Digital media strategy explained via a chocolate cake recipe

social media strategyBy Paula Wethington / @WethingtonPaula

Digital / social media strategy is like a recipe for a chocolate birthday cake. If you do everything right, you create awesomeness that wins blue ribbons and bragging rights.

(Been there, done that!!)

But if you miss a step or key ingredient, the friends you are serving the cake to might realize it’s a bit off or they’ve had better. The challege is they might not understand what is wrong; and if they do, they might not tell you. If it’s a really bad result, they’ll politely ask for apple pie the next time.

And unless you have been paying close attention while assembling and mixing the ingredients, you might not figure it out either.

Here’s how the creation of an awesome chocolate birthday cake is like the creation of awesome digital media strategy:

The cake (website) ingredients

Here’s the list of ingredients I’ll assemble:

  • Eggs = The basics: who, what, when, why, where and how and specific keywords. People use search engines to find answers to questions. This is why content, headline, subheads, description box, photo captions, and photo alt tags must be filled out with words and phrases that present the message.
  • Butter = Accurate and reliable content is like choosing the very best ingredients in your cake. Don’t trade butter out for cheap margarine, and don’t take shortcuts on this step. This helps build trust factor among the audience.
  • Sugar = Sweeten it up. Look for interesting topics, or an interesting angle on an otherwise routine topic. When you localize or explain national statistics with a reference to  your community, for example, it becomes more appealing to the target audience. They’ll be more likely to read the content, understand the overall message etc.
  • Vanilla = You’ll notice if vanilla is missing from the cake recipe. And you’ll notice the same error when failing to include an image or photo on a website story. Yes, technically, it will work. You can post an article on the website without a photo. The reality is it will not work as well. Photos grab attention on an email newsletter and on social media; there also are content highlight spots on many websites that need photos. Branded or one-off graphics are easy to make if you don’t have live photos or file art that works. Bottom line: Don’t forget the vanilla!
  • Flour = A cake will not become cake without the flour. This is reliability and consistency. You apply this idea to website programming by having timely content available when people are looking for it it. Stay a step ahead and plan for topics that are recurring or seasonal; and act fast during breaking or trending news in your niche, to build the reputation of reliability.
  • Baking soda = This ingredient makes the cake batter rise. But it’s a little box and a usually a teaspoon, so it’s easy to forget. On a similar note: don’t forget the alt tag descriptions on your images. You’ll understand why that’s important the next time you hit “image search” when doing a Google search.
  • Salt = This is meant to help enhance the flavors of the cake when the batter recipe calls for it. Does your content call for the context of an author’s note to explain that this is something special or different? If so, add that.
  • Cocoa = This is what makes the cake chocolate flavored and not vanilla. If you want your content to be “not vanilla” in comparison to what can be found elsewhere on social media on the Internet, then explain the content just a bit better, go a little more in depth or take a little extra effort in the visual presentation. This is what multimedia embeds such as quizzes, Google Maps and Storify can do. People linger a little longer on pages that have such content.

Now it’s time for mixing the cake batter. But while you do that, double check your list of ingredients to make sure you did not skip anything.

Selecting the shape and size of the cake pan you will pour the batter into is like selecting what category keywords you want that content to be found under. The 8-inch circle pan size is the most common presentation; and maybe that’s exactly what you want. But a heart-shaped pan is a little more special. And the sheet cake pan bakes the treat in potluck party-friendly format.

Putting the filled cake pan in the oven is like posting it on the website. It’s in the “baking process,” so to speak when you hit “post” or “send.”

The icing (social media) ingredients

You can eat an unfrosted cake after it is taken out of the oven.

But you probably want icing to top it off.

Think about this: If you offer the spatula covered with icing leftovers and one covered with cake batter leftovers to a friend who is working with you in the kitchen, it’s likely the icing spatula will be cleaned up first!

This is what social media does to website content: social media attracts and interests a larger audience. Do some research on how much traffic comes to your website via social channels than search engines!

