7 social media questions every startup should ask

In many ways, social media and startups are a match made in heaven.

If you’ve ever tried getting a centuries-old multinational bluechip to behave like a human being – let alone a sane, helpful and curious human being – you’ll understand that having a small team of passionate people with something new to offer the world gets you off to an above-average start.

But if you’re that small team of people, social media can feel more like a clamouring pit of demons determined to suck your resources, your reputation and your soul into oblivion, all for… what?

A few lukewarm reviews from grammatically challenged bloggers? 25,000 Twitter followers, all of whom are perfectly lovely, but bewilderingly reluctant to shell out £15 a month for your Kate Middleton geolocation app?

So for the sake of your sanity, not to mention all those poor bastards about to be served your ‘inspiring’ Facebook ad, it might be an idea to ask these seven questions, pre-tweet.

1. Do we have confidence in who we are?

Ninety-nine point nine percent of social media problems (personally verified stat) arise when businesses either have a muddled idea of their identity, or are too afraid to commit to it online.

So: why are you here? What three words sum up your character? What do you have an opinion on? What do you hate?

Most startups are so terrified of alienating potential customers (standard defence: “but our target audience is everyone“) that they end up with a bland stream of blah. If you don’t have anything nice to say, excellent; why not say something helpful or honest or thought-provoking instead?

2. What do we have the resources to do well?

First, create a product or service so amazing that people will naturally be compelled to talk about it. Second, spend fifteen minutes each day using free tools such as Hootsuite or Social Mention to listen to your target audience.

Only if you have leftover time and budget should you consider wading into the conversation, and if you do, less is definitely better. Don’t commit to Twitter customer service if you can’t cope with the volume and speed of enquiries. Don’t create a YouTube channel if you can’t manage a video a month.

Pick one platform that fits your startup’s personality and resources, and focus on being stand-out brilliant.

3. Where are we going to have the biggest impact?

Note the wording of this question: not where offers the potential for the biggest impact, but where are you actually going to achieve it. The answer to the first is always Facebook (900,000,000 estimated unique visitors this month); the answer to the second is nearly always anywhere but.

Even if you have piles of spare cash to splash on gaming its algorithm, Facebook is a highly personal space and an uncomfortable fit for most brands. Be a bigger fish in a smaller and more relevant pond. If design is your thing, build up a following on VSCO Grid. If you appeal to IT geeks, get involved in Spiceworks. Flogging macho wearables? Try Gentlemint.

4. What proportion of owned, earned and paid content do we want?

Sure, shell out on lots of promoted posts (paid), and publish plenty of content on your social presences (owned), but don’t kid yourself that equates to word of mouth (earned).

For a truly effective strategy, you also have to invest in the tricky business of advocacy – delighting people so much they want to recommend you in their own social spaces, without being bribed or coerced. That’s really hard, but it’s worth it. Start by reading Elizabeth Minkel’s essay ‘To build a fan base, it helps to know what it’s like to be a fan‘.

5. Can we use social media to do what we do better?

You may have noticed that there’s quite a lot of content doing the rounds of social media already. Moreover, branded content has to compete for our attention with stuff from people who a) we know and b) aren’t trying to sell us something. That means you really have to earn your place in the sandpit.

Don’t try to be our ‘friend’ – find a way to use social platforms and mechanics to create a better product and/or deliver it in an easier, more personalised way. Year on year, Topshop’s London Fashion Week campaigns are a great example of how to use social to deliver on a USP.

6. Do we believe in this enough to accept qualitative measurements?

Facebok shares and Instagram followers are numbers, yes. And yes, they make nice charts. But you’ll still have a hard time proving how they relate to your bottom line, and that’s because, generally, they don’t.

The most valuable win in social media – the spread of heartfelt and positive word of mouth beyond your control and purview – is the hardest to measure. If you don’t believe that advocacy is worth it, you’ll focus on what gets you big metrics, which will lead to impressive-sounding but effectively hollow results.

7. Who do we love?

When was the last time you had a great experience with a startup in social media? When was the last time you thought ‘wow, I’m so damn glad those guys have a Twitter feed’?

Call bullshit on generalisations and question what you as a social media user personally find helpful, inspiring and influential. Then steal and adapt the best bits, although be warned: neither Innocent nor Burberry are acceptable role models. The former already have too many twee soundalikes, and the latter have squidruple your budget.