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How to Create a Social Media Budget and Then Give Away Control of the Message

April 20, 2009

Vanguard U MySpace“Social media marketing is free, right?”  That was a question from the audience at the OC Ad Federation’s social media panel discussion on April 16 (see post, Building Your Brand Through Social Media). Andy Wiedlin, VP for Sales at MySpace, responded, “No, social media is not free.  It costs money to do great things.”

But of course. Even though social media may be free to use, it requires both tactics and design just as other media. For-profit and not-for-profit organizations are trying to figure out where the budget for that work will come from.

In a blog post titled, Developing an Appropriate Social Media Budget, author, Lisa Braziel, gives an answer that would have more fully satisfied that audience member’s question. She says that a social media campaign budget is likely to be funded by a reallocation of a company’s digital marketing budget. “The other approach,” Braziel says, “is to develop a social media budget from additional funds in the overall marketing budget–usually an amount that is set aside to ‘test this social media stuff out.’ Either way, very rarely does a company rally for additional funds for a social media campaign, so it is likely for a company to pull a chunk of traditional budget out to dabble in the space of social media for a period of time.”

The post resonated with me because it accurately describes how as chief marketing officer I took the plunge and decided to invest in social media marketing. It was early 2007, and I had been hearing and reading a bit about social network marketing. I was meeting with my friend, Josh Mooney, from Juxt Interactive. Juxt had already built an award-winning website for us, and he was relaying to me how ad dollars were increasingly going to social media, and that I should carefully think about it because our university’s prospective students and students were hanging out in social networks.

At that point, there weren’t very many examples of universities formally wading into the evolving social sphere. Remember, this was early 2007. It was pretty much MySpace alone that was the social space for high school students. As our marketing and enrollment leadership researched and discussed it, we saw that social media was the future, and that we had a chance to get into it before our competitors. So, I made the call that some of our new ad dollars would go to MySpace–instead of traditional advertising–as a strategic first step into social media marketing.

Importantly, we saw this exploration of social media marketing as not about having our university’s corporate and recruiting side represented in MySpace. We realized that authenticity was crucial, and that this space had to be by and for our students and prospective students, which fit the MySpace experience.

So we reserved some budget for small stipends for three students who would commit to making the university’s MySpace their own. We gave them carte blanche, and they proceeded to blog and use widgets, video, etc. on the site. It was their site about the university, not ours.

Many universities have waded into social media marketing by creating a corporate presence in Facebook. That’s fine. But doing that won’t work as well on MySpace, and if that’s all you do, I question just how much you’ve really invested your institution in social media.

In order to create a competitive MySpace presence, we hired Juxt Interactive to create a cool site for students and prospective students; really a template for our students to create our university’s MySpace presence. Juxt created an award-winning site for us that went online in August of 2007.

Although I am no longer at the university, I know the site continues to be successful. While it’s a model I would still recommend for marketing higher education, there is so much more that’s creatively possible given what’s happening today. But the intelligent tactics and creative design of those possibilities will not be free. It takes a financial commitment to do great things in social media, and a willingness to give away control of the content for the sake of engagement and transparency–two payoffs not seen much in traditional media.

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