You Don’t Need a Social Media Strategy

I am speaking this morning at the IABC Social Media Conference.

The topic of my presentation is “Leveraging Social Media to Build Brand”.

Here’s my overall premise (which might get me kicked out of the conference)…

You don’t need a social media strategy.

You need a brand building strategy.

…which you effectively activate using the most appropriate tools available (including in many cases Social Media).

If your goal is X amount of Twitter followers or Y number of followers on Facebook, I believe you are destined to fail.

It’s like stating your goal is to go to an Ivy league school, with no plan whatsoever on how to get good grades, or distinguish yourself in extra-curricular or community service activities.

If you want people to “friend” you then be an interesting, useful, fun, compassionate person.

In other words, be someone that most people want to be friends with.

At Virgin we’ve had a rather rapid learning curve on social media (and we’re still learning).

When I joined Virgin about 3 years ago, most of our brands were just beginning to dabble in this realm.

Now thanks to all the efforts of the crack teams at the various businesses, in the US alone we have 400,000 (and growing daily) friends, fans, and followers on line.

But I wouldn’t say we  have a formal Social Media strategy.

We have smart and creative people at each of the Virgin businesses that are focused on doing what they’ve always done- building great brand experiences and find clever and impactful (and cost efficient) ways to market them.

And they are doing this in many instances by applying Social Media.

And understanding and leveraging what’s so unique and powerful about this medium (e.g. immediacy and 2 way dialogues, etc.).

I  think a tunnel vision focus on Social Media is a bit dangerous.

I believe instead should focus on brand building and then leverage Social Media tools to accomplish this in new, exciting, and often measurable ways.

So here’s a brief summary on what I will be covering in my talk:

5 Tips for “What Works” in Social Media


I believe the best way to get people buzzing about you on line is to give them an experience that exceeds their expectations and is buzzworthy.

Virgin America is a great example of this.

From the moment you step on the plane you know that something is different.

The interiors have leather seats and incredible mood lighting (so you don’t feel like you are about to have a kidney removed when you walk on board).

There’s an interactive RED In Flight Entertainment System that allows you to order food and drink directly from your seat, whenever you want to during the flight.

No more waiting for the stewardess to arrive with the cart and no more blocking of the aisles just when you want to use the rest room.

And to top it all off, Virgin America were one of the first airlines to offer inflight wifi on all the planes.

So you’ve got this amazing experience and with wifi at your fingertips so many things to tweet and or blog about.

And not just typical airline stuff like whether there is enough legroom- but more buzzworthy stuff about the food and drinks (you should try the absinthe), the lighting, the leather seats, the seat to seat chat etc.

All of these little touches add up to a terrific and very buzzworthy experience.

Not surprisingly they’ve been able to create a lot of fans who spread the word through Facebook and Twitter, urging others to give the brand a try.

But the goal was to create an airline people love.

Not to be blogged or tweeted about.

That’s a nice result of the harder work of really re-inventing the domestic airline experience.


Social Media is rooted in engagement and entertainment.

And just like you wouldn’t want your real life friends to always be bombarding you with deals and offers- you don’t want this from the online brands you be-friend as well

Sure there are times when announcing a fare sale or phone deal is appropriate and useful information.

But it’s also important to communicate in ways that are just for entertainment and fun or to make a connection.

Virgin Money’s promotion last Thanksgiving called “Pass the Thanks” is a good example of this.

People were invited to share a moment of thanks (at a difficult time in the economy) and to post a picture and a brief statement about what they were thankful for.

It was fun, quick, and attracted attention from the financial blogs like Net Banker .

But the primary motivation was to share a meaningful moment with customers, not to market to them.


Virgin has always prioritized Brilliant Customer Service. It’s one of the brand’s core values.

Social Media offers new avenues to deliver this.

Virgin America which I mentioned has on flight wifi has had the opportunity to leverage tools like Twitter for real time service recovery.

For example, while on a Virgin America flight, a passenger Tweeted about not receiving a meal they had ordered. Virgin America saw this Tweet and called the cockpit to have a flight attendant bring the meal.

Another example is the Virgin Mobile Angel.

Virgin Mobile has always had Angels, real life young women who attend Virgin Mobile events (like the Festivals) and help answer questions or surprise and delight by giving away free stuff.

They’ve brought this Angel to Social Media with the VM Angel on twitter @VMAngel. She is a real employee who answers customer care questions for Mobile users.

It personalizes the service and contributes to a positive brand experience.


Virgin’s cheeky, real tone of voice is a key part of the brand vibe.