With a popular modern buttercream chocolate icing recipe as the theoretical example (I personally use a 1940s-era cooked chocolate icing recipe!), here are the ingredients to creating the social icing:

  • Butter = Just as with cake, butter in the icing mixture represents quality. Get your “quality” message across with coherent writing and appropriate visuals. Include a “call to action” if appropriate of what you want people to do after reading the message.
  • Powdered sugar = Just like with website content, social media content needs to be interesting. That’s what sugar can do. But powdered sugar is not the same formulation as granulated sugar. Do some research on preferred writing and visual presentations for the social networks you are working in; it really is not the same as writing for SEO purposes. Paying attention to those little details makes a huge difference on how much of a response you’ll get with your social media efforts.
  • Cocoa powder = Again, cocoa powder is what makes the icing chocolate flavored and not buttery vanilla. Brainstorm and settle into your unique perspective and brand personality so that you stand out from others who are posting on that same topic.

Blend all that together and frost your cake!

The decorating (social media extras) steps

Now did you decide to put birthday candles or candies on that cake so it is extra special? Of course! It’s a birthday cake.

You can also give your social media efforts an extra touch by adding in Facebook advertising on occasion to boost a page’s reach or awareness; sending out Facebook page invitations to people who have previously liked your content and creating a branded look to your social media.

And now I think it’s time to make a cup of coffee to accompany my theoretical piece of chocolate cake!

I work as a reporter and social media team member at The Monroe News in Monroe, Mich. Years ago, I really did win a county fair blue ribbon for a chocolate cake.

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5 free resources to kickstart your social media plan

Womens Money Week blog post graphicBy Paula Wethington

One of the projects I participated in several times as a personal finance blogger was the National Women’s Money Week project.

Through that campaign, writers discuss the  money topic of the day from their perspective or expertise. The goal of the community discussions are to “help women move from financial fragility to financial resiliency.”

The Women’s Money Week 2017 project is from Jan. 1-7.

I’m no longer writing about personal finance. (Monroe on a Budget wrapped up in 2015, you can find a history of the project here). But my current favorite topic of social media is definitely applicable to the Women’s Money Week Jan. 3, 2017, theme of Entrepreneurship / Earning Your Worth / Making Money.

Social media for news reporting, special projects and personal branding is a skill I picked up on by experience and watching what worked for other people. At one point, I had Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram pages all branded to Monroe on a Budget. Facebook was a huge referral source to the site for a long time.

But my actual “day job” is newspaper reporter. Even before the personal finance blog wrapped up, I was applying what I learned to our newsroom’s social media accounts. And I was seeing good results.

I also think digital media is fun.

Following up on this experience, I looked for free and low-cost resources about social media and related topics. While you can now find master’s degree programs in digital or social media studies, that’s a bigger investment than I can make. Even the paid training I’ve taken has been carefully chosen and spread out so not to take a huge hit all at once. If you are an entrepreneur, or making a move into a new career, your goal of low budget training or subscription services certainly coincides with mine.

Therefore, this article focuses on free resources.

If you later decide to seek out paid training or hire a social media management agency to help out, now you’ll have some understanding of the topic.

1. Your public library

One of the first places I looked for information about digital and social media was my local library. About once a month, I’d find a book, or two or three, and settle in for an afternoon of studying in a cozy reading chair with a cup of mocha coffee nearby.

Yes, it is true that best practices change so fast that very specific strategies become outdated within a few months to a year. But it is also true that general topics such as copywriting, design and photography easily cross over from one genre to the next. Don’t overlook marketing and communications fundamentals. They can help you understand why certain social media tactics work – or don’t.

To explain: one of the first library books I read focused on Search Engine Optimization. That discussion explained why unsolicited pitches were arriving in my email, offering guest posts for my blog “with just a link;” or in the alternative, requesting link embeds from my posts to their sites. Something had always seemed odd to me about those emails. Now I had enough  knowledge about SEO strategy to see through the spammy, scammy, sleazy link requests.

Go find your local library and pick out a few books.

2. Hubspot Academy.

Are you interested in a course that explains digital marketing concepts as they are typically applied today? Take the Free Inbound Marketing Course offered by Hubspot Academy. You will learn how blogging, SEO and website setups such as landing pages can encourage potential customers to be interested in your products and services, and hopefully lead to sales.

The current version is a 12-class program with an exam. It took longer for me to work through the course than the hours listed, but you can stop and start as needed. I also picked up on the concepts faster when I took it the second time.

If you want to understand how and why specific content and formatting strategies get results for your business or a competitor, the Inbound course is worth your time.

3. Facebook Blueprint.

Another resource accessible from your desktop is from Facebook itself: Facebook Blueprint.

