The Inconvenient Truth About Social Media Hacks, Secrets and Shortcuts

“If you keep too busy learning the tricks of the trade, you may never learn the trade.”  —  John Wooden

There's a new buzzword sweeping across the digital landscape. It’s called "growth hacking" — perhaps you've heard of it.

“Growth hacking" is defined as a marketing technique that uses creativity, analytical thinking, and social metrics to sell stuff and gain exposure.

Sounds kind of sexy, right?

The ability to maximize sales and exposure through “growth hacking” as it’s defined above is certainly a practice that every business should put their efforts and resources toward. However, a predominant trend (and problem) that I continue to see across the digital landscape (and within social media specifically) is the misinterpretation and manipulation of the term “growth hacking” (whether intentionally or unintentionally) to mean words like secrets, tricks, shortcuts and the like.

For example, take a look at these headlines from some widely respected websites:

We all want to get ahead, identify competitive advantages, and unearth various opportunities for growth and exposure. There’s no question or objection about it. But when it comes to social media for business use, the tricks of the trade (most of which encompass the media aspect of social media) blind us from understanding that social is the essence of social media.

That isn’t to say that we should ignore the media in social media, because it too is important, affording us great opportunities to systematize and scale our efforts and results. But even if the media is the steering wheel of the social media car, social is the wheels. Without working wheels, you’re not going too far.

By first and foremost focusing on the social aspect of social media — on providing relevant, added value that builds meaningful relationships based on awareness, reputation, engagement and trust — we can then conclude that “growth hacking” is virtually meaningless, because there aren’t any hacks, secrets, shortcuts or tricks to building meaningful relationships.

So, how can you build meaningful relationships based on awareness, reputation, engagement and trust?

Truthfully, it’s quite simple: focus on being social, on being a good friend. Literally. Forget the media aspect of social media for a second, and instead rely on social conventions and norms. Hone in on the sociology and psychology of what drives people to interact, to engage, to communicate, to trust.

Perhaps the article "How to Be More Friendly and Social" from a website that has nothing to do with social media can provide us with some insights:

  1. Talk to people you already know. I see this all the time on social media: business and organizations trying to attract new followers and customers who have never heard of them, instead of focusing their efforts on developing relationships with existing followers and customers, or people who have expressed interest in their product or service (both online and offline). How are you funneling these people to your social media channels, where you can subsequently re-market to them time and again using relevant, added-value content? We talk about this extensively as part of “The Social Media Sales Cycle” section of The Social Media MasterCourse. Regardless, focus on building and developing stronger relationships with people who are already familiar with your business, because those people will help you attract more customers and relevant followers by virtue of social sharing and digital word-of-mouth.
  2. Chat back to people who are trying to talk to you. Are you responding to people who are engaging you on social media, either directly or indirectly? Are you encouraging and responding to Yelp, TripAdvisor and Google reviews if your business is listed on those platforms? Are you acknowledging Facebook messages and comments, tweets, and Instagram comments? Do you have a social media monitoring plan in place? How are you handling customer complaints submitted via social media? How do you internalize these complaints to ensure that you and/or your staff are learning and improving from the complaints you deem legitimate? Knowing that exponentially less people want to pick up the phone or go to your website in order to get more information or ask a question about your business, how are you driving people to do these things through social media?
  3. Invite people to do things with the group. Contests are great for engaging your followers and subliminally reminding them about who you are and what you sell. However, if you're going to run a contest, you need to be extra careful about not coming off as promotional or sales-y. Otherwise the contest will be a dud. Think creatively about how you can position your business without making your intentions obvious. For example, we created the #BrentsDeli Customer Choice Awards for our client, in which we pooled customer photos from Instagram and Twitter, and then divided them into categories for other customers to vote on. Ultimately, we drove more customers to take and post photos of our client's products on their social media accounts (digital word-of-mouth), and we engaged other customers in a fun, light-hearted, social way that subliminally showcased the client's products.
  4. Make sure everyone is having a good time. This is arguably the most important of these four tips. If you're only using social media for self-promotion and "free advertising" — no matter how amazing or special you think your business is — you're not doing a good job of making sure everyone is having a “good time.” For social media users, a “good time” means receiving content that is entertaining, interesting, informative, educational, motivational, inspirational and whatever other kinds of content your customers want on social media (according to their psychographics). Look at the content that brands like Red Bull, WeWork, General Mills, Shopify and Heineken are publishing on social media. Their content focuses less on their products and more on what their products represent. Certainly these brands have more resources to invest in social media than the average business, but if you're not willing to invest in the social aspect of social media, you're not going to generate meaningful results — no matter how many hacks, secrets, shortcuts or tricks you try to implement.

Josh Hoffman (better known as Social Media Josh) is an international social media consultant, instructor and speaker, as well as the creator of The Social Media Freelancer. Connect with Josh on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, and sign up to receive his weekly column.