11 Keys (and some Dos and Don'ts) for Selecting the Right Social Media Management Tool
We review social media management tools regularly and our clients ask about them all the time. People want to know which tools are the best. We usually answer by saying the better question is, ‘which tools are best for you.’ There are a lot of great tools out there for managing social media. Many offer different features, or approaches to content publishing, and community management. To help people evaluate tools we’ve developed 11 keys to evaluating social media management tools. In this article I’m going to share those keys with you, and give you some dos, don’ts and tips for evaluating the tools you’re interested in.
1. Price and Billing Options.
We all have a budget. The tools, and there’s a good chance you’ll need more than one, will have to work with the budget you have. There are tools out there ranging from free to $500 a month or more. We all have different cash flow and needs, so not every tool, or every payment plan works for everyone. Once you have a good understanding of your needs, price and billing options is the first thing you should look at.
- Look at billing options. Some tools offer a discount if you can afford to pay annually.
- Look at plan cancellation options. Some companies let you cancel annual contracts and get a refund for unused time, many don’t. Once you sign up, you’re locked in.
- Take advantage of free trial periods to get free access to the tool for some period of the time, but for evaluation and actual use.
- Waste time on trials for tools way outside your price range. Figure out how to make less expensive tools work for you to maximize the value you get from the money you spend on tools.
- Sign up for annual plan unless you’re sure the tool will meet your needs for the year. If you’re uncertain, stay on a month-to-month plan, even if it costs a little more. Review the tool and your needs monthly to see if you feel you can switch to an annual plan to save money.
- See if you can consolidate features or capabilities. For example, if you have one tool to publish to Pinterest, and one to publish to everything else, see if the latter has added or plans to add Pinterest publishing. That would potentially allow you to get rid of the Pinterest only tool and the costs associated with it.
2: Plan Options and Limitations
Tool usually have pricing tiers that vary based on any number of different features. Some of the most common are:
- The number of users. Plans may be per-user only, or may allow a set number of team members per pricing tier.
- The number of social networks you can connect. For example, the free pricing tier may allow you to connect your Facebook account, the next tier might allow you to connect 5 social profiles, the next 10 and so on. You need to pick a tool, and a pricing tier that allows you to connect, publish to, and interact on the social networks your company uses.
- Inclusion of analytics data.
- Other features. Many tools offer additional features at higher price points. These features can be anything from reports, to white labeling to you can add logos to reports, to integration with Google Analytics.
- Make sure the plan you're considering will support the number of social networks you connect to, the number of people on your team, your reporting requirements, and so forth.
- Look at the full features lists. You may find some features available on different pricing tiers that make all the difference.
- Look for tools that allow you to add-on individual features. This can seriously boost tool capabilities, giving just what you need without having to pay for anything you don’t. Hootsuite, for example, offers the ability to add team members, analytics reports, campaigns, and other features.
- Pay for features or capabilities not currently in your content or marketing plan. You can always upgrade your live accounts later if you need those features. Too often, people pay money for features that they consider “nice to have” and never use them.
- If you wish to test new features or capabilities that aren’t in your current plan ask the vendor for a free upgrade to test them. Tool vendors will often upgrade your account for free, for a time, to let you test new features. If they don’t, open a separate trial account to test the new features.
- If you mostly fit into one pricing tier, but see one or two features in a different tier you really need, call the vendor. They will often work out a custom plan for you.
3: Which Social Networks Tools Connect To, How Deeply and How Well
This is a big one. You have social networks you use and must maintain. Your tools should connect to the platforms that are most important to you. Beyond that, you should make sure the tools you’re looking at can access all the areas you need such as company pages and groups. Ask the following questions:
- Can they post to personal accounts?
- Can they post to company accounts?
- Can they post to groups?
- Can they access and make use of other platform features? Such as liking, replying, commenting, using lists and so on.
Most tools connect to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+, but Pinterest and Instagram are also networks that most business consider essential. There are still more networks on the rise.
- Evaluate tools that connect to social networks that are essential to your business.
- Make sure the tools you’re looking at can access all the areas you need like company pages on LinkedIn and groups on Facebook.
- Use social network access and depth as a key comparison between tools.
- Compare how well tools take advantage of social network rich content features such as posting four images per tweet to Twitter, the ability to include Gifs, and video content. Not all tools support the rich content capabilities supported by the social networks they connect to.
- Pay a lot of money to get a tool that only publishes to a single social network. You can always post directly to a social network from its interface, and may even be able to schedule posts. For example, we use Tailwind only for publishing to Pinterest, and Onlypult only for Instagram scheduling. Each of these tools costs only about $12 per month. A great price for the value they add, and they also provide analytics on those platforms.
- If you sell to businesses (B2B), LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter are probably very important.
- If you sell to consumers (B2C), Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter are very important.
- When using trials, publish lots of different types of content such as images, video, gifs, status updates, to evaluate how well each tool does different types of content.
4: Content Publishing and Scheduling
Most social media tools offer some form of scheduling. It's nice to be able to create or curate content in advance and post at optimum times in your schedule. It's one of the keys to taking the stress out of content marketing.
