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Social Media Strategy Lessons From 'The Art of War'

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

- Sun Tzu

social-media-art-of-warAre communication firms or in-house teams better suited to manage a brand's social media presence?

This was the topic of a recent PRWeek "Gloves Off" post. Melanie Taylor, SVP at Social@Ogilvy, made the case for agencies, citing the collective knowledge and combined learning from other clients and industries that agency executives bring to the table.

On the “no” side, Brett Jewkes, COO of NASCAR, didn't actually outright dismiss agencies but rather opined: "...it depends on your business and brand," which was also PRWeek's final analysis. Regardless of what side you fall on, it isn’t debatable that anyone in charge of social media efforts is under increased pressure to better understand and measure audience engagement, as well as ladder social efforts to larger business objectives.

The reality is that many brands have entrusted their social media management to agencies. Account managers and executives charged with creating, implementing, and measuring a brand’s micro-content can glean several key takeaways from Sun Tzu’s well-known quote on military strategy.

Knowing Yourself

Who could possibly know a brand better than itself? This rhetorical question is why it stands to reason for some that brands should manage their own social media efforts. This is also why it’s paramount for agencies to understand a brand as intimately as if they were part of its internal team. In fact, the best-case scenario is when agency executives actually become natural extensions of the brand.

It’s of course important for agencies to capture a brand’s persona and craft authentic social media content — whether a single tweet or month-long Facebook campaign. However, agency teams can no longer get by as social media “tacticians” and must understand their client’s products, services, business model, and objectives inside and out. The individual responsible for social media on a travel account should visit the destination at least once. Someone putting out micro-content for a consumer tech product should actually use and understand it. Only then can agencies implement comprehensive social strategies that provide their clients true value.

Another aspect of “knowing yourself” in social media for an agency is the ability to understand how its efforts perform internally. Is the one-month Facebook campaign more or less successful than the similar campaign the agency ran last year and the year before? It’s important to measure how current content across all social channels performs over time against previous content. However, brands don’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s shortsighted for a brand to stop at measuring social success against itself.

Knowing Others

While “competitors” is a more cordial term than “enemies” when talking about brands such as Coke and Pepsi, the principle of knowing the competition still applies. While it’s imperative for an agency to know the brand(s) it represents and to benchmark against itself, it’s also critical to understand what the competition is up to in the social sphere. What content is working for direct sector competitors? What are others doing that creates both high reach and meaningful engagement? When, what, and where are competitors putting out content, and what are the results — from top-line metrics such as "likes" and follows, to deeper engagement such as comments, shares, and retweets?

While combined learning from other clients is a benefit for agency teams, any reputable agency won’t work with two competing clients — let alone the dozens it might take to accurately identify long-term sector trends. Yes, it’s possible (and even wise) for an auto brand to look outside of its sector for insights from a beverage brand that’s killing it on social media. Maybe there’s a crossover in brand audience between Volvo and Starbuck’s for instance. However, some of the best and most informative competitive insights come from knowing what other brands in a sector are doing in social media and how well those efforts are working.

Two years ago, Mashable posted an infographic from Domo and Column Five Media that illustrates the mind-boggling amount of social content the public generates every minute. Mind you, this was two years ago, but it gives agencies a good idea of the big data required to fully understand both the brands they represent and their industry competitors. But as big data fades from the spotlight and smart data becomes what brands increasingly care about, agencies will need technologies that provide 1. the heavy lifting of data analysis, and 2. the smart insights that can inform strategic decisions — not just about social media but for other areas of a brand’s business. For example, how fast a brand replies to customers on Twitter compared to its competitors has both communications and business implications.

The Risk of Knowing Neither

Honestly, the "Art of War" quote above is overly simple. In reality, even if an agency knows both their brand clients and the competition well, there are no guarantees that you will always win — either in the marketplace of ideas or revenues. However, what is safe to say is that agencies will flounder if they aren’t positioned to know both the brands they represent and the competitors of those brands when it comes to social media. Those that know neither are more exposed to brand image fragmentation, social media crises, and losing audience (and customers) to others.

Ask yourself: How well do you know your clients and their competitors?


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