Breaking The Rules of Social Media
How To (Successfully) Break The First Rule Of Social Media
How To (Successfully) Break The First Rule Of Social Media

Rules can be helpful, but they can also close your mind to possibilities and immobilize you. When it comes to social media, the first rule you’re likely to be told is this:

“Never start a social media initiative until you know your objectives.”

Not only do I believe that it is possible to break this rule (and still be successful), but in two situations, you are better off if you ignore the rule.  The first situation is when you are so stymied with how to get started and fearful of getting it wrong, that you end up sitting on the sidelines. The second is if you have tried using social media but are disappointed in the results because you thought you’d get thousands of Twitter followers in short order or have your video go viral, ignore the rule and start over without expectations.

Recognizing an opportunity does not mean that you can predict how it will play out

At Lion Brand Yarn Company, when we first started getting into social media, we had some ideas about what we might achieve, but our involvement was sparked mostly by the realization that something significant was happening in the world of marketing and we wanted to be part of it.  In my last post, “What to Expect From Your Corporate Blog,”  I wrote about the fact that we outlined our objectives, but truth be told, we only had some vague ideas about what would happen –which is why I shared the details of what we discovered only after we launched our blog.

We started with little more than the sense that listening to and talking to customers in ways that drew back the curtain on who we were, and allowed for real conversations with far flung customers would be a good thing.  We liked the possibility of creating relationships directly with customers. Back then, that was pretty much it for our objectives.

We worked with an agency that helped us get our blog and podcast set up and give us some guidance but then they pushed our boat into the water and we sailed off on our own.

“Done is better than perfect”

I recently toured the Facebook offices and saw that saying on their walls.  It reflects their philosophy of constantly moving ahead to try out ideas. Facebook has over 2,500 employees and yet they are a nimble company. If a programming team believes they have a credible idea for improving the site, they code it. No committees, no position papers, they just write code and they ship.  As a result, sometimes Facebook presents users with confusing and frustrating new features, yet they still manage to eke out a user base.

It helps to have a corporate culture that allows experimentation and we have that at Lion Brand, along with a CEO who is willing to listen to his Marketing VP pitch an idea and then trust his gut that it is worth a shot.  It helps that the out-of-pocket costs were low and when everyone pitches in in the beginning, you can get started without extra staff.

Rather than asking yourself, “what are we going to get out of this?” proceed with the following question in your minds as you create content and interact with readers: “How can we be helpful to our customers?”

If you are a nimble business or an agency with a client who has not been willing to take the leap  into social media,  go ahead and break the rule.  Don’t ask what you’re going to get out of your social media initiative because every business must have some presence in the social media arena.  Just go forward and create content that will be helpful to your customers  on YouTube, a blog, Facebook or Twitter.

Two years ago when we set up a Facebook page, we paid an agency to write up a 10 page paper for us about how a brand should create a page and give us some ideas about what type of content we might provide, along with some ideas for promoting it.  It was not an expensive proposition.  Today we have over nearly 175,000 likes.

Instead of focusing on what’s in it for you, focus on how to behave.

We were guided by these words, “be generous, be honest, and be open.”  Next, we let our customers know what we were doing and made it easy for them to connect with us.   We mentioned our social media presence on our website, in our newsletter and in our catalog.  We did that for months and what we found was that we had built an audience and they were telling us things about themselves.  They liked the links to certain videos, they preferred the blog posts about a particular topic or they commented on a particular type of Facebook post many times more than average.  Then, we just gave them more of what they wanted.

When you behave in these ways, your audience consists of people who believe in you, come to you for information, guidance, ideas, and assistance.  Note the words, people who come to you. That’s because you earned their attention. It is the attention of people who you want to serve that is of value.  It’s the most valuable commodity there is.

Next, evaluate what came of your social media efforts; how they supported, fed from and amplified other marketing efforts.

