The problem with planning social media (no problem)

May 22, 2009 by

By Cory Treffiletti

 If you were engaged with digital media planning early in the continuum, say from 1995-2000, you regularly heard the phrase, “building the plane while flying it.” That cliché was used commonly to describe the exhilaration and similarly the frustration of media planning in an environment that was un-tested, un-standardized and extremely fluid when compared to its traditional brethren. 
The same thing can be said for social media planning right now, because social media is somewhat tested, infinitely un-standardized and extremely fluid.  What adds even more difficulty is, it is more about the platform than any of the individual players — which adds a level of complexity that can easily overwhelm an unseasoned planner.

When planning display in digital media, it’s easy to focus on the publisher as the location for placement, and each publisher has a forecasted, finite volume of inventory that can be planned.  In social media, publishers are increasingly shifting their focus away from their sites and more to a distributed model that relies on third-party programmer development to create access points.

In a recent article in the Sunday New York Times, Facebook proclaimed its desire for a third party to developers to create new interfaces for accessing the social network rather than driving users to the host .com site.  They are not as concerned with site traffic as they are with accessibility to the platform.  Twitter is leaps and bounds ahead of the pack when it comes to this concept, with most people accessing Twitter through mobile apps such as Twitterific or desktop apps like TweetDeck. 

In fact, I’d go so far as to guess (and this is just a personal guess) that at least half of the traffic Twitter gets may not even come through Twitter.com.  What makes it even more interesting and more complex is that many third-party developers are building tools to access both of these platforms, and I truly mean platforms, with the purpose of mining them for data.  That translates to solutions that can use social data and apply it to the general display.  If that doesn’t confuse the issue, I don’t know what does. 

These platforms are creating a distributed content strategy that aligns nicely with the semantic Web approach, which is also starting to gain more steam.  As we progress over the next two to three years of digital marketing, more overlap will occur because contextual placements are being swept aside in favor of data-driven solutions that may or may not be overlaid above a contextual location.

These two issues are making it difficult.  When you write a media plan and develop a flowchart, the line items in the flowchart are not simply publisher brands, they’re technology that layers into your typical publishing brands.  In the case of a social media flowchart, you need to write out all the different components and understand strategically how you’re going to utilize them, and apply costs to the usage of each effort.  The development of this portion of the flowchart is more akin to a project management plan than it is to a media plan, because you’re trying to identify the calendar of events in social media with the hopes of launching something with a predetermined number of initial publishers that has legs and can catch virality, to extend the impact and estimated impressions over the course of a few days or weeks, not just be isolated to an initial media location.  Forecasting this impact is a guessing game at best, with understanding the audience reaction  far more dependent on the creative and the message than it is when planning basic display (where it is certainly important) where you hope for a click through or some measure of interaction.

Social media planning is a new beast.  It is an art and a science, but there’s more art to it than the standard media plan requires.  Today’s digital planners need to become familiar with a process of how to understand, plan and develop in this arena.  You’ll note that I said “a plan”, not “the plan” because that fact is, there’s no established, standardized plan as of yet.  This is truly building the plane while flying it.  There are social media agencies popping up left and right who proclaim their expertise in this area, but they are no more experts than you are.  They may be further down the path of developing a process, but that process is not perfect, and it’s not going to be perfect for some years to come.  Start with the platforms you think make sense, layer in an idea for when to start, and create a calendar for when to stoke the fire.

Don’t be afraid of planning a social media effort.   Tackle it from a place of familiarity.  Tackle it with ideas and concepts that are known and use them to explain the unknown.  Try to think in terms of reach and frequency, and understand the usage of the platform based on your own experiences first, because that will help you build a plan that is effective and accurate and will complement your other efforts very well.

Cory is president and managing partner for Catalyst SF.

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