For years, the stereotypical image of big business has been baked into our subconscious: Huge corporate offices, dark-suited executives, corporate jets, company cars, poor customer service, and impenetrable ivory towers have been played out in movies, television, and news media. From a customer's perspective, few of these images offer that warm and fuzzy feeling that we all look for.
Compare this image to one of your hometown shop owner. Whether it's your favorite coffee shop or farm stand, the feeling is quite different. In many cases you're on a first-name basis with the owner; your kids and the owner's kids may even play on the same little league team. When you're greeted at the checkout counter by someone who still has the dirt on their hands from picking the produce you're purchasing, it's impossible not to feel a connection with that business.
The personal connection that exists with the local shop owner (and, admittedly, with a handful of large corporations) illustrates what I call the differentiator — the art of being a "human" business. For local businesses, being "human" is in their DNA. For large corporations, the challenge to be "human" is more substantial.
The evolution of social media is changing all of this. Large and small businesses are beginning to realize that offering customers a transparent, two-way venue to offer feedback, interact with actual people, and help spread the word about their products is just as important as getting the next email or direct mailing out the door. Even in these early stages of social media's burgeoning impact, there are many examples that illustrate how businesses are leveraging social marketing to build honest, open, and very "human" relationships with their customers.
Expand Product Awareness by Dropping the Ego
Jason Jacobs, the founder of the iPhone application RunKeeper, recently put his pride aside and did something bold to expand his brand. With the help of a group of students from a local university, Jacobs threw on some spandex, dressed up like an iPhone bearing an image of his application, and ran the Boston Marathon. The team leveraged the corporate blog, Twitter, and YouTube to:
- tell Jacobs' story;
- raise money for the charity that he was running for; and
- develop substantial buzz around his product.
As he ran, Jacobs used Twitter to share with his followers the updates and pictures of his journey. By leveraging the viral nature of social media outlets, Jason was able to connect his brand with people in a way that was not possible until recently — and in the process Jacobs became a great example of how to humanize a brand through social marketing.
Leverage the Crowd to Improve Your Offering
Starbucks, through its culture, has been successful at maintaining the feel of a local coffee shop and building a loyal customer base while becoming one of the world's largest purveyors of coffee. With this large community of loyal customers, the company's decision to launch its My Starbucks Idea initiative was no surprise.
Through this initiative, Starbucks is listening to the ideas of its customers to find new ways to improve its offerings. Customers are using this social solution to offer suggestions, vote on what ideas they like, help refine the idea through discussion, and track the ideas as they are (or are not) adopted. Based on customer feedback, Starbucks recently started to post its weekly brewing schedule so customers know when they can get their favorite blend.
Crowdsourcing is an important aspect to any social marketing initiative and Starbucks is an example how a business can leverage the power of that crowd to build its brand and relate to customers on a more intimate and personal level.
Make an Ordinary Product Exciting
Tom Dickson is the founder of Blendtec, a company that makes industrial-strength blenders. How could you make a simple kitchen appliance exciting? Try making it a spectator sport. Through Blendtec's Web site, WillItBlend.com, Dickson leverages the viral nature of social video to demonstrate the power of the company's blenders by destroying common household items. Viewers watch Tom blend an array of items including iPhones, light sticks, golf balls — even a printed copy of the federal government's recent stimulus package.
The site allows viewers to rate or share the videos and suggest other items they want Tom to blend. By taking advantage of social marketing, Blendtec is expanding the reach of its brand by putting a passionate face to the "art" of blending.
Social marketing may not yet be the Holy Grail that marketers are looking for, but it certainly offers a glimpse into the changing dynamics between customers and brands. As businesses evolve within this fluid landscape, we should all look forward to the new images we will have a hand in painting while these companies learn the art of becoming "human" businesses.
About the Author
Dave Raffaele is the executive director of customer data management for Quaero, a CSG Solution. A data warehousing expert with more than 12 years of experience in delivering data-driven marketing solutions, he is an advocate of social media and the art of being human. He can ber reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter as @daveraffaele.
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For the rest of the June 2009 issue of CRM magazine — The Social Media Issue — please click here.