Jenny Li Fowler, Director of Social Media Strategy at MIT, discusses her new book, “Organic Social Media.” Jenny explains the differences between strategy and tactics, creating more effective organic social strategies, and aligning social media with organizational goals. Jenny also shares practical advice for social media managers on audience engagement, platform selection, and content creation. Save 25% on Jenny’s book at KoganPage.com: use promo code BIGEYE25 at checkout.
Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS,
Jenny Li Fowler: I’m always rooting for social media managers. Sometimes, early on, you just don’t receive a lot of support that you want or what you’re looking for. And so I am sharing all of the things that I wish I knew when I started this journey in social media.
Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on marketing and advertising, produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service, creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the social networking site Facebook, originally launched as TheFacebook on February 4th, 2004, was initially accessible only to students at Harvard. The following year, in 2005, YouTube debuted as a video-sharing platform, and 2006 saw the introduction of micro-blogging on Twitter. In the years that followed, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest and TikTok launched. Today, social media is a key marketing tool, with corporations, brands, non-profits, government officials, and celebrities all having social accounts to communicate directly with followers. As platforms have developed, so has the role responsible for setting content strategy and driving engagement, namely, the social media manager, who typically needs to be good at telling stories, have an eye for design, and be able to figure out which types of content resonate most with audiences on each of the social platforms. The Bigeye Book Club selection for January is “Organic Social Media: How To Build Flourishing Online Communities.” The book’s author is Jenny Li Fowler, a recognized voice in social media marketing, and the Director of Social Media Strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To discuss her new book and share practical tips for developing the skills needed to thrive as a social media manager, I’m delighted that Jenny is joining us today from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jenny, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Jenny Li Fowler: Well, thanks so much. I’m excited to be here.
Adrian Tennant: Like me, you started your career in broadcasting. So, how did you become involved in managing social media?
Jenny Li Fowler: I feel like kind of by accident, really, I left broadcasting and had sort of a moment because I thought, you know, what am I going to do now? And that I just kept on looking for that thing, which sparked interest and, you know, got my curiosity going in every next position I was in. And, at first, it was content strategy and it introduced me to blogging and the aspect of social because there’s the commenting and getting back to people. And then my next position I did half web editorial and half social media. And social media just became more and more of my job. And I was really enjoying it. And I thought, gosh, if I could make that part a hundred percent of my job, then that would be really cool and then my current position – the position opened, and it was a natural fit, and here I am today.
Adrian Tennant: Well, you’ve held social media management positions at State Farm Auto, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and of course, you’re currently the Director of Social Media Strategy at MIT. Now, although you’re also well known as a writer and speaker at events such as HubSpot’s Inbound Conference, “Organic Social Media” is your first book. So, what prompted you to write it?
Jenny Li Fowler: You say first like there’s going to be more. I’m not sure, but I’m just going to enjoy the moment of this book. You know, there are a lot of marketing books and social media Marketing books with a capital “M,” but I just felt like there was an opportunity to write a book about organic social because that’s where so many social media managers start their careers is really by doing things organically or, you know, working for smaller brands. And I’m always rooting for social media managers and I just want them to succeed in where they are in their careers. And sometimes early on, you just don’t receive a lot of support that you want or what you’re looking for. And so I am sharing all of the things, I guess, in this book that I wish I knew when I started this journey in social media. So, yeah, here we are.
Adrian Tennant: Jenny, in your book, you describe a conversation with your supervisor at the time about strategy versus tactics that you now view as a career course correction. So what is the difference and why is understanding it crucial for success in social media?
Jenny Li Fowler: Mm-hmm. Yeah, this was huge. You know, when I had this conversation with my supervisor I just thought, “Huh!” It really got me thinking about it, right? And so, you know, strategy is more like zooming yourself out, and all of a sudden you’re thinking more broadly and long game, whereas, you know, tactics are like you’re a practitioner and you’re being told to do these things and you do these certain steps. So, keep on refining the way I explain this, but I think of it as like playing chess, right? And when you go into it, your goal is to beat your opponent, but you might have a strategy going into it. And, they have names like Double Pawn and King’s End Game or King in the End Game. They have interesting names. But you go in with that strategy, but then it takes thought, it takes response, it takes a process, it takes observation because you’re seeing what your opponent is doing. So, it’s very fluid and it takes all those things and it takes constant thought, it takes reaction, right? but the tactics are like moving the pieces themselves. So if you’re moving your pawn this way or you’re moving, your king one way, that’s a tactic. but if you’re just moving the pieces, and just doing tactics, then you’re kind of playing a game, but the pieces aren’t all moving toward the same goal, So when you have a strategy, they’re all performing in conjunction with this goal that you have of getting your opponent’s king, or winning the game. And so, it’s just a different level of thinking and it really makes your usage of the channels more sophisticated.
