Integrate, not separate, social media

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In 2006 when Charlie Rapple last wrote for us about Web 2.0, the term was new and rather mysterious. Five years on, it's become part of the strategy of many scholarly publishers. She shares some tips about how to make best use of what this technology offers

Five years ago, I wrote an article for Research Information about Web 2.0 in scholarly publishing. At the time, ‘Web 2.0’ was the buzziest of buzz-phrases, and I attempted to pin down its meaning (‘social’ use of the web), its potential applications (data tagging and sharing, community building, content discovery, apps and mashups), and its weaknesses (issues around authority, trust, adoption and business models).

Looking back at the article now, I’m relieved that it still reads sensibly. However, my main reaction is to marvel that I could have written 1,500 words on the topic without any of them being ‘Facebook’ or ‘Twitter’; both services that had just about gone public at the time of writing and have since dwarfed those that I did mention (which are at least all still extant, if not household names – Rollyo, anyone?). I suggested that usage of the term ‘Web 2.0’ would decline, and indeed it has been largely superseded by the term ‘social media’.

Given our community’s continued preoccupation with the latter, it seems a sensible lens through which to scrutinise our five-year-old concerns. What has changed, and where are we now?

Critical mass

Of course, the most recognisable change is the levels of penetration and awareness that social media have achieved since those heady, early days. You know the stats – Facebook would be the world’s third largest country, with 800 million ‘inhabitants’; 90 per cent of journalists use social media to find stories, 90 per cent of millennials use social networks. I’d add a rough estimate that ‘90 per cent of publishers have set up a social media account’, and a harsh-but-possibly-true ‘90 per cent of them aren’t sure why.’

Social media has moved from being the preserve of the early adopters to become the remit of the marketing department, but although it is well aligned, strategically, with other marketing trends – toward personalisation, recommendation and advocacy marketing – its deployment is typically not well structured around core objectives. At the same time, there has been a continuing shift in end users’ expectations, whether that is in terms of accessibility of content or in terms of responsiveness of providers, which can also in part be addressed by effective engagement with social media.

Brand control

Given the breadth of its relevance, it’s important to consider how social media can serve – and should fit with – different strategic perspectives. At the highest level, there are brand implications – both in terms of how brand values are conveyed in social media activity, but also in terms of how social media moves control of the brand from its owner to its audience. This is perhaps the most significant aspect of the social media ‘revolution’ (indeed, is perhaps the only sense in which social media actually represents a revolution, rather than evolution of the existing approaches).

This is at the heart of why many organisations remain cautious about engaging. The ease with which a brand’s audience (for example, a journal’s readers, or a publisher’s customers) can now find each other and discuss our brands is unnerving. On one level, we are eager for this kind of interest in our brand, imagining fans connecting to sing our praises – and this can happen, of course (see more below, in the context of advocacy marketing). But those of us burned by experiences of social media’s forerunner, the listserv, know that the unhappy few tend to be more vocal than the satisfied majority.

In the traditional media world – the one-way streets of advertising, direct mail and so forth – an organisation can control the public image of its brand. In social media, customers can make equally public assertions about a brand that arguably carry greater credibility. What if those assertions are not in line with our desired brand identity? Fear of ‘losing control’ in this way concerns many – particularly editors – and is a key topic of debate at this point in the evolution and adoption of social media.

Integration and balance

The relatively immature state of social media adoption in our community manifests itself in two key ways. Firstly, too many organisations continue to place social media in a silo, with communications and campaigns via social media being planned, managed and executed separately from marketing activities in other channels. Given the increasing levels of time and resource being invested in social media engagement, it’s important that it is consistent with other communications and contributes to overall objectives (not least so that return on investment can be measured).

Secondly, too many organisations focus on sharing, at the cost of listening, asking and responding – using social media only to promote content, events and news without adequately monitoring feedback from customers, or taking advantage of the customer insight that is uniquely available. This is likely a legacy of the print environment, in which publishers focussed on their institutional customer base, with little need to understand or connect more closely with end users – and, in fairness, little opportunity or means of doing so.