Earning a Facebook Blueprint Certification badge costs money. The annual, renewable exam and certification is meant for digital advertising professionals. But there are over 50 free webinars and modules in the resource collection for certification students — and you can access those modules for free! The topics include Audience Insights, Boost Your Posts and Direct Response Best Practices.

As explained by Facebook: “Blueprint eLearning is a series of free, self-paced online courses and learning paths teaching the best practices of Facebook marketing — perfect for small businesses, agencies, advertisers, graduates, MBA holders, or anyone wanting to market more effectively on Facebook.”

Poke around the collection and complete a tutorial or two.

4. Canva Design School.

Canva is a popular site for creating social media graphics fast and easy. It’s free if you use your own images or pick from their basic collections. The paid graphic elements are very affordable. You can create your designs via desktop or an iPad.

After you start using Canva, you’ll notice which of your favorite Facebook and Twitter pages use this tool. Some of the preset templates are quite popular!

What if you have no idea how to work in graphic design?

Canva has a collection of free tutorials in its Design School library with topics such as Building a Brand Kit, Marrying Text and Images, and Creative Color Palettes.

If you create just one image that looks good, I think you’ll be hooked.

5. Pinterest.

Did you think Pinterest’s practical usefulness was limited to cookie recipes and wedding theme ideas? Not so fast! The do-it-yourself culture on Pinterest also has extended to entrepreneurship skills and marketing concepts!

Create a board where you can collect pins on this topic – I started with Digital World, but also have some spinoff topics such as Public Relations.

After you create a board, search for keywords such as marketing, social media, or business goals. After Pinterest learns what you are looking for, it will suggest more to you via the news feed. After you pin an image from the web, you’ll see a splash page of another board that image was pinned to and perhaps you want to follow that as well.

Tip: You can create a new topic as a “secret board” while you brainstorm this and flip it to a public board later.

Bonus: Now for a little bit of money.

If you are willing to spend (some) money on a subscription or an online short course, look over the possibilities from these resources:

  • Hootsuite Academy – Hootsuite is a social media management dashboard service; and the related products include a collection of webinars. Whether you can stick with the free services or need to spend money depends on how many accounts you want to connect, the features you want and the courses you want to take.
  • Udemy – Webinars and minicourses in topics ranging from mobile phone photography to marketing fundamentals. There often are specials – sometimes as low as $10 a class. Put the webinars you want on a “wish list” and cue them up as you have the funds.
  • LinkedIn Learning – LinkedIn members who have Job Seeker, Business Plus, and Executive LinkedIn subscriptions can access a collection of webinars and short courses as part of their paid service. Pay close attention to the expiration date of your trial or membership, as you may be locked out of a course before completion.

A tip of the hat to past and present participants and the organizers of Women’s Money Week. Look for hashtag #WMWeek17 on your favorite social media networks. I’ll be tweeting my favorite links of the campaign at @WethingtonPaula

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Be inspired in digital media by those who only exist in digital

By Paula Wethington

I’ve been in the journalism business long enough to remember when people would complain about the lack of a news media outlet covering their community, or wish that they could cover it in a way that the established media had overlooked.

In response, an alternative weekly newspaper might pop up. In another era, someone might apply for a low power / non-profit radio or television frequency. In the mid-2000s, blogging was the genre that independent voices flocked to. On an off and on basis, another format has been podcasting.

If you work in mainstream media, you would be smart to pay attention to what those startup organizations can and will do. We are long past seeing ordinary people starting a site as a hobby and then trying to make money off the web ads. Instead, some of the sites today are run by experienced journalists and broadcasters who know how to find quality content, how to present their work and understand their audience, … and are simply using today’s digital tools and social media to do just that.

Since there are so many design tools available for free or low cost, including flexible WordPress templates, today’s independent news and media sites can have flexibility, design and flourish that is way beyond what was possible 10 years ago.

You can debate the business finances all you want, but I’ll tell you this:

I started paying close attention when I realized at one point that a friend of mine who hosted an independent local news site had Facebook fan count that beat the COMBINED Facebook fans of the newspaper and radio station in his town.

In other words, these media startups could easily eat your lunch if you work in mainstream media and do not take their resourcefulness and focus seriously.

Ponder that thought, and then figure out how you will compete against that.

(Updated Feb. 15, 2016)