Adrian Tennant: You share a framework you’ve developed to create a new organic social media strategy. Can you explain what the six M’s are?
Jenny Li Fowler: Yes, my six M’s. So, mission, message, management, media, metrics, and monitoring. And I think this is a great way to remember a framework for solid strategy because you need all these pieces, I believe. So mission is what are you hoping to accomplish using social media? Your message: what stories are you telling on your channels? Management: what are your processes and procedures? Media: what are your primary platforms that you’re using? What channels are you selecting? Because, you know, a lot of people believe you need to be all the, in all those spaces. And I disagree. you should be more selective in the channels that you’re in. , metrics, of course, what are you tracking? And monitoring: are you listening to your audience for feedback and what they’re communicating to you?
Adrian Tennant: And you cover all of those within the book. Now, related to strategy, you also write about the way that social media has traditionally been measured by sales and marketing goals, such as increasing brand awareness, boosting conversions, or delivering customer service. But I know you believe there’s a greater opportunity to align social media with an organization’s broader goals. So, how do you recommend that social media managers approach goal setting?
Jenny Li Fowler: It’s really important for us to think about the channels that we have. And so, whereas, a mission or a goal for a broader company might be to launch a new product and have $10,000 in new revenue for Q1. You know, it’s sort of hard to connect those dots with revenues and sales through social media, but you can help support that goal. So you just have to keep your tools in mind and say, “We’re going to support this by posting this campaign until this date. And then we’re also going to create videos that help launch the new, you know, whatever it may be”. And just to be really specific in naming it and saying what you plan to do with your channels to support the goal. And I think it just makes it really crystal clear, like how you’re using the channels to support the organization’s goals, and all of a sudden you’ve got a very specific thing that you’re going to use your channels for. So I think sometimes we overthink it and it doesn’t have to be hard. If the organization goals are up here, we really have to make it specific to the channels that we’re using and how we’re going to use them.
Adrian Tennant: I really liked your suggestion of going on a listening tour. So Jenny, can you explain what it is?
Jenny Li Fowler: Yeah, you know, I just think this is important, especially whenever you start at a new organization, but you should really just talk to as many people as possible. I think any time I start a new position, I buy lots of coffee and tea maybe, just to listen to people. And these are the people that are invested in the brand and the organization. And these are the people that have had an inside look at the organization, and they sort of know what it was working, and they know what’s not working, right? And so when you can, talk to them and really get a sense of what they think. You know, maybe your audience doesn’t know that’s really, really cool about your brand or organization, or maybe, something that could be promoted more that people are unaware of. These are all messages that you can create to share with the broader audience. Because like I said, these folks are bought in and they’re engaged and they share, they have a wealth of information and you’re just sort of mining that information.
Adrian Tennant: You also write about making social media goals S.M.A.R.T. Could you give us an example?
Jenny Li Fowler: Yes, and by S.M.A.R.T., we mean Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound, right? I think if you take a broader goal and you make it tactical for social, it becomes S.M.A.R.T. And what I mean by that is if we took that earlier goal we were talking about, like, we’re going to launch a new product and we want to help our organization, 10,000 more dollars in revenue for the first quarter. Write out the tactics. So that’s our goal. So with our social media channels, we’re going to support our company. We’re going to – pre-launch – post an Instagram story a week and do an interview. We’re going to have people give samples to people and do a video of them responding to the product, once a week. And then maybe post-launch, we’re going to do micro-influencer campaigns. So you name the tactics. And so if you write it out, it’s sort of, “So we’re going to support our company this way by doing this, this, this, and this, and we’re going to re-evaluate everything at the end of Q1.” So, all of a sudden, that becomes S.M.A.R.T. It’s S.M.A.R.T. – it’s very specific: you’re saying exactly what you’re doing. It’s measurable because are you posting an Instagram story a week? You can kind of measure that, right? It’s relevant because it’s right in line with the company’s mission or goal for Q1. And it’s time-bound. It’s so relevant, and it’s time-bound ‘cause you’re saying we’re going to reevaluate at the end of the quarter. So I know I’m trying to squish down an entire chapter, but basically, if you make it tactical, and write out your tactics, that whole thought or paragraph is your smart social media goal, whatever time.