When we looked back and asked ourselves what worked and what didn’t work, we realized that we made the right decision.  The key was the attitude and the approach we took: to behave as a helpful, trustworthy company. There is a great deal written about social media marketing, but the fact is that when you get involved, you are going to find that things move quickly and there is plenty of uncharted territory.  You are not going to be able follow someone else’s rules. Your business is unique and your customers are human beings whose behavior is not always predictable.

Yes, you will need to justify the time and money you spend on your social media marketing efforts but you don’t need to pretend that you have it all figured out before you start. Planning is good, but making the effort with the right intentions and the right frame of mind is better.

About the Author

Ilana Rabinowitz
Ilana Rabinowitz is the vice-president for marketing for Lion Brand Yarn and blogs about social media at Marketing Without A Net. Rabinowitz approaches marketing with an uncompromising focus on the customer and a grounding in psychology and neuroscience to understand what motivates people to make buying decisions.  She believes that businesses need to develop their own media as a means of creating a branded experience for customers.  She has spoken at digital marketing conferences including Web 2.0, Blogher Business and Internet Retailer. She is the author of a book about psychology, a book about mindfulness and co-author of a book about the culture of knitting. Follow her on Twitter at @ilana221.
  • Dzy Muñoz Cadungog

    I totally agree with this. Social Media Marketing is such a help. however,thinking it through and plan it well before executing is better. always plan ahead of time to what to post in social media. either a blog or a picture etc.

  • crm solution uk

    what are your social media metrics in order to gain more audiences and likes and shares? Thank you, ive been looking on how to provide leads coming from Facebook and other social platforms.

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  • I loved this understatement, “As a result, sometimes Facebook presents users with confusing and frustrating new features, yet they still manage to eke out a user base.”  I wouldn’t mind eking out a user base like that :)  Good points, though.   First step to success is simply showing up!

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  • Very well said. I totally agree. A lot of businesses try to target social media nowadays because it’s where the bulk of the people are and of course, it has become one of the biggest trends for shopping, other than the fact that it has become the fastest way to communicate to others. But I guess, some entrepreneurs fail to assess how social media is affecting their sales that they forget to recognize the other methods for better marketing strategies.

  • This is great stuff Ilana! I found this from’s Sunday roundup.

    I couldn’t agree more with your main thesis — We tell clients this all the time.

    Going along with your idea of having the thought: “How are we going to be helpful to our customers?” (which is brilliant) — We tell clients to focus on adding value to the customer, potential customer, and even competitor.

    The point is, if you are always adding value, making money becomes easy… this principle holds true in blogging, information products, and pretty much all aspects of life (IMO).

    Great stuff Ilana – best wishes, Arsham

    • Ilana Rabinowitz

      Arsham, thank you so much for your generous compliments. I like your point about adding value. It really does work everywhere. Thanks for adding your thoughts.

  • I’m here via @nittyGriddyBlog if you keep track of things like that.

    I see people jump into this and try to get everything done at warp speed w/out really building relationships. Maybe if you are monetizing you feel this sense of urgency, but it shows and this is not appealing to me.

    I came in w/ very low expectations and w/ a little luck have been able to connect w/ a really strong network. More of a plodder, but now that I have my base I can think about where I want to go with it. At least now I know I have an audience that knows me.

    It’s been a fun journey so far and I’m always interested in other people’s experiences.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Ilana Rabinowitz

      Thank you for your comment and for sharing how you came here.
      At this point in the history of digital marketing, I think it is time for businesses to jump in to social media. While it’s important to get in (already), with that said, building relationships takes time. One has to search first for the people they want to connect with, listen second for what the conversation and learnings might be and jump in with helpful, supportive content last. I urge people to get in the game, do the right thing and the benefits will present themselves.

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  • I like this it really puts into perspective, get the ball rolling and focus on keeping it on track once its going.

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  • Great article. I love the saying from the Facebook office too. Especially helpful for an ocd perfectionist like myself lol

  • Christopher J Hewitt

    Very Cool Article ……Reminds me of Nike……Just Do It!

  • Ilana Rabinowitz

    I think you captured the issue by pointing to “the middle way” of marketing. It’s also true that the rules of social web engagement are still being written, but I’m pretty sure that years down the road, there will still be widely differing opinions on how things “should be done.”