Charlie Rapple 

Social media has overturned both aspects of that situation, by increasing the visibility and power of the end user, and giving publishers a means of accessing them for the first time. First impressions count. It’s important that, from the outset, our engagement with social media gives users a positive sense of who we are and what we stand for – not just what we do. That means listening to our audience before wading in, so we can understand where they congregate (which tools and services they use), what interests them, how they talk about it, and what sort of interaction generates a response.

Effective communication

Thus informed, it’s advisable to begin by responding to others’ comments and questions, and asking questions to generate broad discussion, rather than simply ploughing in with self-promotion. Once you’ve begun to build your profile, you can begin to share news about your organisation and its content, but this sharing should always be balanced with continued listening, asking and responding. In all cases, it’s also important to apply traditional PR and communications rules – is the post of interest? Would you take the time to read it? Does it convey personality? How can sparkle be added?

This approach will ensure that a publisher’s investment is optimised, by contributing in the right places, with the right tone, and the right input to maximise interaction. Progressive publishers are beginning to make the transition from experimenting with social media as a promotional broadcast platform, to seeing it as a channel for building relationships with customers, and capturing insight that will form the basis of future competitive advantage.


Increasing external and internal pressures, from funding challenges to substitute communication mechanisms, are making the scholarly communications environment more competitive. Publishers need to act to reinforce their role and that of their publications; future success in the role of publisher will depend on the strength of our network – our relationships with authors, editors, readers and purchasers.

Formalising our approach to these relationships, rather than relying on serendipitous support from and interaction with our target audience, fits within the concept of ‘advocacy marketing’. Advocacy is the positive recommendation of a brand by a trusted independent third party; recommendations can range from a casual endorsement from a friend to an expert’s product review in an online forum. Such testimony, from a trusted colleague, friend or mentor, is more convincing and compelling than anything we can tell a potential author or purchaser about our products, but happens by chance; it is spontaneous, unpredictable, and beyond our control.

Nonetheless, a structured advocacy marketing programme can generate activities that encourage, inform, promote and reward the customer base, or a subset of it, to talk as much as possible about our products, services and brand. Advocacy marketing therefore focuses on growing and retaining customers by building trust and increasing referred business. Publishers are beginning to deploy it strategically as a means to tap into and target the networks that influence reading and publishing decisions, and are using social media in this context to identify and connect with ‘influencers’.

Measuring engagement

Despite this progress, there remains resistance to using social media within publisher marketing. This is no longer simply a function of unfamiliarity with social media tools; instead it is founded – quite reasonably – in concerns about how to measure their value or impact. Social media ‘experts’ will often talk about ‘engagement’ in this context, a term that is rarely defined satisfactorily and provides critics of social media with plenty of ammunition.

The problems usually stem from the fact that experimentation with social media has taken place without a strategic context, and thus without clear objectives, performance indicators and benchmarks against which impact can be measured. Engagement is perhaps best considered as a catch-all term for the different types of impact that social media can have; it should always be more clearly defined for specific projects and campaigns, with appropriate metrics being selected for monitoring, analysis and application.

In relating social media results to bottom-line objectives, I find it useful to structure potential metrics within the marketing model AIDA, as follows:

  • Attention: network size (followers, likes etc), time on site, searches
  • Interest: uploads, comments, RTs, clickthroughs, brand references, survey responses, bookmarks, ratings
  • Desire: traffic referrals from social media to content elsewhere
  • Action: submissions, pay-per-view, subscription recommendations.

In this way, we can begin to assess the contribution of social media to our overall strategy, and compare its impact to other communications channels. Of course, this is just a subset of possible metrics, and how they are categorised within this (or any) framework will depend on the goals of a given campaign. For completeness, these types of metric should also be complemented by longer-term analysis to assess subscription trends or changes in brand perception.

In conclusion

I closed my 2006 article by reminding publishers to ‘focus on successfully delivering the basics before expending resources to deal in the bells and whistles’, and to ‘serve our communities appropriately, with data and tools that will add genuine value to their workflow’.

For many publishers, this is still the best advice to follow. For those who have achieved the basics, it’s now time to ensure that social media is integrated with wider marketing strategy; it should be managed and measured with as much rigour as any other channel. Over the next five years, social media will increasingly be seen as a tool for building the relationships that will ensure the future sustainability of publishers as intermediaries in the information supply chain.

Charlie Rapple is head of marketing development at TBI Communications