Social media, given its casual nature and emphasis on authenticity, is a great opportunity to continue to leverage this brand differentiator.

Case in point, Virgin Mobile Canada had a Screw You Recession blog over the summer (www.ScrewYouRecession.CA) where people would share real world tips for getting by in all aspects of their lives.

This provided a fun outlet for the frustrations lot of us shared and created a sense of community and solidarity.

Similarly, we try to keep it real in customer service.

There are times despite our best efforts where things don’t go as well as we like.

When we receive complaints via any medium (email, Tweets, Blogs) we empower customer care employees to do the right thing and to communicate in a respectful but human voice (not a customer service robot).

Richard Branson, the founder and visionary behind the brand, has also embraced blogging and Twitter as a way to keep in touch with the brand’s fans.

He regularly Tweets on a wide range of topics.

Everything from who he is rooting for a cricket match to why he was fasting for Darfur to how he was spending time recognizing our top Virgin Stars employees.

He has one of the highest followings on both and Twitter of any of the Virgin brands.

He has always loved connecting with people. Social Media provides more ways for him to reach more people with a personal touch.


Virgin has always believed in partnering with like minded brands.

Not necessarily big brands but brands that share the same philosophy to customer service and have a similar brand viewpoint.

It’s why Virgin America carries Method Soap in the airplane lavs.

In the social media space it’s no different.

And we realize we have a lot to learn. So we’ve pair up with brands like Google who have more experience in this space.

During November and December Google is actually picking up the in flight wifi fees for on all Virgin America flights.

On and Virgin Atlantic we partner with other entrepreneurs like Tony Hsieh the CEO of Zappos to answer questions about launching businesses.

Virgin Atlantic Pitch TV also allows people to upload videos asking for funding and a select amount of these (voted on by other viewers) are shown in flight on the entertainment system.

These 5 principles are basic branding how to’s.

Many strong brands follow them off as well as online.

The key is to stay true to who you are and what you know works for your brand.

And then use all the tools in your toolbox to bring the strategies to life.

And Social Media offers some great tools today, and some we haven’t even begun to dream of.

Deliver the goods and the fans and friends will follow.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?
What are your best practices for social media?

37 thoughts on “You Don’t Need a Social Media Strategy

  1. i agree. social media is not a strategy, it’s a new communication method. cart: meet horse.

    Granted, it’s interactive (the audience talks back – oh no!), but the same principals apply. All of your brand’s activities, online or offline, must support your brand’s development and strategy. otherwise, you’re wasting time and money and can be damaging your brand.

    It’s also incumbent on brand managers to be realistic about the potential to use social media tools for their specific brand In this case, placement can be everything. Be honest: does your brand really need a Facebook page? does anyone want to have your brand in their “private” space? if not, maybe you’re better off focusing on providing a content-rich website and e-newsletter that meets the needs of your market.

    Just my $0.02

  2. Great post. I don’t willingly spend time with people that I don’t connect with brands, and similarly don’t willingly spend time with brands I don’t connect with.

    Sometimes when I see “superficial” brands that say “follow us on twitter” or “become our fan on facebook” I want to reply, “why should i bother? you haven’t given me a reason to care…” Substance still counts.

  3. Had the pleasure of seeing this prezo in person. My primary impression is Virgin demonstrates “Social” offline as well as online. Cool company…and I will give them a look the next time I book! Julie Cottineau is spot-on with “Connect (Don’t Market)” which she demonstarted on her feet in the Q&A about what a shoe-brand should be doing in SocNets. Nice job overcoming some Sound/IT issues to leave the audience feeling a good bit wiser as we left the room.

  4. As with anything new there is always the temptation to see it as a panacea but as you say it is just another tool along with a whole arsenal of connections that you can make with your customers and clients.
    It’s an old brand buzzword but ‘touch points’ comes to mind. The more that you have, the more channels of communication, the better.
    We’ve been talking with our clients about ‘dialogue’ which implies the to and fro of conversation and interaction that one gets with a face to face, one to one conversations; at the end of the day I think all these online tools are a way for us humans to make up for distance when all they really want to do is get some face time! This post have given me a great reason to follow you too. Proof of the pudding?

  5. Yes it’s just another platform to deliver your brand. But if the core is rotten there’s no value to share, no way to engage, and no chance of the content being shared. You’re lucky to have a great brand (that *has* talkability) to deliver. Now, how would an airline like Ryanair deliver something I wonder.

    I think your key point is that you need to have intelligent, on-the-ball people in control of your brands and how those are delivered, whatever the platform. You also need to be prepared to listen, learn and evolve rather than fear the social space. Again, as relatively light and informal brand, Virgin is able to jump in and take a risk that others potentially wouldn’t.