  • We seem to be in danger of moving from one extreme to another. A few years ago – and in some people’s minds still today – it was all about how social media is free and easy. You just start tweeting and posting on Facebook and in no time the positive results will follow. All this, without any objectives or sound strategy, just tactics galore.

    Now, some seem to advocate an approach that starts with practically a corporate re-organization effort, mission statements and more before you even think of starting any activities. While I strongly encourage anyone to start with the question WHY? before the HOW? and WHAT?, that does not mean paralysis by analysis but taking a look at some fundamentals and asking these questions before jumping in blind.

    The most effective approach lies somewhere in the middle based on using common sense and experimenting with some trial and error but moving forward. Let’s remember, the rules for social web engagement are still being written and are far from being cast in stone.

  • “Done is better than perfect” – I love that! I often finding myself hesitating over the “Send” or “Publish” button, then catch myself at it and just hit the button. Even if an article might lack the final sparkle I think the honesty will shine through.
    Your policy to be generous, helpful and open is the best there is.

  • This is one mind opening article. Others want to play safe but you know how to outwit the game. Like you’ve said having objectives plays a vital role in social media. Having this would make it easier approach to your goal. “Effort with the right intentions and the right frame of mind is better” quoted nicely.

  • On point, so many times folks want it all played out on paper and no risk, I am like-really? … then why did you go into business? It is not a risk free action.

    If we could predict customer & client behavior we would be psychics not marketers-Shazam!

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  • Social media is effective way to connect with potential customers. We have created our Facebook fan page and your post really would help us to. We are learning how to use Facebook to improve our customer base and this post is really very helpful. Your insights are really good and very helpful.

  • Ilana,
    Great post. I was just working on a strategy today, and got to thinking that it’s not a bad idea to get out and play and test the waters. Because as you point out, until you have some experience with what you’re dealing with, it’s hard if not impossible to know what’s worth doing, and what’s going to work for you. Until social becomes “real” to your business, it’s challenging to set realistic objectives.

  • Sarah Tebbe

    Ilana, I think you had great insight on how to break the first rule of social media. When starting something new, working out the kinks is important. But if you are being genuine and learning how to get involved with your community and showing how your company wants to communicate with their customers, your social media initiative will be very beneficial.

    • Ilana221

      Sarah, Thanks for adding your thoughts to the conversation. We all learn as we go. The important thing to do is to regularly analyze the results, both qualitatively and quantitatively to continuously improve.

  • good read totally agree on the bit about being open and honest, if you don’t prepare to get your backside smacked anyway

  • I definitely think acting on an opportunity can have a big payoff.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, OK man this looks like it might jsut work.Wow.

  • Ilana, I think a great takeaway here is that a “mission statement,” like “be generous, be honest, be open” can spark and fuel social media execution as well as a full-blown plan. And especially when the mission statement is as community- and conversation-centric as yours. Thanks for a great post!

    • Stephanie, thanks for your comment and for so clearly articulating a point that a mission statement can guide a plan. I’m reading Howard Schultz’s book “Onward” about his return to Starbucks and I’m impressed at how a multi billion dollar company can use a mission statement and by focusing on core values, turn a business around without a detailed plan.

  • You must have read my mind today… “Done is Better Than Perfect” is a great code. Of course, we want to put our best foot forward and avoid mistakes, but it can be immobilizing too. I wanted to customize & brand my new FB business page before launching it, but have about 100 other things on my plate with starting a new venture. Like you said, you can start by offering something worthwhile, like good content, to get the conversation rolling, and then fine tune your goals on the fly. Great post!

    • Best of luck with your Facebook implementation. I appreciate your comment.

  • While I agree that worrying the perfect social strategy to death is a waste of time and can cause analysis paralysis there’s gotta be a line somewhere. You’ve got to have some goals for your interaction just as you do with any face to face conversation.

    Then you’ve got to be ready when the whole thing zigs when you zag. Because it will.

