It used to be simple: build a website and people would show up, generally through a combination of organic and paid search, online marketing, and word-of-mouth (in whatever format that “word” took). Then it moved: the primary social sites, driven by the appeal of short bursts of content – social objects – took over. A lot of marketers shifted strategy to focus on these hangouts, the big sites where lots of people connected and shared. Now it’s time to shift again, to a redefined view of your online presence.
Consider first the attraction of moving your marketing core out to the social sites. In the words of blogger Jeff Jarvis, “Fish where the fish are.” With a couple of billion people – and probably more – spread across a dozen or so big global networks, your customers are definitely there. So it makes sense to join them, or to meet them where they want to be anyway.
Building on the social networks, functional applications that offer contests, event planning, commerce, and more turn online social parties into business proving grounds. I’ve served on the advisory board for Palo Alto-based Friend2Friend for almost 10 years: it’s been amazing to watch the business platform market for social network components really take off. Whole businesses have been built, with the networks providing the audience and specialized tools providing the wherewithal to turn that audience into sales. Now we’re on the cusp of the next thing.
That next thing is, ironically, your website. The difference is that a website, done right, is no longer a one-way publishing platform, though it’s certainly capable of doing that. The real difference now is that your site – or more generally, your “on-domain” social presence – is a place where you control the customer experience, where you own the customer data. Understand here that “control” and “ownership” are in the context of the social web and not, for example, as might be defined in a traditional or direct marketing campaign. The social web is all about democratization, and nothing here changes that. So what do I mean by control and ownership?
Think about your relationship with Facebook: as a brand, you build an audience for your business page and then pay Facebook to advertise to it. When the timeline was introduced, how much say did you have in that? This is not a knock on Facebook, per se, any more than recognizing that there are differences between an owned experience that surrounds a high street boutique and a similar retailer that chooses to locate in a mall. Facebook, Twitter, Qzone, MySpace, and Google+ (take a look at Vincenzo Cosenza’s World Map for more) are critically important to your business as sources of customers and points of socialization where those customers share and exchange content. But that doesn’t mean they should control your online marketing strategy.
Jay Baer wrote an article a few years back that expresses a similar sentiment, but (wrongly, IMHO, and yes, hindsight is wonderful!) concludes that the website is dead. Far from it: your website is your new power platform. The “new” website builds on the opportunity that you have in creating your own social experience platform – building social experiences directly into your online presence. Examples include support forums, blogs, idea exchanges, and a whole lot more.
Before you think “This is crazy, I can’t compete with Facebook!” take a breath: not only should you not compete with Facebook or any of the other established networks, you can actually use them to drive your own on-domain customer acquisition. The trick is listening, and picking up on the conversations directly relating to your product, brand, or service as they happen (aka, in “real time”) on these networks. Actively engage, responding in-channel. Show customers you understand them by being where they are, and that you empathize with them by servicing them promptly in those locations.
Then take it one step further: connect them with your on-domain social resources. Are customers asking for help on Twitter? Connect them with your support forum where those questions get answered by other customers, by people like them. Trust factors are highest among customers interacting with qualified experts, social connections, and others who share similar motives and needs to themselves. The same general principle holds for other types of social interactions: by building your on-domain social experience platform you can tap into and leverage the customer flows in and around the large social sites. That is smart marketing, and builds on a strategy that you can control.
In summary, learn to see the social web with your online presence at the core. This implies that your online presence is inherently social, so if it’s not already, then start by building that capability. Around that, wrap your social engagement strategy – your listening and response capability. Use that to connect to the large social media sites where potential customers hang en masse. And finally, use your traditional awareness channels – TV, radio, print – alongside direct, search event, and other marketing channels to build awareness of your online presence, across all points. That keeps you in control of the customer experience, and thereby gives you the ability to build and manage your brand.