I have been wondering about our (Text 100’s) social media practice for sometime now – are we offering social media marketing? Or is it an extension of our PR practice – PR using/ via social media? How do we bring clarity to this query, if posed by a prospective client?

Without getting deeper into the academic meaning, in my mind, PR is the act of influencing a target audience to start having a positive disposition towards a product, brand or a service. Marketing, on the other hand, is a set of activities that aid/ result in an action – usually consumption of a product or a service, and leads to a business transaction. But, within the scope of social media, these definitions take on different manifestations, depending on other factors.

Jennifer Mattern’s November 2007 post on the same topic tries to differentiate the kind of online tools deployed to perform online PR and internet marketing. She lists, among other tools, paid advertising, link exchanges and paid search placements as part of the internet marketing roster. Press releases, search engine optimization and email newsletters are listed under online PR tools. While I no doubt appreciate and look up to her opinion, I beg to differ. Considerably.

To start with, the lines are indeed blurring, but that is primarily because of the way one or more of the above tools are utilized. There are 3 primary criteria to distinguish social media PR and social media marketing.

Criteria Social Media PR Social Media Marketing
1 Intent Participate Push
2 Message Helpful Imposing
3 Approach Converse Broadcast

As you may see, much of these differences are implied more from the perspective of etiquette and primarily hover around the intention of an engagement. Hence, I would give up on conventional meanings of PR and marketing, and perhaps redefine them, within the premises of social media.

Intention and message
Its not just via the tools used that one differentiates social media marketing. Invasive and manipulative tools like banner ads, text link ads and search engine optimization could also be used for social media PR – the difference lies in the intention. So, if the banner screams of a product with a creatively conceived caption, I’d call it Social Media Marketing – simply, the online equivalent of an advertisement. But, if that banner talks either about an activity built around a community that uses the product (that brand/ any brand) or a facet of using the product, I’d perceive the intention to be ‘helpful’ and participative, or at least inducing participation. This, to me, is Social Media PR. However, the credibility factor does seep in, much like the perception about paid advertising and PR-generated visibility, in the real world.

Real world PR and Social Media PR
Many Social Media PR outfits (including Text 100’s social media practice) use a standard Listen – Prepare – Engage model. This is no rocket science – it’s plain PR process. Listening is researching about a potential target influencer(s). Preparing is assimilating such research and planning a set of tactics for engagement. Engagement is execution of the tactics, while concurrently performing the listening function to track progress. In the real world PR scenario, these actions would translate into reading about a particular journalist and creating a profile on the kind of topics that interests him/ her; creating pitch notes about a client in a tone and manner that would get the journalist’s attention; and, pitching the story and create a passage of controlled communication between the journalist and your client. It would be of little surprise that the Listen – Prepare – Engage model is primarily followed by traditional PR outfits trying their hand at what is generically assumed to be social media PR.

Its essentially the same – just that we have more people to pitch to. But, the other significant difference is the availability of an extensive array of varied engagement tactics. How does a PR firm engage with a journalist? Press release? Press conference? Relationship meetings? Product reviews? There are more, but Social Media PR offers a whole lot more, besides these conventional tactics. Most of them involve making your presence felt, in a non-imposing, friendly and peer’ish way.

Required – a mindset change
Its no secret that brands want to be present and featured in print and television media. But, to make its presence felt in social media, brands need to adopt a different mindset – be human and be honest. Social media is about people, while brands are incidental to the people who participate on behalf of them. Social Media PR intends to bring about this change in attitude by connecting the right people from the brand/ product/ service to its target communities – existing or specifically created.

There are minor overlaps too, in the adoption of tactics. For instance, if a product chooses to offer a discount to a particular online community’s members, the tactic itself is definitely Social Media Marketing, but I would consider it as a tool, with an ulterior motive of winning the favor and trust of that community, and create the online equivalent of word-of-mouth. Of course, if a generic offer (available offline too) is merely plastered on the online community’s forum, it is plain, intrusive marketing…better still, spam.

A Social Media PR’s engagement arsenal is akin to an advertising agency’s campaigns. While the listening program is a basic, sustenance activity, very vital to build and gather knowledge, the campaigns can achieve specific objectives, if handled tactfully, adhering to established rules and etiquette of target communities. So, while the listening program continues the ongoing conversation between the brand and its target audiences, keeping the channels of communication open, the campaigns should infuse fresh ideas to build a deeper connect with the brand and grow/ strengthen the community. These target communities could reside in any or all of the myriad online social media tools.

The commonly used tools of engagement include,

  • RSS feeds
  • Email subscription
  • Blogs, blog comments
  • Microblog streams (Twitter)
  • Self/ remotely hosted discussion forums/ message boards
  • Online groups
  • Social networking platforms
  • Social networking aggregators
  • Virtual worlds
  • Audio (podcasts) content
  • News sources (Google/ Yahoo News)
  • Social bookmarking sites
  • Social news sites/ aggregators
  • User review forums
  • Photo/ video sharing sites

How these tools are used is where a social media PR outfit can differentiate itself. These tools are available to everyone – and its the creativity of a social media PR team that makes all the difference in creating – let me quote my own phrase here – a positive disposition towards a product, brand or a service.

Photo courtesy: Harawish via Flickr

Recommended reading:
1. Is social media the same as marketing?, Beth Harte
2. Online PR Vs Internet marketing, Jennifer Mattern
3. 5 problems with social media *marketing*, Sampad Swain