    This however is epic. Just wow.
    For example, while on a Virgin America flight, a passenger Tweeted about not receiving a meal they had ordered. Virgin America saw this Tweet and called the cockpit to have a flight attendant bring the meal.

  6. Well said Julie. “Joining Forces”, to me, is the basic premise of all social media. It’s about connecting to and with people. Too many brands consider it a popularity contest.

  7. Great post! You need a strong core story before launching a social media campaign. That campaign needs to be part of a well thought out brand strategy. Without the story and the strategy your brand message could easily be hijacked and then you have to spend time cleaning up the pieces.

  8. Seriously great post. Thanks for sharing this Julie!

    I totally agree that brands need to have a development plan that includes (most likely) some social media marketing as some powerful tactics to an overall brand strategy.

    Why twitter if a brand has no call to action though? (Insert fun promotion here!)

    Info and news sharing is really important for breeding trust and equity with a brand as transparency becomes a must for business in this climate, but a great website and newsletter, as mentioned in a comment to this blog post, can do that job nicely as well.

    One important thing to keep in mind though is the easy and unique comment feedback loop that social media offers. Plus, it’s pretty easy to feel safe as a consumer with such a uniquely permission based marketing environment. Tired of an overflow of info that has no relevancy to you? Unclick here and remain anonymous – that’s the beauty of social media marketing for consumers. They either like you or they don’t, and you will know which it is if you simply listen.

    Flip side? Voice your e-WOM easily as a consumer (e-WOM means e-word-of-mouth) and spread your experiences. Think again if you think your brand is safe from negative (or positive) exposure online. It’s a free world of communication out there, don’t be mistaken!

    Embrace SMM today and be glad you did now before brand advocates do for you without your knowledge!

  9. That’s an interesting take – I was tempted to call that arresting title as misleading, but on second thought, you do have a point. When I consider any strategy around brand building, it should ideally mean that social media is just one of the ways in which the strategy is delivered. Good point – thought-provoking.

  10. Hi

    Completely agree with the bulk of your article.

    One question – what does Mr Branson tweet as? I found some fake ones…

  11. Amber. I agree that you’ve got to embrace SM. Your consumers are going to have the conversations with or without you so it’s much better to be in the loop. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  12. Olly, I totally agree it really comes down to the having the right people at the helm, making the right (human) decisions no matter what the medium. Thanks for commenting.

  13. I think the most important thing here is to love your brand and be so passionate about it till you won’t let anything ruin it. Social media is a tool, and the way you use this tool is important to decide how people perceive your brand. Be real is a good point, connect not selling.

    Thanks for the great post Julie.

  14. I’m not convinced by the tile or your overall argument Julie, Media is now being pulled back into all the major agencies AGAIN as a strategic and creative resource and not as execution tools, If you don’t understand the context and the content you will never create e-VOM not sure why that’s not called viral or trial but anyways. Case in point two ideas that reposition two very big brands, They both had huge increases in sales and won all the major awards.

    The T-Mobile Dance

    cadburys gorrila drummer.

    None of these were created for TV and all had at the heart of the brand “social media” Cadburys now thinks of its brand agency not as strategy ideas agency but as a Content Production Engine.

    Think again, and learn new ways to create and build brands
    and Open a Banana Like A Monkey

  15. I understand your point of view on this, but I also think you’re in a very unique position as a Virgin employee. As someone said earlier in the comments, Virgin does social both online and off. Extending that brand experience online by way of social media tools was probably easier for Virgin than it would be for most businesses, especially for those not used to that type of environment.

    For companies that are not inherently social by nature, I think developing a social media strategy makes complete sense. Managers DO need to think strategically about how they will take an organization that has been operating on traditional business principles into this new medium. What will it take to open them up to this type of interaction and direct feedback with their customers? Those are things many companies absolutely need to plan around.

    However, the number one thing I take away from your post is the fact that social media does not live off on its own. It most certainly needs to be integrated into everything else the company is doing–from marketing to public relations to product development. Though at the same time, determing that level of integration could all be part of your social media strategy. 😉

    Great post. Too bad I couldn’t have seen the presentation in person.

  16. Thanks Mike. I appreciate the comment. I do agree that you need to think strategically about social media (particularly if it is very foreign territory for your business as you mention in your comment). But I find too often people just rush to jump on the bandwagon without thinking it through.

    Just today a friend of mine who has her own PR firm said her senior client was pushing the staff to get a corporate Facebook page up ASAP without any thought/direction as to what purpose it served. All he kept repeating was “we need one.”

