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The Third Phase Of Social Marketing Is Upon Us: 5 Steps To Get Ahead

It's not about listening to customers, or even communicating with them. The future of social marketing is now all about collaboration.

It’s hard to escape hearing about social marketing platforms being acquired by major tech players these days. In May, Oracle purchased Vitrue for $300 million, in June, Salesforce scooped up Buddy Media for $689 million, and in July, Google joined in, acquiring Wildfire for $250 million. In the past year we’ve reached an inflection point within the social marketing industry. With these three tech giants gobbling up companies, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down—but what comes next?

Before we go there, let’s briefly take a look at how we got here.

Phase One: Social Listening

When Facebook opened its doors beyond college students in 2006 and Twitter began to explode in 2007, a new era of real-time communication was upon us. Seemingly overnight, people had the ability to share what was on their mind at any time with people around the world. This created the first problem and opportunity for brands: listening. Listening formed the building blocks of what would become the first phase of social marketing.

As Facebook and Twitter quickly became places for people to share their opinions on everything from fashion to music to food, it became extremely important for marketers to monitor and listen in on the growing conversations around their brand; companies like Radian6, Crimson Hexagon, and Collective Intellect were founded to do just this. For the first time ever, marketers had the ability to eavesdrop on conversations and get instantaneous and unprompted feedback from consumers.

Social networks quickly became the new customer service channel, places where negative opinions on a new product or botched campaign often resulted in angry online mobs. When the negative tweets began to pour in, brands got serious about listening and responding. Marketers also found they could gain valuable insights on how consumers viewed their brand through listening tools. In both cases, social media was utilized purely as a reactive strategy.

Phase Two: Social Management

In 2008, Facebook launched the brand page and with it a race for marketers to acquire fans. Brands moved beyond simply listening to their fans, and the next opportunity arose: Brands needed ways to communicate with them.

Michael Lazerow, who founded BuddyMedia, originally focused on developing Facebook apps for brands, helping them create promotions to drive this growth. As brands began acquiring fans, Lazerow saw a need for more standardized social management tools.

Along with Buddy, companies like Vitrue, Wildfire, Involver, and Context Optional along with many smaller, still independent players built out their social management platforms. These technology providers focused on making it easier for brands to create and manage content on their social pages. Audience analytics and performance of posted content became key pieces of these platforms.

It is easy to see the parallels between social management platforms and their CRM and email marketing predecessors. While these platforms enabled more personalized communication at scale, like their predecessors they largely focused on pushing content out. As social has become so integrated into our lives, Adobe, Oracle, Salesforce and Google had little choice but to make strategic acquisitions. With Salesforce’s newly launched Marketing Cloud, they have already begun to integrate their listening platform (Radian 6) with Buddy Media and likely have plans for deeper integration with their legacy CRM business.

Phase Three: Collaborative Marketing

What lies ahead as we begin the third phase of social marketing is to truly leverage and monetize the enormous social databases that brands have already began to building. Now armed with millions of fans and followers along with their pre-existing CRM databases, brands have a huge asset at their fingertips. After all of this work, brands are still only in the early days of truly driving business value from their respective social followings.

In this third phase of social marketing, brands must develop strategies to drive deeper participation and collaboration with consumers. Marketers will allow consumers to get up close and personal with their brand, and in return, consumers will provide an endless amount of insight, ideas, and content. Consumers will also serve as a core media channel for delivering a brand’s message. To accomplish this, a new group of platforms will emerge to help brands understand, manage, and recognize their most loyal consumers.

Here are 5 easy steps to begin positioning your brand for success as we enter this third phase of social marketing:

1. Conduct a social audit. Look at all of your brand’s existing communities and databases, including CRM, Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites. Understand who these people are and how and why they want to be involved with your brand.

2. Segment members by role. Every brand will have consumers that want to participate at different levels. Some love to tell you what they think of your brand, others want to shout from the rooftops, while many are simply in it for the perks. Brands need to understand all of these consumer segments and ensure they have plans to maximize the value of each.

3. Focus on the top. While each segment is important, the most important segment marketers need to cater to is likely the most underserved. Facebook, Twitter, and email marketing are great for messaging the masses or the occasional personal response, but lack in their ability to provide opportunities to those who want to be deeply involved with the brand.

4. Recognize contributions. Your consumers know they are adding value to your brand by sharing their thoughts and ideas and spreading the word about your brand. While incentives aren’t always needed, appreciation is. Be sure to pat your top advocates on the back by providing perks and rewards from time to time.

5. Always be testing. In process, marketing in the social age has more in common with technology development than with advertising. It requires marketers to test out new platforms and technologies so they can learn and iterate on possible solutions. Unlike traditional advertising, one can’t get it completely right no matter how focused and detailed—get started and learn fast.

While this third phase may not seem fully realized by brands just yet, it will emerge as a major shift in marketing over the coming year. Brands, agencies, and vendors have worked hard to build platforms and programs to enable listening to and communicating with their social followings. These are both valuable and necessary steps as marketers adjust to the social age. That said, the true fans still hold enormous unlocked value in their ability to serve as real-time focus groups, crowdsourced ideators, and brand advocates at scale. In a few years, marketers who have embraced this third phase will reap the rewards of a collaborative approach to marketing.

Want to know more about the future of social media? Subscribe to Fast Company's daily and weekly Co.Lead newsletter.

—Brandon Evans is the CEO and founder of Crowdtap, an Influencer Marketing platform that enables brands to identify, activate, and manage their influential consumers.

