.
I know, you want to fish where the fish are. But please -- stop focusing on the sonar screen and your bait. Just jump into the ocean and become a fish.