How to build a truly actionable social media audience

social media audience

By Mark Schaefer

If you’ll oblige me, I’d like to start with a little story from a conversation I had recently with a woman who had a disappointing experience after taking an online class on how to monetize through webinars.

My friend followed the advice from the class with engineering-like precision and nothing happened. Several webinars. Few attendees. No sales.

So she asked me what I thought was wrong. And I said that the reason it worked for the instructor, and probably didn’t work for her, is that the instructor been doing this for a decade and she is known, and has a large, passionate audience that is ready to buy from her. She has worked consistently, diligently, methodically for years to build an emotional connection and trust with an audience that is now actionable.

My friend really had no audience like that. She was at the beginning.

For most people, it takes years of work before you can hope to monetize an audience. And it takes more than just building Twitter followers. If I went out today and asked my Twitter followers, ‘Hey everybody, buy my book’ here’s how many books I would sell. None.

Most of the connections we build on social media are weak relational links. It’s a beginning. It’s a handshake. It’s an introduction to people we never would’ve met before. But you have to spend that time  to build true relationships that are actionable.

One of the biggest myths I face as a marketer is the customer’s idea that simply building any kind of social media audience correlates to business benefits. Make no mistake, building a social media audience is a good start. It opens doors to a world of potential, but that is all it is — potential.

There’s no shortcut. Over time, we have to build an actual emotional connection to our audience that turns potential into something actionable.

Of course in business there are many ways to build those relationships. When I started out, this meant phone calls, meetings, client dinners, even hopping on a plane. Thankfully, the internet has put a jetpack on those networking efforts and a combination of social media and content has made life easier.

Today, we can effectively build global connections — even loyalty — without ever meeting somebody. We do it, over time, through our content:

emotional connection

Let me give you an example of how this works.

Three years ago, the London-based CMO of a Fortune 500 company learned about me from Twitter and began to read my blog. I didn’t know he was out there, but through my content, he began to discover my thinking, views, and values. Since he was connected to me, he learned that I had a new book out in 2015, The Content Code. I know this for sure because he sent me a note telling me how much he enjoyed the book — the first time I had heard from him.

A few weeks ago, he hired me to conduct a workshop with his global content team at the company’s headquarters … and this is the first time I ever met the man. What are the lessons from this success story?

  • I created content consistently. One or two blog posts would not have built the emotional connection and trust that led to action.
  • My content was meaningful and relevant to this man, my target audience.
  • This relationship took more than three years to result in a business benefit.

Leads versus relationships

When it comes to content marketing, there are two distinct camps. Let’s call the first one the Hubspot model. The goal is to create short-term leads for a room full of telephone sales people. There’s a place for that kind of business but your sales and marketing costs are also astronomical (which has been well-documented in the case of Hubspot).

The other option is to use this content to build real relationships. Frankly this does not fit well in our culture of quarterly-driven sales goals, but for those who can patiently built an emotional connection instead of a “lead,” it can produce dramatic results … if you are willing to put in the time. Here’s an illustration of the process:

emotional connection graph

The goal of any business is to increase the level of engagement with our customers over time by providing opportunities for them to know us, and connect with us in deeper and deeper ways. Historically, this has come through advertising, or in the case of B2B, industry conferences, phone calls, and meetings. Today, we can also provide those provocations through our content.

But, it takes TIME.

The first stage is AWARENESS. At the bottom of the curve, our potential customers are just learning about us and considering whether they want to stick around. This is a non-actionable, weak relational link.

The next stage is RELIABLE REACH. At this point, a customer is following us, subscribed to us, maybe even engaging with us. We are building trust.

What an opportunity. We are building trust with strangers! Over time, perhaps many years, our fans are in a position to finally buy something from us. We are building a deep connection that may even transform to loyalty. At this point, our audience is actionable. They’re advocates and they can’t get enough of us!

Content marketing is not the answer for everybody

Contrary to what some gurus may tell you, content marketing is not for everyone because not every company has a culture that can sustain something like this. Many, many companies are stuck in the advertising/broadcasting mode trying to shout their way to glory. Don’t get me wrong. Advertising still works really well but we are also moving toward an ad-free world. We need alternatives.

I recently coached an entrepreneur who had a desperate cash flow situation. He had written 12 blog posts. “When do the customers start coming in?” he asked me. This poor man has followed some bad advice. I told him the truth. The strategy isn’t going to work in a month, or maybe even a year, because the emotional content that leads to an actionable audience has not been established.

Successful content marketing is a complex cocktail of positioning, consistency, quality, SEO, social media, engagement, analytics, and more. But most of all, it takes patience to build a truly actionable audience, not merely a bunch of social media followers.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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