[Image: Flickr user Josep Ma. Rosell]

Add New Comment


  • Theresa J Trevor

    Hi Brandon,
    I have to disagree with Tim.  Traditional media will certainly "live on,"  but it just doesn't hold the power it did even five years ago - research has proven this, as have agencies finding themselves facing more challenges acquiring clients and generating the revenue to which they were accustomed.  For example, when I used to buy radio spots for my clients, impressions were counted as "potential listeners," (the number of listeners who may or may not pay attention to a radio or TV spot that may or may not run when they are listening/watching), which are now counted as "impressions" in social media (how many consumers potentially see a brand's message -- whether they respond to a CTA or not).  Impressions only go so far. 

    This is not to say there are not challenges with social marketing (measuring ROI, correlating 'likes' and 'retweets' and other social shares to increases in brand awareness, sales, etc.)

    Ampifinity falls into a unique, more value-added category that we know is the next stage of social marketing.  Our platform GENERATES social behaviors that can be tracked and measured (Consumer A refers a product to his or her friend.  The friend buys a product.  We can tell you who each person is and how they referred - this is BIG data for a brand).  Brand advocates are capable of amplifying a brand's new products, writing recommendations and testimonials, and generating referrals that we have proven, time and time again, generate more brand advocates (all of whom we can track and build an advocate profile for -- resulting in huge capabilities for future marketing efforts).  This is a no-brainer; motivate your consumers to provide your brand lower-cost advertising and more measurable, value-added results in the long- term.  Brandon is on target when he says that brands must get started, and fast.

    Great article; thank you Brandon.
    Theresa Trevor
    Marketing Director, @amplifinity

  • JEBworks

    This is the inevitable step to becoming a social business. Looking at the social media landscape and most articles on a vast number of outlets, however, I get the impression  many organizations - especially small and medium ones - are still stuck in phase one or the start of phase two at best. With all the technology tools at their disposal, it still requires the right mindset at the top and corresponding corporate culture to really make the necessary commitment to become a social business.

  • Tim Brussels

    How is this any different from what all self-proclaimed social media experts have been saying for 4 years? This philosophy turned "technology" is trying to skim the fat of other social media platforms....but there is no fat to skim. 

    Your "social advocates" or "influencers" create spam that is obvious and annoying, Traditional media will live on. 

  • Richard Cole

    Drucker once observed (words to the effect that) the easiest sale is of the product designed by the customer.  Social media (and particularly social media marketing) should facilitate this paradigm, for sure.

  • Brandon Evans

    Totally agree and the brands that do this will not only have a better product but will start out with a passionate base of collaborators excited to share what they helped to create. 

  • Jeremy Lindstrom

    "Phase Three: Collaborative Marketing

    "What lies ahead as we...that brands have already began to building."

  • Richard Andersson

    Great article Brandon! Maybe just me, but in my view there is a quite difference in perception when it comes to "social [media] marketing" and "collaboration". It might be just different perspective, but when e.g. Gartner is refering to "social collaboration" I am envisioning micro environments for where teams and departments collaborate with internal or external stakeholders, not brands interacting with target market segments. Maybe that is why you are refraining from using the social collaboration concept? Anyway, great read.

  • Donnahover

    Great article! In a B2B world collaboration isn't leveraged due to the competitive nature of organization ideas and perceived intellectual property 'know how'. Collaboration vs non-compete agreements seem to be very popular within a certain age group in the B2B environment. How do we get past non-competes and move closer to a collaborative business environment? Or are these two very different things? Social media seems to be the grass roots of collaboration, as we get to the C-suite collaboration is a foreign concept. Where is the line?

  • Montse Cano

    Thanks for this post. However, hasn´t collaboration been key in social media? I follow you because you provide me with useful content, and the other way around.

  • Brandon Evans

    Unfortunately no, not at all, especially with big brands. I have been working in social marketing since the start and though people talk about how this open dialogue has the ability to change things in a big way, most marketers still use it to broadcast out messages to their fans/followers as well as customer support. Truly collaborating with your advocates, giving them a real voice, recognizing them and making them a part of the brand and its marketing is something different. While there are certainly some marketers (many of them small brands/shops) doing more of this, the potential is far greater than what has been done to date.  

  • Viola Tam

    Very insightful post, Brandon!

    Brands, agencies, and vendors are working together to build platforms and programs for mutual support. By listening to and engaging with eaxh one's existing followers, everyone wins!

    I believe that now is an amazing time where 'ordinary' entrepreneurs can leverage on each other's knowledge and skills. You are right! I believethat this is "both valuable and necessary steps as marketers adjust to the social age".


    Viola Tam - The Business Mum

  • Frank J. Kenny

    Great insights here Brandon. 

    Businesses that create true relationships, at scale, with their raving fans will find that the business' story has a much easier time breaking through the clutter, leading to more awareness and more raving fans. A virtuous cycle that can't be achieved without executing well at your #3 and #4 points. Frank 

  • Jason Miles

    Hey Brandon, great article. 

    Quick question regarding your terms - Can we call it 'social marketing' now...instead of 'social media marketing' ? Traditionally 'social marketing' has referred to non-profit related marketing...but I think it is time us social media folks took over that term, and started using it as you have in this article ... (did that already happen and I missed the memo? Or are you on the cutting edge)? 

    I'd love to hear your thoughts, if you're willing to let your article comments address that topic.

    Jason Miles
    Co-author of Pinterest Power

  • Brandon Evans

    Great point and exactly why I have pretty much always referred to it as Social Marketing. Social Media Marketing implies that there is some separate channel where social lives and that it is in fact "media" which really is not the correct way to view it. Unfortunately as you state, most probably still do refer/view it that way. In any case, glad you are onboard in changing the vernacular!