Adrian Tennant: In “Organic Social Media,” you have a chapter devoted to audiences. So, Jenny, how do you identify the right audiences for social media in ways that help you, as a manager, tailor content for them?
Jenny Li Fowler: So these are your community members, right? The folks that enjoy your product are engaging with your content. And slowly, through being in these channels every day, you get to learn what they like and what they don’t like. And for me, I always say that an engagement of any kind, a public interaction, a share or a like, you know, comments are pretty obvious, right? They’ll straight tell you they like something or they don’t like something. So those are all votes on the content that they want to see more of. And when there’s a piece of content that gets a lot of engagement, I really do what I call digital detective work. You look into what was it about this piece of content that resonated with people. Can I repeat it? You know, was it the image? Was it the time of day? So I think by really observing the content and really looking at what your audience is engaging with, you start to find your community and what they like, what their love language is, and what their trigger words are. And you just use that information to inform content. And the more you can do that, the more your content becomes more of a signal than noise to attract your community.
Adrian Tennant: You believe that, quote, “Your social media following is not your community,” end quote. So, Jenny, can you unpack that for us?
Jenny Li Fowler: Sure. I mean, you know, just because you have your following number, your follow total, we have to be realistic. There are a lot of bots out there, there are also people who are part of the media that are following you just because they might want some media scoop or an idea. And some people follow you because they don’t like you, follow you because they want to troll you. I mean, that’s just sort of an ugly fact about social media. So, you know, your follower total is not necessarily your community. However, you’ve got your fans who love your product, love your brand, or have a lot of characteristics in common with the information you provide, or the value you provide. And hopefully, your community is greater in numbers than the people who are just following you to troll you, but that’s who you’re trying to find. And a lot of times they police each other, and you know, they’ll police your audience, and they’ll come and defend you if there’s misinformation about you, and those are the people that you are really trying to target, right? And your community – the ones that are your ambassadors and that love you and talk about you in real life, right? Not just in the digital spaces. So, there is a distinct difference. But I do believe there are a lot of us that find our communities online, and it’s still, a very, very healthy, you know, can be a very, very healthy space as long as you curate that space and manage that space and provide a really, really good, experience for your community in those spaces.
Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.
Jenny Li Fowler: Hi, I’m Jenny Lee Fowler, the author of January’s Bigeye Book Club Selection, “Organic Social Media: How To Build Flourishing Online Communities.”
My book is a guide to enhancing your brand’s growth through effective digital engagement. I provide you with strategies for selecting the right platforms, streamlining approval processes, and building an organic online presence that’s aligned with your broader objectives. The book also covers content planning, goal setting, and resource management, providing you with insights into executing plans and tracking your success.
Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Jenny Li Fowler, the Director of Social Media Strategy at MIT and the author of this month’s Bigeye Book Club selection, “Organic Social Media, How to Build Flourishing Online Communities.” You write about the fact that earlier in your social media career, you were using Google Plus, Periscope, and Storify, reminding us that platforms come and go. But you also highlight the pressure that sometimes exists to take on every new platform. With so many social platforms available today, how should social media managers decide which platforms are the best fit for their brands?
