LAS VEGAS -- They say the greater the risk, the greater the reward. While that may be dangerous advice here in Las Vegas, it's certainly a bet marketers should be taking when it comes to social media. For some time now, marketers have been watching their worlds fall apart -- forget messages, the new mantra goes; customers want a conversation. The only problem is, conversations are by definition open-ended. For someone accustomed to sitting in the driver's seat, it's never easy when you're suddenly the passenger. As part of the Eloqua Experience 2008 conference here this week, one presentation -- "Turning the Social Technology Groundswell to Your Advantage", by Charlene Li, former Forrester Research analyst, co-author of the book Groundswell, and now founder of the new consultancy The Altimeter Group -- explained that social media isn't about the technology at all; rather, it's a focus on the relationships you want to build with your prospects, customers, and employees.
The traditional, and probably the most prevalent, type of relationships marketers have with their customers is one that Li -- who was named one of CRM magazine's 2008 Influential Leaders -- characterized as transactional, occasional, impersonal, and short-term. What marketers should strive for, especially in such a commoditized society, is one that is passionate, constant, intimate, and loyal.
To achieve this, Li outlined a four-step process:
- Know your audience: How are they using the technology and how do they want to communicate with you?
- Know your goal: What do you want to accomplish?
- Develop an action plan.
- Implement the tools and tactics.
Understanding how your customers are engaging with you on the Web, first and foremost, requires an understanding of their Internet use behaviors. According to Li, there are five stages of interactivity that escalate in their level of user involvement -- or six levels, if you count the inactive customers:
- Not active: those who don't use any social media technologies;
- Watchers: those who are consuming content on sites such as blogs and Google's YouTube;
- Sharers: those who use social networking sites to pass along or tag content created by others;
- Commenters: those who rate and review products or post comments;
- Producers: those who create and commit to a blog, or edit and adapt existing content; and
- Curators: those who contribute and edit wikis or moderate a forum. (This group, Li said, comprises the consumers who organize the Web and make it a collaborative process.)
Given the varying degrees of engagement, it's imperative that marketers figure out who makes up their customer base. That's the only way, Li said, to ensure that customers are getting responses that gives them the answers they're looking for.
When asked whether certain industries are better suited for social media, Li said no, simply because every company can afford to learn from its customers. As a player in the social media space, Li continued, there are five goals every company should strive for. While stressing that the five goals are hardly a checklist that can be easily ticked of, Li said that each one carries its own weight.
- Learn: Listen to what your customers are saying, through surveys or user forums.
- Dialogue: Engage in a conversation with them through blogs, or respond to their questions directly.
- Spark a movement: Try something to get consumers to think about your company and brand in a different way, something that inspires them to pass it on and engage more deeply with you. (As an example, Li cited Skittles, which created a Facebook page that allowed visitors to play games and create music. Moreover, if someone posted a question on the community wall, Skittles would respond.)
- Help and support an existing community: Whether you like it or not, consumers are already talking about you. The decision you have to make is whether or not you want to be a part of that conversation. Create a community for the people and provide the tools to let those people maintain the community without you.
- Innovate: Using technology from Salesforce.com, Starbucks created an online forum called My Starbucks Ideas for customers to submit their suggestions and vote on thye suggestions of others. The louder the voice, the stronger the case for change.
"Change," Li assured, "is coming." For one thing, many managerial structures today are departing from the traditional pyramidal hierarchy, opting instead for a constant back-and-forth exchange based on collaboration and fostered by social networks. Secondly, firewalls are disappearing both technologically and organizationally as companies open their doors to the horde outside.
"I'm not a marketer," said Andre Yee, senior vice president of product development at Eloqua, "but I've learned a few things about marketing and it's really challenging...part art, part science, with a little bit of voodoo magic thrown in, I think."
So it doesn't help that social media is opening up Pandora's Box, but Li offered a few pointers for getting started:
- Start small: Listen first and get an idea of what people are talking about and how they want to talk. When starting a blog, for example, it's okay to limit the readership to your close friends before launching it out to the world.
- Focus on relationships, not campaigns: A page on Facebook or a video on YouTube does not a social-media marketer make. You may have the media, but you're missing the social.
- Find the right voices: Set free the internal (and external) champions that want to have conversations with your customers about your company.
- Get the help that you need: Find industry experts who have the knowledge and experience in this field. When searching for the right agency or consultant, put them to the test. Do they:
* focus on relationships, not campaigns?
* use social media themselves?
* commit resources to learning and training of their own employees?
* learn from their mistakes? Do they admit to making mistakes?
* show respect and humility in the face of social media and the power the it brings?
- Prepare for failure: You don't come to Las Vegas thinking you're going to win every hand. Confidence helps, sure, but blind certainty will get you into trouble. Li said that even a company with the resources of Wal-mart, for example, didn't get it right until its fourth try with its blog "Checkout," Li said. But the fact that Walmart kept at it and learned from each failed mission, she said, earned her respect.
Taking on social media is no small task and the experts understand your pain. In fact, Li admitted that she welcomes each of her clients with a bottle of Rolaids. "If you don't feel a little bit queasy to your stomach, you're probably not doing [social media] right," Li said.
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