KeyNOTES with Alicia Whalen

When companies want to know how to use social media marketing to not only engage customers but improve their bottom line, they call Alicia Whalen. One of Canada's leading digital marketing experts on how organizations can benefit from the Social media economy, and build successful digital brands.

1. What inspired you to enter the world of social media?

I literally fell into social media early on as I was the director and co-founder of a digital marketing agency – “A Couple of Chicks.”  We also produced a digital marketing conference to educate tourism professionals about digital media and marketing, which was started in 2005 – before Social Media was even a term.  We learned as the medium evolved to ensure that we could evolve our services to support our clients.

I remember the first time I explored Facebook and Twitter, and the first time I saw a client video posted to Facebook go viral right before my eyes.  This evolution in the way we market and communicate has only evolved over the past decade.  I find that fascinating and I am lucky to be along for the ride as digital media has changed marketing and communications like no other in history.

2. As a business, what are the biggest advantages of having an online presence?

It is now simply mandatory to have an online presence for any business.  The most important advantages, or reasons to focus on the digital component of your business as much as other sales and marketing tactics is simple:

3419 billion people across the globe are connecting to the internet while, 2307 billion users are actively involved in social media. 3790 billion people globally are unique mobile users, whereas 1968 billion users are utilizing social media on mobile.”   Source:

This means that a digital storefront - the website is just as important as any bricks and mortar storefront, or office.  Also key to any business is sales.  eCommerce has changed the way customers research, shop and buy all products from Cars to real-estate, to travel.  It is as simple as saying you can’t have a business or a brand now without an online presence.

3. Why is it important for a brand to have a brand voice and what are the guidelines for creating one?

A brand voice should be unique by social channel, and mapped out according to objectives for the brand.  Reach, lead generation, customer success, and public relations are all objectives in social media marketing

Facebook has roots as a pure “social” network where the tone is light, informational and “browsed.”  Twitter on the other hand is more of a PR or communications tool allowing brands to update news, share stories, and bring relevant information to the masses. 

As an example, Twitter has become a part of the way that we consume news media, or follow celebrities.   With these two examples, it is clear that it is important for any brand or business to define the purpose and strategy for posting content and engaging on each different social channel. 

Twitter may be a place to encourage customer Q&A’s, or deal with daily communications or crisis communications (think airlines), and Facebook a place to put “How to” Videos, team photos, testimonials, and alert your community of events or new products.  Listening and responding to Twitter Influencers has become a key public relations tactic for brands in all sectors of industry.

4. What practices should every business embrace to maintain their brand voice?

First, every business must define which social media channels are important to your target audiences and why. Once this is determined, craft a voice and content to support the brand voice accordingly.  Does video engage your users? Photos? Contests? Customer testimonials? Measure, refine the message and repeat.

Measure:  Use analytics analysis including Facebook insights, Twitter etc., and listening tools like Sprout Social or Hootsuite, and most importantly Google Analytics to show how your social communities are contributing overall to driving referral traffic back to the website. Google calls this referral traffic from social media channels “Social Signals”, and this has become part of the algorithm that determines ranking in search.  This in itself makes managing social media an important part of any business.

Refine:  If a brand is not building audience, engagement and increases in traffic back to the point of conversion – no matter what the social channel, the brand is failing.  Unlike traditional media, social media can be crafted, but is presented to be “on the fly” or as part of a conversation.  Building an editorial calendar is effective to keep messaging consistent, but be careful not to simply rely on the script.  Social media is meant to be a conversation. 

Repeat: Watch Facebook insights and other social measurement tools to look for Shares, Likes and views.  Note that Facebook has officially shifted and will only serve “boosted” or paid promoted posts from brand pages to be seen in Fan newsfeeds.  Facebook has become a full advertising vehicle, which means that brand pages that are not spending dollars by “boosting posts” (among other advertising tactics) to reach their own audience, and build new simply will not be seen.  Facebook is not an organic marketing channel as it once was for brands.

5. When it comes to general social media use, what standard practices are sabotaging a company’s success?

Social media is the heart beat of any brand, as it is seen as “authentic” and real time content.  CEO’s should understand this, and allocate the proper resources, and measure the impact of social media programs as part of the whole brand marketing communications strategy.  If social is not managed properly, the brand is at risk of sabotaging success. 

Social media is PR and Marketing rolled into one.  Those responsible for planning and executing a strategy on social media channels must have a system in place, like any other department in order to mitigate miss steps in messaging or errors in tone. A senior level marketer, or communications professional within the organization should oversee social as it has the potential to make or break a brand reputation.

6. Do you believe the success of a business depends on their success on social?

That depends on the nature of the business, but generally yes.  If any large brand or company does not manage social media channels effectively today, it is like refusing to open the front door, or to answer the phone when your customers are calling.  

That said, social media can make the difference in driving more customer engagement, building more brand ambassadors, and hopefully in driving qualified leads to the top of the sales funnel. Social media in isolation cannot make or break a brand – unless it is poorly managed.  If not managed strategically, then it can crush a brands reputation and impact sales.

7. How can a brand use the power of emotions to influence their consumers?

Social media is by nature a medium that showcases sentiment such as “love” “Like” – happiness, humor, sadness or anger.  Facebook recently expanded its like function to include emoticons for Love, Anger and Sadness.  Many brands are leveraging emotions through photos, videos and posts just by nature of what content resonates with their audiences. 

