What does "content strategy" mean for social media?

I stumbled across a blog post yesterday by Kristina Halvorsen about content strategy. The post looked at the difference between strategy and planning and was very interesting. But there was one small section that worried me:

But for a mid-sized or large organization, if social media content is conceived and created in a silo (or siloes) apart from the organization’s other content channels, it opens the door for inconsistent messaging, irrelevant content for current target audiences, and so on. So it’s important to understand that a blog, like all social media, is (among other things) a channel through which to distribute branded content.

This is an issue that needs untangling because, misinterpreted, it could result in a poor social media strategy.

The silo’d nature of many businesses is a significant problem and I entirely agree that a fragmented social media strategy, or content strategy, will result in a mess. A wise strategist will look at the business’ aims, understand its market, and will create a strategy that will help the business meet its goals within the context of its market.

But blogs and social media are not “a channel through which to distribute branded content”, they are a way for people within the company to form relationships with both other people outside the company and their own colleagues. These relationships create greater trust in the business, as potential customers feel that they have an ‘in’: access to a real person to whom they can take their troubles if they experience any. As trust increases, so does the likelihood that a transaction will occur between those trusted parties.

Branded content is inappropriate for social media because it’s impersonal, it’s not from the heart of the blogger (or Twitterer etc.) and so does not build trust because the recipient can see right through it. Indeed, one of the most common problems I am asked to fix is underperforming Twitter accounts, and they uniformly underperform because they are streams of branded content without a hint of humanity in sight. In fact, this comes up so often I may start offering Twitter Rehabilitation as a specific service to clients.

This doesn’t mean, however, that social media should not have a content strategy, but it needs a very different approach to the sort of strategy one would apply to traditional communications. Rather than focusing specifically on the content, one has to focus on the people who are active in social media and the communities that they are active in. My process would be this:

  1. Examine your markets and understand what topics your customers are interested in
  2. Find people in your business who are passionate about those same topics
  3. Pick people from that group who are happy using social tools
  4. Agree with the bloggers/Twitterers/etc. which topics they are going to cover
  5. Let them get on with it
  6. Review regularly to make sure that the bloggers/Twitterer/etc. feel happy with what they are doing and that everything’s going in the right direction

When we look at successful business bloggers, we don’t see branded content, we see personality, transparency, authenticity, honesty. Those keywords haven’t changed in over a decade and they aren’t going to change now because these are the attributes that people respond most positively to.

Social media comes from the heart and needs very light touch management. More than that, it needs passion, freedom and trust in order to truly work.

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It's worth remembering that the term 'content' is dangerous in its own right, since it belongs to the old world of publishing and focuses people's minds on static information.
Suw, thanks for your response to my post. Terrific insights. Two points of clarification: 1. When I talk about "branded content," really what I mean is "content that represents a brand." This isn't just marketing or advertising. It's everything that's published in association with a brand. And that includes user generated content. That said, your point that social media isn't a way to "deliver" content is well taken. (I'm actually going to stop using that phrase starting now.) These channels are, of course, places for equal exchanges between writers and readers. And yet, they are channels that require the same level of planning and governance as all other content published by any brand. In that sense, the process you outline above is missing one key component, which is the establishment of some level of governance: policies and guidelines. These don't have to be restrictive, not at all. But people need to be paying attention to what's being published and what happens after it is. And that requires more process, as well as guidelines. 2. With regard to your quote: "Rather than focusing specifically on the content, one has to focus on the people who are active in social media and the communities that they are active in." Focusing on *the people* who are responsible for an organization's content is actually a huge component of content strategy... processes, workflow, skill sets, roles, and so on. It's a totally different way of looking at how we create, share, and govern our content. But it's really just common sense--content doesn't create or manage itself! Only when we introduce *human beings* into the mix will we begin to get our content right, both for our businesses and our users. Thanks for starting this important dialogue.
Wow, this is a fantastic article. Your points about social media being more of a community than a channel for advertising are well taken. My experience backs this up, though I wouldn't have articulated it so well. Thanks!