    Be honest, be generous and allow it to evolve naturally instead of trying to force it into a box and enjoy the interaction, then check back in periodically to see if it’s flowing in the general direction you wanted it to go.

    • Janet, thanks for commenting. I agree that you don’t necessarily jump in without any thought at all about what you’ll get out of it. I also don’t see a problem with the opposite situation of a company who has all its highly measurable objectives carefully outlined. My point is that there isn’t a hard and fast rule about how buttoned up you need to be.

      We are on the same page about the key to it all being behavior.

  • OK, I’ll be the contrarian here. All of the examples you mention above have objectives (although some are close to being more of a mission statement). They just don’t have specific goals attached to them.

    Your objectives in your blog example were to:
    1. Have real conversations with our customers
    2. Drawing back the curtain on who we are

    In the Facebook example, you said, “If a programming team believes they have a credible idea for improving the site, they code it.” The objective there was to improve the site through constant innovation.

    In the last two examples, the objectives were:
    1. Be helpful to our customers
    2. Be generous, be open, be honest

    Objectives can be very simple and open ended like “Learn how our customers would like to engage with us through social channels.” This allows a lot of experimentation, allows you to move quickly and doesn’t lock you in to specific tactics, but it still gives you some sort of direction or way to evaluate your efforts. You may find that your customers don’t want to engage with you (as much as you want to engage with them) and you can re-focus your efforts elsewhere.

    If you throw out objectives and do something just to do it, you get lots of output, but no way to validate the outcome.

    • Shawn, Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m in agreement with you if you’re comfortable with the stated objectives. I was fine implementing social media programs with a general idea of how we were going to behave. Some businesses, however, want their objectives to show measurable results. That’s great if it can be done but my personal style is more process oriented.

    • thanks for such a great comment. you added a lot to my thoughts and understanding of the article. examples are brillant! thanks!

    • Nora

      I agree with the point that some planning has to go into one’s objectives when dealing with social media. However, I as Ilana commented below the problem with many companies, especially in the B2B sector, are that people are too afraid to take the first step..
      “Done is better than perfect” – brilliant :)!

  • I LOVE this because I love breaking rules. Sometimes rules are too inhibiting as outlined in your post above. Sometimes action is enough to get us started down a great path, assuming that we’re behaving properly, another point you mention above. Thanks for a great post.

    • Billy, than you so much for the positive feedback. Looking at your website I can see that your creative nature resonates well with this philosophy.

  • Thanks for writing this Ilana! Somebody needed to say it!

    I think this is exactly what larger, slower companies are dealing with. Analysis paralysis. It’s so much easier to operate on the social web when you are smaller and more nimble. Kudos to your company for having the courage to just get started and correct the ship as it sailed.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Russ. The entrepreneurial mindset is important to maintain as companies grow because as you say, it pays to be nimble.

  • Alicia Vaz

    A great post, thanks! I like how you placed the focus on the customers’ needs and how to be more helpful.

    • Thank you for your comment Alicia. You described the goal with elegant simplicity.

  • If you stand on the diving board for too long imagining what kind of impact your jump is going to have, you’re likely not to have any impact at all. Why? Because you never actually got around to jumping. Great stuff, Ilana.

  • Ivo Campos

    Interesting point of view, however I partially agree with you. I think it is important to establish some goals in your SM strategy, even though they are not related with the traffic of your blog, but maybe the goal could be, be mentioned in other blog, or having comments in your posts. I think that having some goals can help you to identify the path of your social media strategy and the actions you can implement in order to achieve these goals. Obviously, it is necessary to have realistic goals and adapt them to the real situation of your company.

    • Ivo, thanks for your comment. I don’t disagree with anything you said. I’m not against goals as a matter of principle, I’m against letting them get in the way of action. Most people have a general idea of what they could potentially get out of social media, and that’s a good enough start. What you end up getting out of it depends on a lot of variables and may just offer some nice surpirses.

  • Awesome post! I love the information you just shared, I will definitely try this. Thanks for sharing

  • Great article thanks


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