What is social media marketing?

Social media is a part of our everyday life. Roughly half of the world's population uses at least one social network. But social media is not just for keeping up with family and friends. In fact, more than two-thirds of adults in the United States say they have used social media to engage with a brand. Another study found that 53 percent of social media users research products on social platforms.

This is why social media appeals to businesses that want to expand engagement with their customers and reach new audiences. Across all industries, companies use social media to promote products and services, demonstrate expertise, provide customer service, and express brand personality. Social media can be effective for a broad variety of products, both business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B).

If you are responsible for social media at your company, you might think you have to be present on all the major networks — including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. But not every social media network is right for every business. The best approach is to research which networks your audience uses and form a plan for exactly how you will use those networks to achieve your goals.

With a thoughtful social media strategy in place, you can boost brand awareness, increase sales, and get to know your customers better. Engaging on social media can be fun too. But be sure to show that your investments are worth the effort — build a cohesive plan and create a marketing roadmap that visualizes how your social media efforts contribute to your goals.

The benefits of social media marketing

For marketers, the biggest benefit of social media is the range of people who use it. Your target audience is likely active on one or more social networks. Once you identify the combination of networks to use, you can directly reach your prospects or existing customers and improve the following:

  • Brand awareness: Connect to new customers who might otherwise be unfamiliar with your company or products.

  • Community growth: Share company announcements, content, or product advice to build a relationship with both existing and prospective customers.

  • Share of voice: Increase subject matter expertise on topics that are relevant to your customers and brand.

  • Website traffic: Share links and calls to action that drive organic visits, which improves search rankings.

  • Lead generation: Reach new prospects and further engage existing ones.

  • Customer support: Provide timely responses to questions or requests.

Social media conversations happen in real time. So you have the opportunity to engage with your audience when they are highly interested in a particular topic, cultural moment, or question.

These opportunities require careful consideration. Social media is unpredictable and conversations naturally evolve. It is important to align your team around guidelines for interacting with followers, including when it is appropriate to respond. Large enterprise companies often create centers of excellence for social media — ensuring that processes are in place to operationalize those guidelines across many products or business units.


Organic vs. paid social media

Branded social media content can be organic (free) or paid. Most organizations use a combination of both to engage with key audiences and expand their reach. The table below provides additional distinction between the two:


Organic social media refers to anything you post on social media platforms for free. These posts reach your current followers only. But you can reach a wider network if your followers share or engage with your posts. Customer interactions and direct messages also fall into the category of organic social media.

Organic social media is used to increase brand awareness, demonstrate brand personality, promote content, and share important company or product news. It is also useful for learning about your audience, industry, or competitors — by monitoring hashtags, keywords, and mentions of your brand.


Paid social media refers to anything you pay to post on social platforms — digital advertisements or sponsored posts that appear within a user's feed. Typically, businesses use paid social media to target new audiences who would not otherwise see organic posts.

Most social media platforms capture demographic and behavioral information about users. When you create paid social media campaigns on a given platform, you can target your ads to specific audiences based on age, location, job title, and interests.

While organic and paid social media are typically considered distinct approaches, there is increasing crossover between the two. For example, several platforms allow you to "boost" organic posts to paid audiences after you have tested the message with your followers.


How to evaluate social media networks

Most marketers use some combination of the major social networks, such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube. Depending on your market, you might also post to other networks like Glassdoor, Pinterest, Quora, Reddit, or even Tiktok. New social communities emerge every year — many of which are specialized to niche audiences. Sites such as Houzz, Goodreads, or Behance give companies an opportunity to reach people with particular interests, job titles, and skills.

Because of the range of social media networks that exist, it is not always clear which are right for your organization. You might feel pressure to post everywhere. But your prospects and customers are likely only active on a few. The key is to really understand where your target audience spends time and narrow your focus accordingly.

If you are evaluating platforms or looking to refresh your approach, here are a few tips:

Gather data about your audience

Build on your personas to identify key audience demographics, such as age, location, job title, interests, and income. B2B marketers can add firmographics such as industry and company size.

Combine audience insights with research

Some social platforms publish reports about users and their typical behavior. Look at the research to learn where people that match your audience spend their time. You may find that niche networks are popular among your target audience.

Engage in social listening

Social media tools allow you to follow conversations by keyword, hashtag, brand mention, or list/group. You can learn a lot about how your audience engages simply by observing community conversations.

Review website traffic

If you already have a presence on social media, traffic to your website suggests which platforms are most popular among your audience. For example, a "Traffic Sources" report in Google Analytics shows referral sites like Facebook, Reddit, or any other third-party medium.

Ask directly

Sometimes the best way to determine where your audience spends time is to ask them. Poll customers to find out which platforms they prefer and how they would like to interact with your brand.


Making the most of your social media marketing efforts

Choosing the right social platforms is just a start. Like with any marketing activity, you need to invest time to understand the impact. Social posts, content shares, and conversations with your community are tactics. For real impact, tactics need to be grounded in your broader marketing plan — connected to business goals, marketing strategy, and integrated marketing campaigns.

An upside of social media is access to immediate results. Even with a small budget, you can launch detailed paid campaigns and quickly view clicks, shares, and conversions. And you can make changes easily — to test the frequency of posts, calls to action, and various audience targets. Start small, experiment, and adjust your approach.

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