Social media marketing. Should your brand be involved? Why your brand can’t afford to be a social media wallflower…and why your marketing must go social.

branddialogue_sm101_callout1When you spend most of your time immersed in the Social Media/Social Networking “scene”, discussing where things are going with other social media proponents, it’s often easy to forget that most companies are still trying to determine what this phenomenon is, and whether or not they should participate. I was recently asked some questions by Katie Ford, who is compiling some ideas and suggestions for customers of Hoover’s, that made me go back and think about what massive shift in culture, commerce and media is all about, and why companies should pursue it.

She had some great questions, which I’m posting, along with my responses, here.

Q: What does marketing in the age of social media look like?

The growth of social media and networking are signs of dramatic shifts in how consumers express interests and needs, share affinity, and find value.

As marketers, our job is to craft and communicate a value proposition that generates market interest and compels our prospects to purchase. For decades, this has been a one-way communication effort. But lately, as our customers use these new tools to communicate with one another, marketers are finding their audiences expect to engage in dialogue with brands rather than merely listening passively. Social media and networking provide powerful, inexpensive tools with which to participate in dialogue with your target markets.

Marketers who leverage these tools are showing their markets that they are not merely window-dressing when it comes to expressing an interest in their customers.

Whirlpool created the American Family Podcast, a parent-targeted, downloadable talk show in which they interviewed thought leaders on the state of the American family. Little or no mention was made of Whirlpool or their products. (2009 update: it appears the American Family Podcast has been discontinued by Whirlpool, an incredible shame.)

With no marketing budget, the podcast has generated more than 70,000 downloads per month, all through word-of-mouth marketing. Through this, Whirlpool was seen as an advocate for the family, which spoke strongly to their core brand values.

Eager to experiment with Facebook, Target created a Facebook group (2009 update: group page no longer active) aimed at helping college students deal with moving away from home into a small, cramped dorm room. The idea was to help students come to terms with this adjustment, with the ulterior motive of selling furnishings.

By October 2007, the group had attracted over 7,000 members, over 400 photos posted by students, 483 posts and 37 discussion topics. Feedback from students was primarily positive (statistics from Jeremiah Owyang at Forrester Research)

Q: Why should marketers pay attention to or consider social media as part of their strategic planning? Secondly, what price will they pay for ignoring it?

If marketers value their customers, they MUST consider social media as part of their brand strategy. Any Google search (typically the first place customers go to find out more about your brand) will not only turn up your official site, but will likely show customer-generated commentary on your brand — both positive and negative. Marketers who ignore this community conversation do so at their brand’s peril.

According to a 2006 Edelman PR study, when asked where they turn as the most credible source of information regarding a brand or product, 68% of respondents said “a person like me.” Clearly, trust and authenticity are hugely important to purchase decisions. As the “volume” of the customer dialogue grows around a brand, the more “people like me” are heard – and the more a finely-honed, one-directional marketing message will sound self-serving, inauthentic and untrustworthy.

Marketers will invest millions in lead-generation and brand building efforts this year. Without taking into consideration this very loud conversation happening outside of their control, they are dedicating marketing spend toward highly-polished communication channels that are of less and less interest to their targets.

A metaphor I think works well for the social media space is a large cocktail party. You’ll enter the room and be sized up by attendees. They’ll wonder what kind of person you are, what your values are, who you associate with, how impactful you are to the market. They WILL talk about you behind your back, in groups that trust each other’s opinions. Knowing that, what will you wear? How will you act? What will you say? When encountering a snide remark, how will you react? If all you care about is your (brand’s) own appearance, and you ignore and disengage from these conversations, a marketer is a little like a person spending more and more on clothing to attend a party where no one wants to talk to them. What’s the point?

Q: In your observations, what types of companies (or industries) are embracing social media in their marketing plans? Which ones are not? Do you have theories on why certain companies/industries are leveraging social media and others aren’t?

Many companies have taken tentative steps into the social media space over the last three years or so. Consumer brands with youthful audiences, such as Coca-Cola, Ford, Target, American Apparel, Juicy Couture, and Acuvue have embraced social media as part of their marketing efforts. American Apparel, for example, got a huge awareness spike by merely opening a virtual store in the 3D world of Second Life, in which they sold virtual goods.

Social media adoption – tied to marketing leadership generationalism?

Why are certain companies or categories investing more into social media? I believe it’s due to the generational social issues inherent in their marketing leadership.

Marketers like myself, perhaps aged 38 and above, were from the generations who were taught not to overshare, not to over-express nor to be self-aggrandizing. For these generations, you put on your best outward appearance, controlling your own behavior and appearance as best you could. Adages such as “never let them see you sweat,” “put your best face forward,” and “keep a stiff upper lip” were taught to us since childhood. Marketers my age were also taught to try to displease as few people as possible, to be appropriate and acceptable to as wide an audience as possible, in hopes of maximizing revenue opportunities. These marketers seem to direct their outbound communications in a similar way: high level of polish, avoid dissent and control your image.

