Every company is unique in how it embraces, organizes for, and resources social media in the organization.  Many times these things depend on the company’s specific goals for social media and how confident its champions are that social media will deliver real value.  Some of the common threads among what companies aim to get from their social media work include greater reach for their marketing messages, better understanding of their customer or marketplace, and a community of brand advocates that can either promote or defend the company online.  Unlike many traditional marketing vehicles, these things all take time to develop and nurture.  This leads many companies to ask, “how long will it take until I start to see the sort of high value return I’ve heard of through social media?”

While not a perfect or comprehensive model, the following social media maturity curve answers the question abstractly for most companies.

Social Media Maturity Curve for Companies
In this chart we evaluate Performance, or value to the organization, on the x-axis, and Resources required (being both dollars and time spent) on the y-axis.  The exponentially increasing Performance curve is what draws many companies to social media.  However, the sharp immediate slope on the Resources curve is what prevents many of them from achieving their goals.

The reason for the apparent tradeoff between high Resources but low Performance in the short term is that it takes time and investment to build a social media program correctly.  This time is spent identifying and getting to know the influencers, building trust with the community, attracting the right audience members, and learning over time what their interests are.  Done well, this all leads to an equilibrium point at which you have the right influencers on your side, an audience that has reached critical mass, and a content and engagement plan that is natural and effortless.  This means the Resources required actually taper off and begin to decline.  At approximately the same point in time, the Performance of your social media program will begin to really take off.  The represents a transition from the company needing to act as the main driver of community to serving as more of a support structure as the community builds itself.

The most common reason that companies often fail to reach this equilibrium is a failure to follow the four step process outlined below:

#1  –  Introduction

As with any community, you must begin by introducing yourself.  Part of this process should include identification of the top influencers as well as listening and fine tuning to understand the correct tone or voice that you should be using.

#2  –  Trust Building

Let’s face it – we as companies and marketers don’t have the best track record when it comes to engaging with our customers in a value-added way.  It is necessary that we spend time to build trust that we are here to enhance their online experience, not just to blast them with spam emails (sorry about those), annoy them with pop up ads (our bad!), or enter them into a sweepstakes (does anyone actually win?).  Part of this process requires direct communication with your top influencers to begin building real relationships, and earnest responsiveness to community questions or comments.

#3  –  Promotion

If you have successfully completed #1 and are well on your way to #2, you are probably ready to start promoting.  Consumers understand that companies need to promote themselves – and they join your community in the hopes of receiving some level of promotion.  The key is to identify the right balance between promotion and selfless community engagement and equity building.  This promotional period is where you will focus on mass drivers that are aimed at growing your audience size.  Things like contests, giveaways, and fun gimmicks are a great way to attract new members to your community.  If you have done a good job with the first two steps, these members will actually join and grow with you.

#4  –  Support

Once you have completed steps 1 through 3, you should have a robust community of people who are engaging with one another and relationships with the influencers who are leading.  You should also have enough internal learnings from having listened to and engaged with your community so that it requires less and less resources to provide the same amount of value to them.  You are now at the equilibrium point where the Performance of your social media program takes off on its own accord while the Resources required to maintain it actually begin to decline.  Your role now is to support this community while your customers build and grow together.

Very few brands or companies have successfully reached the equilibrium point today.  Starbucks is one example that has.  Who else?