Why Applying Best Practices May Sabotage Your Social Media Goals

Is cutting-and-pasting social media “best practices” the path toward better, tangible results?  Or should we instead use good, proven processes that “work” — applying them within our context to create more sales and happier customers?  Let’s take a quick, critical look at why chasing best practices might be a waste of valuable time.

The whole idea of a best practice implies an absolute — that there is something better than everything else out there.  But in life there aren’t many “for sure” things.  Especially in a business world where how things are done is always shifting.  Nor are absolutes very practical.

For instance, let’s say you asked a trusted, respected peer, “How can I use social media to create more leads and sales?” they’d be foolish to suggest, “Just read Jeff’s blog.”  Or any book or blog for that matter!  Just the same, it would be disingenuous of them to say, “You should apply (aka. mimic) a case study” within a given book or blog.

Here’s what I’m proposing: Those process that are effective should be borrowed from.  These are where the gold lies.  Because social media marketing processes themselves are good idea-generators.  But when presented in the forms of a “best practice” they’re almost never a full solution.  Not practically speaking.

Fly high: Making social produce outcomes

For instance, the United States Air Force’s public affairs office has a simple yet effective social media decision-making system that serves their strategic needs.  Believe it or not, the Air Force offers a good example of an organization your business might borrow basic concepts from.

The Air Force employs 33,000 communicators.  Their mission is to use social media tools to discover, analyze and respond to comments about the Air Force.  And to do so in ways that support its overall mission.  In particular, they support recruitment of airmen and airwomen through use of new digital tools.  And they do this through a well-designed system.

The Air Force’s process is focused on creating and responding to purposeful conversations about itself within social media.  It’s looking at (and selectively participating in) dialogues with outcomes in mind.  Of course, they’re dabbling in all the usual tools like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and across a variety of internal networks like The Pentagon Channel.   So let’s take a look at the purposeful business processes below.  How might you apply them (individually) in ways to improve social media outcomes at your office?

Discover, analyze, respond

The Air Force is using a discover-analyze-respond method.

First, it’s discovering. An inter-disciplinary team finds and organizes what other entities and people are publicly saying about the Air Force. They monitor discussions mentioning the Air Force across the Web using a variety of tools including free ones like Google Alerts.  Big corporations like Dell and PepsiCo (Gatorade) are setting up similar “command centers” that monitor various listening posts across the social Web.

The Air Force is also analyzing.  Team members constantly evaluate each of the discovered dialogues against qualifiers like validity and authenticity. They ask themselves questions like, “Is this a real person making the comment or question?” and if so, what’s that person’s credibility? “Does this person’s opinion matter in the grand scheme?” Decisions are made using a yes-no decision-tree style road map.

For instance, if a discussion or comment is discovered that portrays the organization in a negative light or presents information in an un-balanced fashion decisions are made to “monitor only” (no response but notify headquarters) or “fix the facts/restoration.” If the comment or discussion reflects positively and is balanced a choice is called for. That is, to concur publicly or simply let the post stand. These decisions are made based on pre-defined criteria.

And, of course, the Air Force is responding: Appropriate team members respond in a predetermined manner.  All based on “rules of engagement” that the Air Force has committed to as an organization.

Borrowing processes, not copying practices

Of course, this example by no means suggests running your organization like the U.S. Military.  In fact, I present it with the opposite in mind.  Might all of the Air Force’s processes apply to your competitive, product/service, customer or market context?  Sure.  In some cases.  But cutting-and-pasting these ideas “into your business” might do more harm than good.  Try applying the processes — discovering, analyzing and responding.

The Air Force is providing a very practical group of processes.  All with public relations in mind.  Ultimately, their goal is finding ways to improve recruitment of military personnel.  And that’s a very specific goal.  Sure, it may seem a lot like acquiring customers but it may not be at the “trench level.”

And the Air Force developed all the sub-processes within this system (PDF) through a learning process – not by copying a best practice.  Similar to how you might define a purpose-driven social media process on your own.  Learn.  Iterate.  Improve.

Without a doubt, the Air Force borrowed successful processes from others.  And you too can borrow from the Air Force — apply the broader processes within your business context.  But be careful about copying them in full.best practice social media

“Our brains, contrary to what most people think, have been designed to learn much more from lessons learned… from what didn’t work; from conflicts; from situations that were everything but successful; from what would force us to re-think what we’ve just done and do it better, trying harder next time around,” says Luis Suarez, an IBM knowledge management consultant and blogger.

Indeed, what Suarez is getting at here is that it can actually be easier (more fun, rewarding?) to learn rather than struggle to copy-and-paste practices.

He goes on to note how concepts feeding into a best practice suggest static, fixed, unbeatable, perfect.  Yet those characteristics are not what learning is about.  Acquiring knowledge is dynamic, flexible, modifiable, flowing –- a continuous learning experience.  Its very nature is imperfect, according to Suarez.

Learn to love learning again

Of course, there are very successful businesses selling access to huge libraries of case studies.  They often call some of them best practices.  And that’s fine.  I even recommend you subscribe to a few.  But the good people at companies like eConsultancy, MarketingSherpa/Marketing Experiments and MarketingProfs will tell you the same.  There’s no silver bullet.  Success is earned, not copied.

Suarez prefers to use the term “good practice.”  Because, “There is always room for improvement.  Always!  And that’s exactly where best practices fail to deliver time and time again.”

It’s common.  It’s understandable.  It’s human nature.  But it’s foolish to look for one, singular “right answer” that’s better than all the rest.  Seeking out best practices won’t serve your business very well.  Because the means to understand “what’s right” for your business involves discovery and iterative improvement.  Learning.  No shortcuts.
That’s why successful businesses are borrowing effective processes from remarkable companies who share them.  And applying them within their own context to thrive.

Go get em!

About Jeff Molander

Jeff Molander is the authority on making social media sell and corporate trainer to small businesses and global corporations like IBM and Brazil’s energy company, Petrobras. He’s an accomplished entrepreneur, having co-founded what is today the Google Affiliate Network. He’s adjunct digital marketing professor at Loyola University’s school of business and author of Off the Hook Marketing: How to Make Social Media Sell for You.

Website: JeffMolander.com

Blog: Off the Hook Blog

Answers: AskJeffMolander.com

You can find Jeff on Twitter @jeffreymolander.

2 Responses to Why Applying Best Practices May Sabotage Your Social Media Goals

  1. “feeding into a best practice suggest static, fixed, unbeatable, perfect”
    This is such a tricky field. The rules are always changing so you want to follow some sort of best practices guide, yet you cant follow it too closely or you will risk appearing to be nonhuman!

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