Gen X and Gen Y marketers, however, learned to share more with others, to worry less about façade and more about substance. To me, they seem less concerned about appearances and more interested in being understood. They prefer to be themselves and to find others with shared outlooks and affinities rather than trying to be all things to all people. Their marketing seems to follow similar directions: to seek out more venues to express brand values and to communicate with audiences with shared affinity. With the search and affinity tools inherent in social media, younger marketers seem to embrace these tools more readily, compared to older marketers who are more likely to vet image and copy through management, PR and legal departments.

Q: In your opinion, are their certain types of businesses that shouldn’t include social media in their marketing plans? If so, who are they and why is social media not their best bet?

B-to-B companies should monitor the online dialogue around their brand, but until vertical-specific social networks emerge, these companies are less compelled to invest in it.

That said, B-to-B companies can set up their own customer networks to allow brand zealots to connect with one another in a “walled garden” environment. Upside: the pre-sold help sell the unsold. Downside: who has time for all these online communities? Companies need to be realistic about whether such an effort would truly draw time and attention from time-starved customers.

Q: Are certain types of social media better/worse for specific messages that you want to get across to your audience/consumers? For instance, is a blog from the CEO always your best bet?

It depends on the CEO. A strong, outgoing, market-friendly personality can propel a blog to become an authentic platform for dialogue, whereas a tightly-controlled blog with comments turned off will immediately smell like a traditional monologue mechanism.

Blogs are good feedback channels, although companies should be prepared to address how they will handle “trolls” (online louts), how to keep conversations on track, and where or when they should link to external content.

Podcasts and vidcasts put a voice and a face on a brand. They can create a stronger personal connection between the team behind the brand and their audience. These are great channels for brands that need to show more personality. However, audience quality expectations are high.

A brand presence on a social network can be good channels for offers. Like viral videos, social networks make it easy to spread interesting content to friends. This content will have a natural advantage in breaking through market noise, and if it’s a positive impression, it will be given more credibility than highly-crafted marketing messages.

Q: What kinds of marketing goals can social media help you reach in particular?

  • Conveying your value to the market.
  • Conveying your unique proposition within the competitive landscape.
  • Conveying your brand’s values, reason for being and “brand spirit”.
  • Creating affinity with your desired audience.
  • Creating a viral spread of your value prop.
  • Showing your brand and company to be authentic.
  • Providing more touchpoints for interested prospects to find via search.

Q: How can you measure your ROI with social media marketing? What metrics can you use?

This is another huge area of discussion. Generally speaking, measurement tools are evolving for this space. Traditional metrics (pageviews, clickthroughs) don’t apply. For example, how do you know that someone downloaded the entire podcast? How do you know they listened to the entire podcast?

Also, many metrics are based upon the end conclusion of a marketing effort: a sales conversion. Yet “social marketing” is as much about building affinity as it is about a conversion. Given this, many marketers are advocating measuring social media from the perspective of outcomes: awareness or conversion. Rather than trying to measure downloads or blog comments, many suggest focusing on measuring overall results.

Q: Any other noteworthy comments or statistics on this topic that my questions did not address?

Regarding the question, should companies invest in social media, here are some interesting statistics:

Now that it has opened up its community to anyone, Facebook has more than 54 million users, which, if it were a country, would make it the 24th largest nation in the world. It adds over 250,000 new users a day — equivalent to the entire population of St. Paul, MN or Fort Wayne, IN signing up each day. That’s just crazy!

Recent statistics released by Facebook claim that over 55% of its users are over the age of 35. They project that 75% of worldwide users will be out of college by December. College students are officially in the minority. This older demographic is interesting to marketers because according to Forrester Research, more than half of adult professionals on social networks are wanting to hear from their brands in those venues.

For comparison, as of September 2007, MySpace had over 200 million active accounts, which would make it the fifth largest country in the world.

POINT: social networking and media are neither fads nor something just for kids. As a primary intersection point between culture and media, they are clear indicators of where marketing efforts must be.

Also, when placing purchasing opportunities into the context of trust networks and shared affinity, more people take action than on traditional websites. For example, Facebook newsfeed ads are generating 4%-26% higher clickthrough rates than traditional banner ads.

Weaver tips for businesses considering social media

  1. Take the time to study and participate in social media before engaging in marketing to these audiences. Missteps are painful and public.
  2. Be very transparent and honest. Consumers often assume marketers are self-interested. By being transparent, you curtail doubt.
  3. Ask your visitors to provide feedback on your communication efforts. These tools allow you to easily gather feedback.
  4. Be fearless. Many marketers will cringe when they get their first scathingly negative comment. You will receive both positive and negative commentary. Use it to learn about your market and your brand impression.
  5. Draw up engagement boundaries. When should you respond to a negative critique? When should you be silent? When should you ban a “troll” from your corporate blog? Determine how you will behave in the public eye — when you’ll assert control and when you’ll let the market be itself.

The best conversationalists are the best listeners

All in all, social media and networking are incredibly inexpensive to explore. Going back to the cocktail party metaphor, better for companies to know now how they should engage their markets “socially” than to be an overdressed wallflower brand that no one wants to talk to.

2009 Update

I recently found Katie’s whitepaper posted on the Internet. You can view, print or download the whitepaper here.

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