Jenny Li Fowler: Right. I think a lot of times, people fall into that trap of the hip and trendy thing. And if you mentioned that new platform, then you’re kind of in, and you’re trendy, but I don’t think that you should always be attracted by the shiny new thing that’s being dangled in front of you. You should be more thoughtful, you know, like in your question – it’s true, social media platforms come and go, there’s so many that don’t even make it out of the beta testing phase. There’s so many, so you should be more thoughtful about it and wait and see what the platform becomes. Because sometimes it launches, and it seems like everyone’s, you know, jumping on that bandwagon, but you kind of don’t know where the audience is going to take it or which audiences it’s even going to attract. So it’s really important for you to observe and recognize, “Okay, there seems to be this new platform that is not going away. It seems to be gaining momentum.” But who’s on the platform? Is it your audience, or is it a potential new audience that you can attract? I mean, it just has to align right with your goals or the audience that you’re trying to seek. And, you know, would it help you with your strategy in helping to support your goals? These are all things that we should consider instead of just jumping on the newest fad. Too often, people are putting the cart before the horse because they’re signing up for the platform and they’re not thinking about all those things I just mentioned, right? Is our audience there? Do we have the type of content that fits in this platform? Like all of these things that you should think about beforehand, to be successful in a platform those conversations aren’t always had and they should be had, they should be had, before you actually sign up for a new account.
Adrian Tennant: Once a manager has defined the strategy, set goals, knows their audience, and determined which social platforms to use, it’s time to create content. So Jenny, what are some of your top tips for creating engaging content?
Jenny Li Fowler: So I do have a list that I mention in my book, and maybe I’ll keep that for those who want to read it! But overall, good content – they do share some tangible characteristics. And for the most part, they provide value, right? People like to follow accounts that they’re learning things from, or they’re being entertained regularly from. You know, it’s informative, or it makes me laugh regularly, provokes that emotion if I’m sharing it, like when the content is being shared, that’s the ultimate compliment that people want to share it. And if you mention it to someone like, “Oh, I just saw in TikTok,” or “I just saw in LinkedIn, this and this.” So when it jumps off platform and is being shared in real life, then, you know, it’s got that really great quality. I often say that, really, really good content jumps platforms. So what I mean by that is it doesn’t matter what platform it is, which is why, like I tell people, you don’t have to be on all the platforms. Just choose a couple that fits what you’re trying to do and do it really, really well. How often have you seen people screenshot tweets or, X posts, I guess it is now, and they’ll share it in LinkedIn, or even in Instagram. Or how many TikToks have you seen in Instagram, or how many videos have people actually direct messaged you, you know? Good content just gets shared everywhere, so if you concentrate more on creating really, really great content that resonates, it’ll reach your audience. I don’t think we need to necessarily overextend ourselves and being in every single platform, especially if you’re mediocre at them – ‘cause that really doesn’t help.
Adrian Tennant: Jenny, what advice would you give to a brand that’s struggling to engage its audience organically?
Jenny Li Fowler: You know, when there is a brand that is finding it difficult or having a hard time engaging their audience, I often wonder if it’s because they’re listening to someone else and not their audience. Exactly – like if they’re catering to an audience of one, right? Like, maybe that one person might be really, really important, but still it’s not their broader audience. So my first recommendation is always to talk to your audience, like ask your audience what you want from them, because they know what they want from you. They know that when they follow you, there are specific things they’re hoping to get from you. And so having those conversations, doing polls, or just any chance that you get to speak directly to your audience, I think it’s really important to get what their thoughts are on what you should be sharing.
Adrian Tennant: What cadence do you typically recommend for posting organic social content?
Jenny Li Fowler: This is a hard question to answer because everyone finds their own rhythm and how much their audience wants to see content for them. But starting off, it is really important to really post as often as you can, right? Or as often as a platform lends itself to share content like, you know, X – it’s a beast. You have to constantly post in that platform. Whereas maybe in Facebook and LinkedIn, maybe once a day, maybe would be great, ideal, especially starting off, but you might find that, you know, you taper down, but I think especially organically, when you’re trying to grow organically, as much as is optimal in each platform, is ideal.
Adrian Tennant: We obviously want to track our successes but also learn from failures. What metrics should managers focus on to gauge the performance of their brand’s organic social media?
