UPDATE: For a more comprehensive overview of 10 SMMPs, please check out this new post for a downloadable report.
Total read time: 4 minutes (italicized highlights and chart); 15 minutes (full post)
It seems that every new marketing campaign comes with an accompanying Twitter account. In addition, the customer service department needs a couple (or many) distinct accounts. And certain key individuals, like your CMO, need their individual accounts. The slow creep of campaigns, positioning, and different department needs continue to expand, and suddenly, you realize that your company has a couple dozen Twitter accounts, several Facebook pages, and hundreds of personal accounts across multiple social networks.
The reality is that all of these accounts are needed – your product manager has a different focus than your customer support team, and you don’t want to mix together messages directed toward journalists with that campaign you did targeting stay-at-home-moms. But, you can’t even remember all of the handles, much less the passwords.
It’s time for a social media management platform.
The Basics of Social Media Management Platforms
Social media management platforms are designed to:
- give one person the ability to manage multiple accounts
- give multiple team members the ability to manage one account
- coordinate social media participation in a planned, coordinated manner.
They are a critical tool for serious marketers to use social networks to their full potential, and the need for these tools is very real. Social media management is more than a complicated headache-inducer; managing multiple distinct social media accounts is a point of failure for your business.
Scores of startups are jumping into this space to make social media management easier and more, well, manageable (if you’re interested in seeing just how large the landscape is, Jeremiah Owyang maintains a list of providers). So, there is a lot of choice in this space.
But don’t wait until you are juggling many accounts before selecting a platform. When you are preparing for a campaign launch, you want to be able to launch new profiles smoothly. Take the time now to get familiar with your options.
A further caveat: once you make a commitment to one of these tools, you will spend a lot of time in it. Think of this decision less like a first date, and more like a marriage. It takes hours of use to be able to use these systems to their maximum benefit. And there will be a learning curve with using each of these tools.
I have been briefed on, and tested out, a number of different platforms. These services are adding new functionality weekly, so it’s difficult to pin down one platform that will be best for everyone. We are in a period of rapid development in this ecosystem, and you should expect substantial change yet to come.
That being said, I can recommend several platforms in this space that have robust features (“the ugly” talks about the design and usability of the tool):
Strengths and Weaknesses of Recommended Tools
Hootsuite started as a Twitter account manager, but has offered integration with a number of other platforms (including a beta of WordPress). Their tool has an outstanding UI and a strong set of functionality, especially with multiple teams managing accounts. You can create an account “owner” that has the highest level of permissions, then assign rights to others – one group for standard updates, and another that has permission to modify the account on the social network. This is particularly useful with admins for Facebook Pages, where you want to allow wide latitude for certain team members.
Hootsuite offers its own URL shortening service – http://ow.ly. While this seems convenient, because you can just paste a long URL in for automatic shortening and insertion into your Tweet, there are drawbacks.
By default, ow.ly places a referral bar at the top of the URL – this practice does little for the user, and pushes some of your landing page content below the fold. (As of about 5 minutes after I published this post, ow.ly does not include the referral bar, but there is still only proprietary shorteners available from within the interface). I don’t use ow.ly, even when I use Hootsuite, and even though it means a couple extra steps.
Cost: The full Hootsuite functionality is free, which also makes it compelling. They do charge for their iPhone app, and they have a Pro Certification that has a monthly fee.
CoTweet was designed for enterprise users from the start, and that makes it a particularly well-tested tool. The team management functionality is well rounded. Also, CoTweet offers the ability to assign follow up for responding to individual tweets, so it’s particularly useful for customer service organizations. Surprisingly, it’s also very useful for marketing organizations, too. Product and promotion managers can be assigned different engagement tasks based on their product knowledge.
CoTweet was acquired by ExactTarget in early March, so if you are already an ExactTarget customer, this solution becomes the natural choice. Expect their product roadmap to integrate social media management and email communications more tightly, and even to be able to manage both from the same interface by 2011. I wouldn’t be surprised of they renamed the product ExactTweet, either. It’s just begging for it.
Cost: CoTweet used to cost $1.99 per user, per month, but since acquisition, it’s now a free service. In the future, look for multiple account levels, some of which may require the use of the ExactTarget email platform.
Formerly TweetLater, SocialOomph has the oft-reviled “auto-follow” functionality. Auto-following may be out of vogue with the tweeterati, but for some marketing initiatives, it is still the most appropriate policy.
SocialOomph is missing the strong team management capabilities of the above platforms, but they are the ultimate solution if you are a one-person show. They also have an annoying layout, with precious screen real estate taken up by a banner ad recommending someone for you to follow, and a left nav that has a narrow font and low contrast, making it tough to read. While the back-end coding is solid, the usability of SocialOomph is hampered by these annoyances.
Where SocialOomph excels is in campaign planning. All services offer a scheduling functionality to send your Tweets later. But, SocialOomph goes one step further, by offering a queue feature.
You can create a queue around any theme or idea, e.g. “links worth sharing,” “retweets,” or “registration reminders.” Each queue has it’s own automated publishing schedule that you determine, e.g. “every 12 hours,” or “every 15 minutes.” Then, you can feed multiple queues into one Twitter account.
This is powerful because it allows you to conceive of a persona for your account, and ensure that the account behavior is useful for the target audience; and their “email when dry” function makes it easy to see when you need to get cracking and create some more content for a queue.
Cost: SocialOomph has a free plan, which is fairly limited, and a pro account that costs around $30 per month.
Spredfast is an impressive new player on the scene (this is relative, of course, since the oldest of these services is less than two years old). They have an extremely easy-to-use interface, and impressive analytics capabilities.
All of these tools offer basic analytics, like number of clickthroughs, based on data provided by the shortening services. Spredfast takes these several steps further. First, they track the number of followers you have, and the number of followers that any users that retweet your post have. That way, they can give you a true picture of total impressions.
They also automatically create unique short URLs for each network that you post on. So, you can post the same link to multiple social network profiles, and the system automatically creates unique tracking for each network. If you have created dozens of tracking IDs, then shortened each one, then pasted each into its own social network update, you will understand what a time saver this is.
Further boosting their analytics is the ability to integrate with Omniture, WebTrends, and other full-featured analytics tools. Most social media management platforms can integrate with Google Analytics, but few offer such robust analytics integration.
Cost: Spredfast has three tiers of pricing (the base product is free; the most expensive, which includes team workflow and management, is $100/mo). They charge on a monthly basis, per campaign. This is particularly useful if you have campaigns that will be active for a brief window, allowing you to scale up or down easily.
Some Final Considerations
Expect continued development in this space, with new features coming online very quickly for the next 6-12 months. More importantly, expect consolidation and acquisition in this space, as established analytics players, email management programs, and others look to integrate existing tools with their core products.
It’s important to understand the ecosystem and viability of these services because the health of their organizations will determine how well they are able to support and integrate new social networks in the future. Look at how Friendfeed has stagnated since they were acquired by Facebook; they have not removed services that are now out of business, and they have not added important new platforms (thanks to Chris Messina for this graphic; side note: check out his full, exciting presentation from SXSW here):
Networks that have a more personal bent – like Tumblr, Posterous, and Google Buzz – are strikingly absent from most of these platforms. This may or may not be problematic for you. Around 62% of social sharing from influencers happens on Facebook, so if you have a brand that is broad in its appeal, any of these tools will serve you well.
But, if you have a specific niche social network that you need to integrate with, because you have substantial audience there, you may need to look at another management platform, or create a status update workflow document that moves status updates between platforms using a custom feed solution, like Yahoo Pipes.
What social media management platforms do you use? And which would you be interested to hear more about? Let me know in the comments.