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Social Media as a Direct Marketing Channel
The old techniques meet the new technology.
Posted Oct 9, 2009
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Unless you've been hiding under a rock (without Internet access), you know that there is a tremendous buzz around social media right now. The incredible success of Facebook and the atmospheric rise of Twitter have brought the power of social networks to the forefront of society. If you need any proof of how mainstream social networks have become, walk into any library and see all the computers being used by patrons to check and update their myriad social networks. Even Oprah recently devoted an entire episode to Twitter. It doesn't get any more mainstream than that.

Not surprisingly, the rising popularity of social networks has not escaped the attention of direct marketers. In fact, companies like Dell and Amazon have been widely profiled on how they use Twitter to market their products to customers, who in turn expose these offers to their friends and followers. In fact, Dell's Twitter feed @DellOutlet just surpassed $2 million in sales. Similarly, many companies are scrambling to build an extensive network of "fans" on Facebook to communicate exclusive offers and create a community of loyal brand advocates. However, like any emerging channel, companies are still trying to figure out the best way to leverage social media to drive customer engagement and response.

While some companies see social networks as merely another channel for building awareness, there is new evidence that direct marketers are vying to take ownership for social network's incredible demand generation potential. StrongMail recently completed a survey of 500 marketers, who validated not only the importance of leveraging social media for direct marketing, but also in having it integrated with their email marketing programs.

The survey highlights the "land grab" that is going on in organizations over control of social media, with 29 percent of respondents saying social media is being shared by multiple departments. However, ownership by direct marketing took the lead with 36 percent of respondents. As a frame of reference, only 9 percent of respondents stated that social media was owned by public relations departments.

That social media is a viable and powerful direct channel is clear. Nevertheless, the survey also revealed social media's strong connection with email marketing. In fact, 66 percent of marketers plan to integrate the two channels in 2009. This move totally makes sense: Email is an integral part of social media, as it is relied upon to keep members informed about the latest news and updates. Furthermore, integrating the two channels allows marketers to get a more complete view of the customer, which is necessary for delivering relevant and effective communications.

The emergence of social media as a direct channel is not without its challenges. According to the survey, the top two challenges for marketers came down to finding the right strategies for measuring success and establishing business goals.  

Being able to measure success is critical to any direct marketing effort, and that's why it's important not to neglect this important step. With the right tools, marketers can create viral social media campaigns that can be tracked, measured, and optimized to maximize reach and return on investment.

Social media is a valuable new tool in a direct marketer's toolbox, but it needs to be sharpened and used correctly to accomplish the task at hand. Making it easy for customers to share Web site or newsletter content over social networks is just the beginning. Direct marketers need to develop viral programs that fully exploit the channel's true potential. Finally, they need to identify ways to measure their success, which will allow them to fine tune their efforts going forward. 

Leveraging social media as a direct channel also enables central ownership, which is key to maximizing success across all departments. Eliminating multiple owners not only streamlines the process, it facilitates having one cohesive strategy that can accommodate the business objectives of multiple departments, such as sales, public relations, and customer service. Uncoordinated management by multiple departments can lead to mixed messages that hamper the company's ability to attract fans, followers, or other influencers.

Email marketers understand the value in sending targeted messages and measuring their effectiveness, which is why it's not surprising that many companies are leveraging their email marketing departments to embark on social media initiatives. Not only are the two channels closely related, they are also the top two areas of investment in 2009. As companies catch up with the social media trend, their direct marketing departments will no doubt be leading the charge.

About the Author

Ryan Deutsch (rdeutsch@strongmail.com) is vice president of strategic services and market development of StrongMail Systems. He is an email marketing veteran and industry thought leader with 12 years of direct marketing experience across the catalog, retail, and publishing industries. Follow him on Twitter @rdeutsch.

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