- Look for tools that support some form of queuing like Buffer. If you’re curating content, it makes it super easy to share the good content you find.
- Look for different views such as list and calendar that let you what content is going to be published when. This can help you spot relationships in content that you make wish to change or enhance.
- Look for tools that provide an easy way, such as drag and drop, to move content around your content schedule.
- Look for tools that let you easily reshare your best content.
- Look for a tool that integrates with your editorial calendar.
- Look for tools that can publish images and video natively to platforms rather than simply publishing a link. For example, Buffer can publish video to Facebook natively so the Videos appear in the news feed and can play automatically.
- Use tools that schedule in a way that doesn’t work for you or your team. For example, we use Onlypult for Instagram content scheduling because, once a post is scheduled no further interaction is needed. Some other tools require manual intervention to post to Instagram from a mobile client.
- Use third party tools to discover or validate schedule times. Tools like Audiense or Followerwonk tell you the best time to tweet. Tools like Fan Page Karma or Quintly can tell you when times and posts get the most interactions on other networks.
- Consider trying automatic content scheduling such as Hootsuite’s autoschedule or Sprout Social’s ViralPost. Measure the results against past performance, and poll your community to make sure the tools are reaching the right audience at the best times with your content.
If you’re interested in Quintly, see our review.
5. Social Interaction Capabilities
Social media is about being social and interacting. Many social media management tools focus on managing the streams of social data, with the goal of making it easier for you to process it, manage it, and respond to it. Buffer is a notable exception as it is more purely focused on content publishing and has limited engagement features. Tools like Hootsuite, which is built around stream management, and Sprout Social with its Smart Inbox that rolls up notifications from your connected social media networks, are focused on making social interaction management easier for brands.
- Look for tools that surface notifications from social networks making it easy for you to see mentions, likes, shares and other activities that provide the opportunity for, or require a response from your brand.
- Look at both the desktop and mobile versions of tools to allow your team to respond and interact easily on the go.
- Look for team features that allow follow up activities to be assigned to different team members and tracked and generally make it easier for team members to stay better informed and on the same page.
- Look for integration features to other customer service software.
- Shy away from using different tools for different social media functions. We recommend to many clients that they use Buffer for publishing Hootsuite for monitoring and interaction. It’s cost and time effective, and provides the features we need.
- Examine and document your current social media interaction process. Everything from how you’re notified for mentions, to how responses happen, to how issues are escalated. Then look at how features in the tools you’re considering can plug into, or improve your process.
6. App Integrations
Many tools have entire suites of add-on apps to choose from. Hootsuite and Buffer have huge lists of apps they integrate with. These integrations range from something you install into your control panel that becomes part of the tool's UI, to apps and services that send information into the tool. For example, Leadsift installs into the Hootsuite UI as a stream to find leads based on keywords you choose. CoSchedule can connect to and manipulate your Buffer schedule.
- Look at the list of published integrations for any tool you’re evaluating.
- Look at other tools you use to find, browse, and consume social content such as RSS aggregators and other tools to see if they provide integrations with tools you’re considering.
- Look at web base automation tools like IFTTT.com or Zapier.com to see the web rules that you can create.
- Add the cost of any necessary third-party integrations to the overall costs of the tool that requires them when considering costs.
- Evaluate integrations regularly. New integrations are added frequently.
- Test drive app integrations to make sure the work as you expect.
- Find tools the connect to link shorteners like Bitly and Tinyurl.com.
- Give up if you love most things about a tool, but it doesn’t do something you need. See if you can find an integration, or additional solution that provides the functionality you need.
- Pay for an additional integration unless you really need it, will use it, and the expense makes sense as part of your marketing budget. For example, you may have to pay for Zapier.com to run twenty rules that help distribute and promote the content you publish. However, if a person would otherwise manually need to perform the same tasks, paying for Zapier is likely a net savings.
- When looking into how to use IFTTT.com or Zapier.com with a tool, search for recipes other people use on those sites with the tool you’re evaluating. You can see how they’re using web based rules, and leverage their already existing recipes.
We are strong believers in analytics based digital marketing. You don’t know how well you’re doing, if you’re doing things well, or what you’re doing wrong if you don’t measure. There are many reasons to consider dedicated social media analytics tools, however, not everyone can afford them, or has time to learn how to use them. So always see what analytics are offered by the social media management tools you’re considering. The types of analytics tools provide can include:
- Social network profile analytics showing stats and trends for growth, follower retention, impressions, and engagement.
- Content specific analytics that help you identify your most and least popular content.
- Publishing analytics that can help you determine the best times to post content to reach the largest portion or your community, or to get the best engagement.
- Data and reports that you can export or save for further analysis, or for regular reporting on social media activities.
- Look for tools that integrate with Google Analytics or the analytics software you’re using.
- Make sure tools you select have analytics on all your important networks. Some tools offer a large number of reports for some social networks (like Facebook), but don’t include data, or don’t have the same reports for other (like LinkedIn).