Jenny Li Fowler: Yeah, I know I touched upon this before, but when you’re dealing with organic content, it’s the engagements that really say the most, and so I’m constantly trying to stretch the engagement number, the likes, and the shares, because if they stretch, I’ve noticed, then the reach and the impressions stretch as well. But never take too much stock in reach and impressions because, for me, how I interpret it is it might have reached someone’s timeline, but it doesn’t mean saw it, right? And definitely, you know, they didn’t engage with it, even if they saw it. So put more stock in the engagements themselves. So I really think it’s important to do that and then to do more of what works and to stop doing what doesn’t. At the start of every year, I like to look at our successful posts from the year before, but I also look at our flops from the year before. And sometimes you see patterns in them, like, this was pre-Reels, but videos within our feed of Instagram were not doing very well, and in fact, they were the worst performing posts in Instagram that particular year, so we just stopped doing them. In what used to be Twitter, we noticed that if we posted an article that was three questions it was that opening that for some reason our audience didn’t like. So we stopped using that phrase. I just stopped doing what doesn’t work and did more of what does. So it’s really important as much as it is to look at your successes. I feel like I learned more from my failures.
Adrian Tennant: As in life!
Jenny Li Fowler: Yes, I would agree.
Adrian Tennant: You include a chapter in your book called The Backup Plan. Could you briefly outline your approach to contingency planning?
Jenny Li Fowler: Yeah, this is so important. I think too often, people have one social media manager and it’s sort of a mystery what they do. If they happen to be like sick or have a dentist appointment and something needs to be done, no one has the passwords. No one knows where to find the content. No one knows where everything is. If I were to say it in a nutshell, it’s like make sure other people have access to everything: passwords, the email addresses, the processes, the content, you know, you want to make sure that there’s more than one person that knows the process. Knows the day-to-day sort of cadence of things so that if something should happen, then everything will continue. Your social media audience shouldn’t notice, right? ‘Cause everything should be seamless.
Adrian Tennant: It’s been a theme of our conversation, but social media is constantly evolving. How do you recommend that managers stay up-to-date with the latest platforms and content trends?
Jenny Li Fowler: Yes. This is true. And there are a lot of people who have amazing newsletters and lists and podcasts out there. And that’s how I do it, right? Because I know that I’m thinking strategically about my channels and I’m managing things for my organization. And so it’s hard to be on top of every other thing that’s out there. So, if you can let these other experts, they’re awesome at doing it and curating it and telling you about what’s up and coming, what they’re seeing, trends they’re seeing, their evaluations. I really recommend taking some time and really going through all of those newsletters or awesome resources that are out there.
Adrian Tennant: Well, you’re in the belly of the beast – you’re Director of Social Strategy at MIT. Jenny, I’ve got to ask you: what’s your take on the use of AI in organic social media content creation? And where do you think we’re headed?
Jenny Li Fowler: Yeah, it’s sort of a marriage of the organization that I work for and all the things: the research and science and everything that comes out of it. And yes, I do social media for that organization! You know, I would say that those who can use it to help them in their day-to-day work I think it’s going to be an amazing asset. Having said that, I think it’s still important for you to make the decisions at the end of the day, because I think it’s – more than ever – like authenticity and what’s real. And I think real-world methodologies are going to be really really important. But if you can have AI complement what you’re doing or help you with what you’re doing or cut down the processes, I think that’s where it’s gonna be a real asset.
Adrian Tennant: Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Jenny Li Fowler: You know, I don’t know that if there’s one thing specifically, but what I like is that they take away something, right? That they just learned like. “Oh, gosh, I like that framework,” or, “I really like that thought process of how to create my own content calendar,” whatever it is, I just hope that the audience or the reader finds some value in it, or it has like an “Aha!” moment that they will take with them and, yeah, I think that’s what I would hope.
Adrian Tennant: Jenny, if IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to learn more about you and your work, what’s the best way to do so?
Jenny Li Fowler: Find me on the social media platforms, right? I’m in all the platforms and that’s the best way. And of course, my book – there’s a page on koganpage.com and you can find more information there as well.
Adrian Tennant: Yes, and if you’d like a copy of Jenny’s new book, “Organic Social Media,” you can save 25 percent when you order directly from Jenny’s publisher at KoganPage.com using the promo code BIGEYE25 at checkout. Jenny, thank you very much for being our guest on IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Jenny Li Fowler: Thank you. This was such a great conversation. I enjoyed it. Thank you.
Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, Jenny Li Fowler, the author of this month’s Bigeye book club selection, “Organic Social Media: How To Build Flourishing Online Communities.” As always, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation along with links to the resources we discussed on the Bigeye website at Bigeyeagency.com, just select ‘podcast’ from the menu. Thanks for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye!