Imitation As A Strategy For Success?

“Be sincere.” “Be authentic.” “Be transparent.”

These common phrases have been driven, over and over, into our heads by the so-called “social media experts” for years now, so there’s no doubt you’re already familiar with them. I can’t disagree – sincerity, authenticity, and some level of transparency are critical attributes you need to have if you want to be a successful social media marketer. But what I’d like to dig into today is a piece of advice that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately; one which would cause most people to flinch if it were offered up in front of a conference room full of paying attendees (fortunately no one would actually pay to hear me speak, so we won’t have that problem today).  What I’m proposing is so radical – so out there – that not even the slimiest of social media gurus would admit to using it in their daily practice. And yet it’s been used in wide practice for hundreds of years, by marketers, sports players, politicians, business leaders and many more people around the world.

So what exactly is this dirty, underhanded piece of advice?

Determine your goal (let’s say it’s to become a master social media marketer), find someone who’s already achieved it (there’s literally 1,000’s of people to pick from), and imitate them (yes, I told you to imitate them).

Now before you get all up on your high horse and launch nuclear blog comments into my inbox, let’s clarify what I mean.

Imitate what they do that’s made them successful.

I didn’t say plagiarize their work (blog posts, tweets, or otherwise). And I certainly didn’t suggest you rip off their brand name or launch an exact duplicate of their service. What I’m suggesting is far more subtle. Imitate their style. Analyze what they do that makes them so successful, and use the same techniques in your own efforts. Consider them your role model. Not clear on what I mean? Well, let’s take a look at a couple areas where you might start, then let me know if you still think what I’m proposing is unethical and/or unsound advice.

Where do they focus their efforts?

Are you still spending 2 hours per day tweaking the background colors and widgets on your MySpace page? (I sincerely hope not). Are they? (They most certainly are not.) So where are they spending their time at? Well, if you can determine that they make a concerted effort to focus almost entirely on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, then they must have a good reason for it. It’s probably not a bad idea for you to focus 90% of your own efforts there as well. Disclaimer: This assumes they are in the same or similar industry to you. If they focus 60% of their efforts on but you own a dentist practice, obviously a social networking site for the restaurant industry doesn’t work for you. Use common sense and do your homework.

How do they position themselves?

What’s the general tone they take in their tweets, blog posts, etc? Are they the “newsbreaker” (always on top of breaking news/trends)? Are they the wise old sage (advice and wisdom)? Are they the sh*t starter (boundary pusher)? Look at what works for them, and if you think it would be a good fit for your business without being an outright rip-off of their style, run with it! You can always shift gears if you find it doesn’t work for you. The point here isn’t that you’re going to do better as one or the other, it’s that you’ve at least committed to one or the other. By taking a position you’ve established the foundation for your voice online, and provided people with a frame of reference they can get to know you in.

What are they sharing?

This point could almost work as a sub-topic to the one above, but now that you’ve determined the position you’re going to approach communications from, what type of content should you be sharing? Again, take a look at what your role model focuses on. Would you say their tweets are more news-based sharing of information, or opinion-based critique of the market and participants? What are their most “liked” posts on Facebook – local interest stories about bunny rabbits and positive thinking, or bleeding edge tech pieces geared towards the early adopter audience? There’s no shame in sharing some of the same content they do; if they’re sharing it than it’s most likely viral in its nature. (wow, I used *it* three different ways in that sentence) But instead of just copying and pasting their finds and using them as your own, bookmark their sources and get the scoop on them next time that hot viral video comes out. I guarantee that over time, you’ll get so far down the rabbit hole of content that there’s little chance you’ll be seen as copying their style. But you’ve got to start somewhere right?

How engaged are they with their community?

We’re all familiar with the word engagement, right? Well what do you think it actually means? Here’s a good way to tell how “engaged” a company is with their Twitter followers. Go to their Twitter page and count, as a percentage of the first 50 tweets you can scroll through, how many of them begin with an @username followed by a message referencing a previous tweet. More than 50%? This company is seriously engaged with their followers. That means more than half of their outbound tweets are in reply to something a follower said to or about them. They’re not broadcasting – they’re interacting. This is likely one of the keys to their success. So how did this come to be? If they were an unknown entity previous to joining Twitter (like you), than it probably means they spent some time of their own @replying to people who they deemed influential or interesting. This is one way you get new people to follow you in the first place — if you’re able to positively contribute to their questions or discussions! Disclaimer: Don’t. Be. An. Idiot. Seriously, use some tact and think before you tweet — nobody likes a spammer. Only contribute when you think your comment will be seen as useful by the other party.

We’re all adults here, so I assume you’re savvy enough to have realized by now that I’m not suggesting you outright copy the entire social media plan of a thought leader in your industry.

Plagiarism=bad / imitation=flattery, right?

Successful social media marketing is not something you can just learn overnight, and the only sure way to get better at it is by simply digging in and learning as you go. In my opinion, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with looking to those individuals or businesses who have demonstrated a superior level of expertise and attempting to use some of their same tactics to improve your own position in the market. As time goes on, take what you’ve learned along the way and apply it to new situations and audiences, and I promise you’ll find your own voice.

One of the largest obstacles any of us face when it comes to marketing ourselves or our businesses online is simply knowing where to start. Think back to when you were learning how to play sports as a kid. Didn’t you want to emulate the top athlete in your field? Each and every one of us wanted to be as good as they were, and someday enjoy the same level of success. But as time went on, we took what we learned watching them and slowly made it our own. What I’m suggesting is that you treat your burgeoning social media marketing career the same way – find the Michael Jordan of your industry and try to play the game just like he does. You’ll never be able to. But if you pay close attention, stay focused, and practice hard enough, maybe one day you’ll be as good as Kobe.


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