Social Media as Marketing Tools for Photonics and Laser Technology
In recent years, social media have attracted enormous attention. Some of them have gained huge numbers of participants, and millions of those use these media very intensely in various areas of their lifes. The influence of social media is nowadays even used for political purposes; carefully crafted campaigns are even made in attempts to substantially influence election results.
You might now think that something which seems to be powerful enough to manipulate elections and thus endanger our democracies should also have the power to effectively support your marketing. That is not so clear, however – or at least not so easy. Besides, at least some social media (particularly Facebook) are losing a lot of sympathies because of their detrimental social and political effects; you may take that into account both as a citizen and as an advertiser. By the way, this is one of the reasons why we have not yet ultimately decided how much we should ultimately invest into a good social media presence.
This article is not thought to provide you with detailed instructions of how to do effective and efficient social media marketing and photonics. You will easily see that this would be a topic for a whole book, not just an article, and that book would need to be updated quite regularly. And honestly I cannot claim that I am an expert in this area. However, you may find it useful already to get some thoughts about how such things work in principle and what the typical challenges are.
By the way, you may also interested in my more general article on photonics marketing.
Social Media Profiles
Participation in social media usually begins with registering so that you get your own personal profile, and consequently also to create a profile for your company. It works like that in Facebook and LinkedIn, for example; they offer profiles for persons and “pages” or “company pages” for institutions – actually not only for institutions, but also of special activities. So you may create a page for your company and in addition one or several pages for certain subsets of your offers. Obviously, one should carefully work out a strategy before starting to create pages.
Once you have a personal profile, you can usually set up a company page with a moderate amount of work. That is certainly no one-time task, however; you should regularly post new items to keep your pages interesting. For example, if you publish a newsletter, you can post announcements of the newsletter articles there. That is relatively quickly done – not much work in addition to writing such an article. By the way, you should properly make use of hashtags.
You then obviously want many people to visit your page, and that is the actual challenge. There are different ways of achieving that:
- As a person, you can try to intensively interact with people within the social media system, motivating them to look at your pages, and if those are sufficiently attractive, they may “like” or “follow” them, come back and most importantly share the information with their friends. Although that strategy can definitely bring some results, it is obviously rather time-consuming.
- You may use resources outside the social media website – for example, your own website – to lead people to your social media presence. However, do you really want them to move away from your website? You might try to get both, e.g. hope that they will continue browsing your website but take a note that they can follow you on social media as well. They may then use your current postings as reminders that it is worse to have another look at your website.
- You can use social media advertising to drive people to your profile and/or pages. That costs money and also some time but can be more effective in getting many people to your pages. You find more details on that in the next section.
Of course, you should have a clear idea of what exactly you would like to accomplish with your social media presence. It could be just to achieve some branding, i.e., creating a good image of your company and its products and making people remember your brand. You may also want to get more visitors to your website that way – maybe even that they directly purchase items there. But such effects do not just arise automatically – you have to work for them. In the last section of this article, I discuss setting up a social media strategy towards such goals.
Principles and Challenges of Social Media Ads
The essential asset of social media like Facebook and LinkedIn is not their large number of participants, but rather the enormous amount of detailed data on their participants. They can use those data for offering targeted advertising. For example, you can define an audience with criteria like age, profession and certain interests. That can enormously raise the value of an advertisement per view (impression) – provided that you are really given the tools for sufficiently precise targeting (see below). Therefore, a campaign with a moderate amount of impressions, which can be delivered at a moderate cost, can in principle have a substantial impact.
The by far biggest social media (in terms of the number of active participants) are those which are not specialized to a certain audience like the photonics community – think of Facebook. Some small fraction of their users has an interest in a specialized subject like photonics and laser technology. You probably want to further narrow down by requiring that in addition to photonics they have some other interest.
For example, imagine that I would like to start a Facebook advertising campaign for attracting people to my articles on photonics marketing. I can easily select the interests “Photonics” and “Online advertising” for people within Europe and the United States; they do offer those keywords. It would now be great to select all people who have indicated both interests. Exactly that appears not to be possible at Facebook, however; they only offered to get those who match at least one of those interests, and that lead me to an audience of 15 million people! One may just hope that they would be so kind to use a limited budget by targeting only those who fit best, but can you trust that they will do that?
I have some doubts. For example, recently I did a small campaign for test purposes where I selected people from anywhere in Europe combined with certain interests. After the campaign, I found out that the vast majority of the targeted people were located in some poor Eastern European countries like Kosovo and Mazedonia, while only a tiny minority of them were people like Germany, France and Britain. Obviously, that campaign failed completely. I can only guess that Facebook may have used a reasonable distribution of the impressions, but for some strange reason the vast majority of clicks was done in the mentioned poor countries. It is hardly credible that most of the European laser enthusiasts are sitting there …
Although there are other social media channels like LinkedIn which may be better suited for certain professional topics, it appears to me that the general problems are the same. It is not easy to select exactly what you want – and presumably they are not keen to offer that, since they prefer you to accept a much larger audience and correspondingly larger budget. By the way, LinkedIn's company categorization scheme is relatively crude, containing nothing specific like laser technology, photonics or optics. (Our indicated industry is “computer software” – the best match I could find, but only fitting one of several activities of RP Photonics.) Generally, with such social media it is not easy to find out exactly what can be done and how it works, and often enough the rules change, so that you have to analyze your options again.
For such reasons, if you think that you could easily get nicely targeted ads on their way, you may quickly get disappointed:
- There are often quite limited ways in which you can combine selection criteria.
- You may easily get completely unexpected results without understanding why.
- It takes considerable time to study and understand your advertising options, test them and refine your methods until they work properly.
Certainly, one can get better with some experience and when using certain interesting features. For example, some social media allow you to enter a list of companies or persons, from which they can select some (or take all); it may be called a custom audience. That way, you can make sure that you don't waste ads on people for whom they are not relevant. However, you then obviously lose the valuable ability to get new people or companies whom you don't know already. At least, that may work well in some cases.
Social Media Marketing Automation Tools
It is often said that social media are all about interaction with people – usually understood to be in the form of a personal interaction. Although you can surely generate leads that way, it is obviously a strategy which takes a lot of working time. Therefore, various people have started offering or using certain tools for social media marketing automation. Those come in various forms, but the basic idea is to have software, driven by certain algorithms, which can automatically perform certain actions – e.g. make certain postings – which would normally be done by real humans. Normally, they try to conceal the fact that postings are made by software robots, or at least try to make them such that the users are satisfied. For such purposes, postings may be personalized based on personal information which can be extracted from the same social media or possibly even from other sources.
Another technique is automated following, which can be done with additional apps. The basic idea seems to be that if people see that you are following them, they might consider to follow you as well. With an expanding group of followers, you may get more attention for your messages. However, such techniques do not only come with questionable promises, but also really undermine the concept of a social medium. For such reasons (and more which you find below), I can't believe that such things have a future; I would therefore recommend not to waste time on such techniques.
Social media bots may also be used just for selecting suitable target persons e.g. for specific advertising campaigns. It is known that such techniques have been widely used e.g. in attempts to influence elections in the United States and other countries. They have used “big data”, i.e., the statistical processing and analysis of huge amounts of personal data, e.g. for identifying certain correlations between innocent-looking criteria and the susceptibility of people for certain political messages. In that way, they have tried – apparently with substantial success at least for some of those operations – to precisely target people such that a substantial political impact can be achieved with moderate financial resources.
Educated people should agree that those practices are evil, sometimes even damaging the foundations of our democracies. However, there are different reactions to that concerning the only use of social media. One might argue that if a tool is abused for certain evil purposes, it may still not be unethical to use it oneself for innocent purposes. For example, one might use the LinkedIn Sales Navigator for identifying people whom one might contact with some probability of success.
However, there are also other concerns about such techniques (although they do not apply to all cases). One of them is that given their serious abuse by some people, you may risk your own reputation by also using them. Another concern is that there is normally a substantial lack of transparency concerning what exactly those tools do, what data are collected and stored at which places, what are the possible legal implications etc.
Personally, I am very skeptical about the use of most marketing automation tools. For sure, one should not expect that smaller companies could use them for achieving efficient advertising campaigns with less work. Considering the substantial work to analyze exactly what is available, how it works, what implications it has etc., it seems to me that such tools actually guarantee a lot of work, while the outcomes are uncertain.
Data of the users are the essential asset of social media platforms. You may think that this is not problematic in terms of privacy, since users may enter their information just as far as they want it to be published. That view is much too superficial, however. There are a lot of data which have neither been directly entered by users, nor are they directly published, but nevertheless used in some often not very transparent ways. That way, social media platforms often get into serious conflict with modern privacy regulations such as the European GDPR. It seems to me that some of their practices will not just have to be slightly readjusted, but totally reworked or even given up.
As an advertiser, you may simply say that it is their business to respect legal boundaries or to face the consequences of not respecting them. However, I believe that this is a too narrow view. I would not want my company to engage with platforms which are dubious in some way. I am therefore carefully watching the further development and will draw my conclusions concerning further participation or an extension of our activities.
Creating a Social Media Strategy
I suspect that many companies have set up a social media presence without having a clear plan what to achieve there with which means. It is just not easy at all to develop and implement such a plan. Well, one can of course start out without a detailed plan in order to establish at least something – I also did it that way – but that is not likely to bring substantial benefits.
Quite clearly, successful social media marketing requires a clear strategy, including answers to the following kind of questions:
- Which social media should I choose for certain campaigns?
- How should our profile pages be optimized not only to please people, but also to motivate them for things like visiting our website? What new content can we regularly post on the profile to keep it interesting?
- How should concrete advertising campaigns be designed? You will see that it depends very much on the particular task which types of ads can serve the purpose efficiently.
The complexity of the task is considerable. For creating such a social media strategy, you have to collect a lot of detailed information – for example, on what exactly is possible on various social media channels – and then process this information in complex ways, e.g. finding out what method can fit which your particular purposes. It is very hard to estimate in advance how well certain strategies can work, unless you already have detailed practical experience. Even with substantial experience, you will often able to start some test campaigns, analyze their results e.g. after a few weeks, and utilize the gained insight for the next campaigns. And quite frequently the platforms change their rules, so that you have to reevaluate your decisions and adjust your measures.
I think it is completely unrealistic to think that one person in a company – possibly even one having many other tasks as well – would be able to work out such a plan within a reasonable time. Therefore, one will often need specialized external partners. So the first step would be to identify suitable social media experts, hoping that they will perform well; finding such experts is itself not a very easy thing, and of course it is essential to get some who are really good at their job and offer fair conditions at the same time. Therefore, the cost and the amount of work will inevitably be substantial.
It is then not surprising that many companies (including ourselves) work without a comprehensive social media strategy. Given the large investment of time and money, combined with unclear chances for success, it is not clear for most companies that this is the way to go.