08/23/2011 10:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Stop Poking, Start Personalizing

Being popular used to be a lot easier. It used to be more feeling than fact. But now with followers and friends, people and businesses can, for the first time, quantify their popularity. This also has meant that all types of content, even down to status updates, are under pressure to generate feedback and forwarding. Let's be honest, how many of us judge content by the number of its "likes"? I certainly do.

At EF, we recently released a marketing campaign, called "This Is My Story," which reached millions of viewers and participants, creating and sharing their own videos, worldwide. It's part of a new wave of advertising, like the famous Old Spice Man, driven not by views and clicks, but by personalization and social engagement. Here are some guiding principles that helped us create a social media success.

1. It's not me, it's you

This word play on a time-tested, cliched phrase accurately describes the most obvious rule of social engagement. Social isn't about your product -- it's about your customer and how your brand aligns with their online identity. That's why consumer-facing companies have been the first to successfully adapt to this new medium. Google's Parisian Love or Nike's Write the Future campaigns highlighted their missions of helping their customers search successfully or excel athletically.

Building a social engagement campaign requires companies look to their core mission. For EF, we recognize our customer's potential and give them the tools to build a successful future. To help celebrate and encourage our students, we created our campaign "This Is My Story," a glimpse of both our and their hopes for the future.

Too often, companies will attempt to artificially insert themselves into conversations. A recent example was Microsoft, upon Amy Winehouse's unexpected death, tweeting that customers ought to buy her album from their store. Microsoft soon apologized for the statement, but its faux-pas underlines how social networks differ from other channels -- in contrast, brick and mortar stores might very easily display Amy Winehouse CDs more prominently in stores without facing backlash. But brands that push sales and product using social media must be careful not to overstep the boundaries of consumer values.


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2. Keep It Social, Stupid

Let's say that you've been successful in a social media marketing campaign. You've engaged your customer by connecting with their online identity and your webpage's view count is growing. Now what?

First, let go of the notion that you need to somehow "harness" this audience to drive sales or create a brand-centric online community. If you think about how you socially engage with a new acquaintance, you would never immediately ask for contact details or ask them to become your fan. Unless you are already a powerful consumer brand, a privilege only a small proportion of companies can claim, explicitly attempting to use your audience as a free sales force undermines your legitimacy.

Our marketing campaign, This is my story only asks a user for the very bare minimum of personal information. After we have earned their trust, users are encouraged to share their personalized videos through email or their own social networks. Ultimately, it is the user who decides whether or not to share their video, and to whom. In doing so, we respect the user in the sharing process. Our job is not to push them to share, but to create content that is worthy of sharing.

3. They Don't Call It Viral For Nothing

A virus is something infectious and easily transmittable. Your content needs to be highly communicable, regardless of the social networking platform. Viral doesn't do monogamy -- loyalty to one social platform won't get you anywhere. Depending too heavily on a single network potentially means that those outside the network will have a poor experience and leave with a bad impression. Your social media campaign may end up bringing you customers from unexpected corners of the globe, with varying access to parts of the Internet. A successful campaign may be shared by Chinese users through microblogging or by stay-at-home mothers through email. So build your campaign on your own web properties. Sharing links is simple, understandable, and universally accessible.

It doesn't stop there. There are still useful rules for sharing sites, regardless of the social network.

A. Shorten Links: While shortened links started with twitter, the value of having a simple, clear link is universal. Avoid having customers confused by a paragraph-long link or having your link being hidden behind a url and make sure that any page you want to share has a short url.

B. Add sharing buttons: "Like" or "tweet" buttons are now fundamental to the web and lower the sharing barrier to a simple click.

C. Design fun page titles and use cool images: Most social networking sites will pull your title and an image for display in their news feed. Particularly if your campaign is built on Adobe Flash, make sure to design an image thumbnail.

Like Me!

Finally, social engagement is still more of an art than a science and its definition unclear. Making sure your content is personal, social, and flexible are important rules of social media marketing etiquette, even if they won't necessarily produce an overnight surge in sales. In the meantime, exploring the waters of this new platform remains an incredibly exciting time for those of us trying to reach out to consumers.

In the meantime, please click your like button. I'll be closely monitoring your engagement.

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