    Hopefully we’ll get to meet at another conference.

  17. Provoking (and true) title. Very nice, complete, legible and clear post, thank you Julie!

    As with many other hypes, people mistake a new means for a new goal
    Then the hype’s attacked by other people who say that it is useless because it’s not going to save the world, doesn’t have a clear businesscase or ROI, etc
    The answer then is that it’s not a goal, just a means, that can use new methods that have to be pondered before implemented right away

    And then, after long debates and disagreements and the creation of new “camps”, we end up selling the new hype as either means or goals or any half-hearted solution in between – and missing the goal nearly completely (sigh)

    Posts like this keep the frenzy out, and help to prevent this last phenomenon. New technologies are NOT an excuse to -again- try to impose your failed marketing, business or IT strategy on the same or different poor souls by entirely focusing on the new sexy ways in which you can do it

    Thanks again!

  18. I think most business (as always) over complicate themselves and focus superficially on the numbers, they get stuck in the echo chamber and forget the basics. But I think you’ve just nailed it in the head with:

    ‘Be someone that most people want to be friends with.’

    It’s as simple as that.

    This should be the starting point for everyone instead of just publishing stuff out there and seeing what happens or following some tired old best practices.

    We’re still humans sitting behind a PC or phone and enjoy people who are fun, interesting and useful just like in the offline world.

    Great post!

  19. Carlos — Another thanks for the video tip, hadn’t seen that one.

    It’s tempting for brand strategists to argue that everything derives from the brand because, in the end, it does. But that doesn’t mean that online socialization is not also strategic, even if it can be characterized (in a somewhat reductive manner) as just a new toolbox.

    A brand strategy alone, no matter how comprehensive, is not going to contain enough obvious implication for how to use social media such that channel or platform strategies are unnecessary. Businesses do need social media strategies (those that align with their brand strategy, naturally), as well as practical best practices such as Julie has outlined here.

    Our venerable host has taken a perfectly good primer on how to socialize a brand and tucked it under an arch headline, one that is not so much misleading as it is irrelevant. I suspect the indulgence in a bit of semantic somersaulting is for the purposes of drawing convention crowds.

    Perhaps, Julie, you should write about the relationship between advertising and content 😉

  20. Hi. Russell.

    It seems you are on to my devlish ways.

    The provacative title was less to “draw convention crowds” and more to draw intelligent people such as yourself into the debate.

    Glad it worked 🙂

    I do believe you need both a brand strategy and a creative strategy (and kick ass executions in both SM and good old advertising).

    But I was in some ways exaggerating to point to combat the rash of “get me some social media” I keep hearing lately as reactive to the buzz all around us and with very little thought as to how it fits into the overall brand objectives.

    Thanks for commenting. And great blog BTW

    I will definitely follow. So I guess my irrelevant headline had a positive result for us both.


  21. I saw that you found me, Julie — quick work!

    I meant ‘irrelevant’ as in a semantic disconnect rather than an intellectual one (i.e. the question of whether we’re talking strategies or tactics is ultimately irrelevant).

    I just found BrandTwist and I’m delighted I did — too few strategists are able to come up with cogent, practical guidelines that businesses can really use (sheepishly raises hand admitting to bouts of cerebral theorizing). Your clients are evidently in good hands 🙂

    Thanks for the kind words

  22. I agree with parts, however by listing out 5 points is that not a strategy in itself? You are right that is should not be passed on metrics, numbers of users. But maybe the engagement %. How much do you actually engage your followers, fans etc.

  23. Hello Julie,

    A thought provoking article!

    I think the wave of naive consumers signing up to see you brand may have crashed to some extent, if consumers do sign up to follow your brand the worst thing you can do is bombard them with sales messages. But tread softly and you can still introduce a killer offer and have it welcomed and endorsed.

    I’ve been looking around at what companies do with on-site social media integration. A lot of people are introducing non integrated iframe style social media packages. Why do I want to sign up for email services, blogs etc? I’ve already got a facebook account, twitter etc. I think that might be partly what you mean by the potential negative effect of a social media ‘strategy’.

    The over-used 90s term was community – that’s what social media could really deliver for our customer bases. It’s more than just reviews – it’s recognising ourselves in others. Like it or not most of us, feel safer in the herd and like to follow the majority (or at least watch what they are doing). Just viewing other customers’ personal pictures gives us a wam glow.

    But is anyone out there really linking this to their product? I’m sure it can be done in a value added way but I haven’t yet seen anyone do it well. Or do you feel they should be separate?


Comments are closed.