- Look for tools that will provide either data exports or reports that you can download, print, share, and use to help you generate reports you’re required to deliver to management to clients.
- Look for additional fees associated with reports. Some tools give you some reports, but require you to purchase additional reports. That can get expensive if you need reporting for a lot of different networks.
- Look for tools that integrate with Website analytics like Google Analytics so you can really see how social media activities are impacting website traffic.
- Get thrown off by good looking reports that don’t have the data you need. Some tools offer gorgeous reports, but reports are about data. The data in the reports need to provide insights to help you improve, and reach digital marketing goals. If reports look great but don’t have the data you need, they’re just a pretty face. Move on.
- After you choose a social media management tool, and get comfortable using it. Try some of the dedicated social media analytics tools to see if the features they provide might be worth it to you after all.
- If you’re evaluating tools, it’s often a good time to evaluate your Google Analytics implementation to see if all your pages are tagged correctly and your goals are properly configured. The Google Tag Assistant extension that can make it easy to see if your website pages are tagged properly.
See our article on why you might wish to invest in dedicated social media analytics tools, and our article on how brand monitoring software can help your organization.
Some apps offer browser extensions that let you access the tool from your browser. For example, Buffer, Hootsuite, Sprout Social and others offer browser extensions to help you curate content directly from your browser. This makes content curation much easier since you’re able to curate as you find and read content on the web. Extensions help you share more, and save time.
- Look for extensions that look and operated like the interface in the tool itself so there’s no additional learning curve.
- Look for extensions preserve publishing configurations, such as default networks to share to, and integrated link shorteners in the extension.
- Be put off if there isn’t an extension for your browser. Many social media tools have extensions for the Chrome browser only. Extensions are powerful, give them a try in Chrome, even if you don’t use that browser by default. If they save you time, and make your team better, it may be worthwhile to switch.
- Look for other apps the have extensions that integrate with your social media management tool. For example Ritetag offers browser extensions that integrates with Buffer.
9. New Social Network and Feature Support
The social media landscape is changing all the time. New networks are created, others rise in popularity and importance. The last two years has seen the rise in importance of Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat. New technologies and such as periscope and Facebook video have changed the content marketing landscape for established social networks. In the last year Buffer has added the ability to publish to Pinterest and post video natively to Facebook. Hootsuite has added the ability to publish to Instagram. Choosing tools that are constantly adapting and improving will give you a better chance of keeping up changes in the social media landscape without having to change or add new tools at additional cost.
- Search for press releases over the previous year for tools you’re considering. That will help you find any feature upgrade announcements.
- Look at the blog for the tools you’re considering. Blogs frequently showcase new features and capabilities.
- Be put off if tools you’re looking at don’t connect to every network. It can take months for an established tool to add connectivity to a new network. You want to make sure they’re have a track record of continually making updates and improvements, even if it takes them some time.
- Have your team track the time they spend on social media tasks. Look for tools that will make the most difficult tasks easier, and the most time consuming tasks less so.
Beyond keeping up with the changing landscape of social media, some tools add new features, or publish companion products design to work with their other tools. This features and tools might add features or capabilities beyond those typically offered in social media management tools such as graphics creation, ad management or other services. For example, Buffer has published their Pablo tool to make it easy to create good looking images to publish with social media content in the optimal size for various social media networks. Hootsuite has added campaign creation features such as contents, and sweepstakes for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to their tool.
- Review the complete feature set of tools you’re considering.
- Pay careful attention to pricing and tiers. Often more advanced or innovative features cost more. For example, Hootsuite offers some campaigns for free, while other cost extra.
- Pay attention to features that are in beta and ask for clarification on pricing and access once features are out of beta testing. Beta test are often available at low or no cost, but, once the features are formally published may be rolled into different cost tiers. Ask the vendor how much it will cost to get access to features you want at the price tier you’re considering.
- Switch away from existing tools if changing will reduce the quality of your content, increase the time it takes your team to do the same task.
- Switch away from existing tools if a new feature or capability has just started beta testing. Give the vendor time to work out the kinks before you adopt.
- Look at other tools you might be using such as ad software, or Facebook custom tab software to see if the features in a social media management tool you’re evaluating can replace those other tools resulting in fewer tools to know, and reduced costs.
11: Letting You Work the Way You Want
Your team has a process and rhythm, and the tools you select have to work well with those processes and in those rhythms. The tools you use should make you’re your team’s job easier, and make your execution better.
- Use free trials to try out social media management tools to make sure they work well for your team.
- Compare the time spent performing tasks normally versus using tools you’re evaluating after the learning curve. See how much time tools save your team.
- Account for any other benefits, beyond time savings, that tools provide such as better analytics for published content, or better visibility into your content publication schedule.
- Waste your trial time. If you’re using a free trial, put the tool through its paces! See how well it does
- Assigned each social media team member one function to test thoroughly, such as content curation, publishing and scheduling, or community management and interaction. This will allow you be thorough in you evaluation during the trial period.
Over to you
What are the key criteria you’ve used in selecting social media management tools? Let me know in the comments.