Many brands, such as WestJet Airlines as an example, have been extremely successful in defining who they are as a brand through campaigns such as the WestJet Christmas Wish.  In 2013, WestJet surprised travellers with wishes from Santa and recorded a video of the experience that went viral.  This has become an annual event for WestJet, as they are able to tap in and tug at heartstrings, while building brand values – as well as giving back.   

This year, WestJet took the campaign to the next level by using Hashtagio’s social media platform to pull in over 30,000 posted pieces of content; photos, video’s and tweets tagged with the Hashtag #WestjetChristmas over the 12 hours of Miracles.  This allowed the brand to collect and republish all of the “mini-miracles,” as well as showcase them on their website.  This resulted in increased engagement on the website, and increases in return visitation and sales for the airline.

I can attest to the authenticity and excitement that WestJet employees all feel towards the good that comes from this campaign as I was involved in this year’s campaign - live on site of the WestJet corporate office command central for what they call “Miracle Day”.  I have seen first hand that the key to success is authenticity in leveraging emotions and sentiment.  Every one of the 12,000 WestJet employees contributed to “making miracles,” and to the spirit of the campaign.

8. What is the secret of turning leads into sales through social media?

Strategy, measurement of goals (which should be identified in terms of target traffic to the website, to call or lead generation), and ultimately measurement of conversion.  If brands are not focused on determining the tactics or content that is moving leads from social media, further down the sales funnel into nurture programs, or directly to a sale - they will not be successful. 

This, along with my points above related to management and commitment to tone and authenticity is the secret to success in social media.  Also, marketers must understand that social media is not an “organic” marketing channel.  It takes human and financial resources to do social well.  Investment in listening tools, analytics, community managers, the right type of content – and Ad spend – will all impact how social converts to sales.

9. What online branding trends are out and what trends are in?

I think it is most important to focus on where your customer base is spending their time over what are the most trending channels.  It goes back to basic marketing strategy.  The right message, and the right time, with the right value proposition wins.  Social media is a key marketing strategy for many brands out there – especially those focused on key demographics such as Millenials or the aging population as examples.  This is where brands need to start in determining where to spend time and budget in social and digital.

In addition to that, Video on Facebook, and live streaming video will continue to grow in popularity, and should be part of a social brands content strategy.  A focus on mobile users is also important to brands now as consumers are spending more time on mobile than on desktop.

10. How can a small business start their social media path?

First, any small business should determine which social media channel they need to be actively managing.  If the business is a local organic food market for example, with no sights set on selling online, then Facebook and Instagram are a natural fit.  Note that paid Ads or “boosted posts” on both of these channels are what will work to grow the reach and engagement here.

Organic reach will not happen unless content is heavily shared.  To build even fans for any new business will require a budget and not just good content.  As most small business’s do not have time or resources for managing content on other social networks, it is critical that they stick to focusing in on one or two social channels that will provide brand visibility and leads which may include walk in traffic or email list development. 

The Facebook/Instagram advertising platform allows you to specifically target your perspective audience by factors such as “Fans + Friends of Fans,” as well as by basic demographic information such as gender and age, and geographic location. In addition, Facebook offers powerful targeting also by interest, hobbies, movies liked, other pages liked, profession and more.

Doing social media well is more important than doing it all.  This is the best advice I can give to a small business starting in social media.

11. Can you give an example of a campaign or brand that excels at social media?

I can give many examples of brands that do social well.  The proof is really in the analytics that illustrate an return on investment in human and marketing resources spent on social media marketing.  

ROI is measurable in Social Media.

12. Why are they so successful?

They follow all of the guidelines I have mentioned throughout this interview.  They have proven to be able to use social media channels to navigate both positive and negative situations that relate to their brand, and they have been creative and innovative in their use of social media to position their brand to their customers.

13. How can a small business adapt a big company’s social media successes for themselves?

Everything is to scale.  Just like any large brand, a small business must determine why they need to be active on social media channels, outline a plan for each channel based on which ones will be critical to the success of their business, then work the channel, measure and repeat.

14. What can a business do right this second that can potentially elevate their engagement?

Boost a post on Facebook and Instagram.  It is amazing what can happen when your fans actually see your content in their newsfeeds!  Also, look at Google Analytics (or other analytics platforms) to determine how much traffic is being referred back to the point of conversion (the website, a phone number, sign up etc.) It will be clear by looking at this what the brand should do to elevate their engagement.  If it is not converting to add more likes and shares, and specifically encouraging your customer to continue on to your website, it is not working.

15. What is your number one tip for:

  • Facebook:  Plan to spend some dollars boosting posts and testing Ad products and reach.  At least $10-$100 per week for small business, and up for mid to large sized brands.
  • Twitter: Engage in a conversation on Twitter.  The currency of this channel is sharing and showing your appreciation for content and the tweeter.  Learn the rules for Twitter by watching and listening before diving in.
  • LinkedIn: A must do for any professional, or any brand.  LinkedIn has become a powerful professional networking engine.  Brand reputation here is important, whether it is your personal brand or that of your business.
  • Instagram: Instagram is owned by Facebook.  If you are looking to build reach and leads, make sure to have a budget to boost some of your posts.  Instagram is a great medium to find influencers and identify content that is powerful in creating “emotion” and sentiment around your brand.  Images are powerful, and Instagrammer’s are passionate.  Liking influencer posts and commenting is   critical in really engaging prospective brand ambassadors on Instagram.  A like is currency on Instagram.

Learn more about Digital and Social Media Marketing Expert and Canadian Entrepreneur Alicia Whalen Here