Once upon a time, consumers generally expected a clear line of demarcation between advertising and editorial content. While holdouts remain — especially from older generations — younger audiences who came of age during or after the advent of social media often have no problem with blending the two.

So while straightforward “banner” and “tile” digital ads are still ubiquitous on most digital platforms, what’s becoming more common are advertiser-sponsored “stories,” or social media platforms with text and short videos (also known as “reels”). These stories feature a soft sell for the sponsor’s product or service.

Interaction with Ads

An example of a reel is a recent solicitation for donations on Facebook from Doctors Without Borders, an international relief organization. It took the form of a news update on its efforts to provide for the medical needs of Ukrainian war refugees.

As is the hallmark of unsponsored Facebook entries, site visitors posted their responses to that story. Some pertained to the situation in Ukraine specifically, and others to the charity. As with any such sponsored story on social media, Doctors Without Borders ran the risk of eliciting critical comments. But in doing so, the agency did what social media marketing experts recommend: being “authentic,” both in opening oneself to negative comments, and in admitting to challenges and disappointments.

The same principle applies to social media marketing efforts of for-profit organizations. Instead of promoting a product or a specific action, social media marketing experts might suggest that you encourage staff to write about their experiences with the company, with a goal of giving prospective customers a positive feeling about your brand. Another possibility is to encourage workers to narrate a TikTok or Instagram reel about the company and its brand.

What about the risk of employees bad-mouthing your business? That risk is always there no matter what you do. The hope is that the “authentic” narratives posted by contented employees will spread throughout the social media landscape and enhance your brand, both as an employer and as a purveyor of whatever you sell.

The Power of Humor

Another approach is humor. A recent sponsored commercial post on Facebook consisted of an engaging short video with no apparent marketing message. It ends with a commercial message that hits you when you’re chuckling or otherwise engaged in a way that keeps the commercial punchline from being off-putting. The viewer appreciates the joke and moves on with a positive impression of the reel’s sponsor. Or at least that’s the goal.

Short videos (often as brief as 15 seconds), in addition to being a better medium than text for humorous or mood-setting content, are often more appealing to young people who are notorious for having short attention spans. Longer videos, although not always practical, can be even more impactful.

Shopping Functionality

What’s new about some of these videos, when there’s a product or service to be purchased, is having the “shopping functionality” built into the social media platform, instead of diverting the site visitor to the sponsor’s website. “Consumers want to have experiences in the places where they are already spending time,” according to the Forbes Communication Council, an organization of senior-level communications and public relations executives.  

But is it affordable? Few small businesses can foot the bill for the most sophisticated, professionally produced social media marketing efforts. Plus, if you’re marketing to a specialized audience, you don’t want to spend a fortune on a platform dominated by users who aren’t even your best prospects.

One option to address the problems of affordability and interest-targeting is geographic tailoring (also known as “geofencing”). This is location-based marketing that triggers messages to go out when a mobile device with a particular app or other software program enters or exits a specified location. For example, a young woman walking near a particular store may receive an app notification such as “Today only: 30% sale on all handbags.”

Social Listening Tools

Don’t forget that it’s crucial to understand what appeals to your customers as you’re crafting your marketing plan, no matter what kind of platforms you intend to use. Social media to the rescue: check out the latest “social listening” tools.

These online tools include “software that monitors and analyzes online conversations about your brand, a specific topic, your competitors or anything else that’s relevant to your company,” according to one service provider. Another company in the field offers a service that lets you “identify and de-escalate potential crises by receiving real-time alerts to hot spots surfacing online.” 

It might also be feasible to build your own online social media community, consisting of people who are interested in the kind of products or services your business provides. It can be a forum for discussing trends and issues surrounding your product or service, and not necessarily your own company’s specific offering. But a social media community can also be an excellent intelligence-gathering mechanism and sounding board for you as you map out not only your own plan, but also your product development strategy.

Final Thoughts

When looking for new ways to build a social media marketing plan, don’t neglect to check out an ever-growing selection of software and services. They’re offered both by the major social media platforms and an army of specialized service providers vying to help you make the most of them.


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