Honey, Social Media Shrunk Big Business

In the early days of the Internet, around 1994 or so, articles appeared in newspaper business sections and seminars were held at airport hotels offering to teach anyone — anyone at all — how to set up a Web page. Certainly a few individuals decided to create personal home pages, but for the most part this instruction was aimed squarely at the small businesses of the world. People who worked alone or with one or two others, offering personal services or selling products, could suddenly communicate their wares to the world.

The Internet was seen as a great leveler in those early days. No longer would businesses need to invest massive amounts of money in television commercials or glossy catalogs to make their pitches. Small businesses had just as much ability to communicate as huge companies, and whoever made the better pitch would win the business.

Then, of course, came Java, Flash, PHP, DHTML, and who knows what else. Suddenly, those with the money to spend on site creation began to differentiate themselves from those who simply assembled some pages in HTML. It became clear who was a Big Guy and who was a Small Player, in terms of both looks and functionality. It became an important part of the overall strategy for large companies to appear online as large companies.

But, as these things tend to do, the model has flipped yet again. The innovation focus over the last several years has been on enablement. That is, the thing that the best and brightest want to do is not so much to create something amazing to be consumed but rather to build something that is both powerful and easy to use and allows others to create something to be consumed. It is as though NASA decided back in the early ’60s not to go to the moon but to build model rocket kits instead.

Blogger and TypePad are maybe the best examples of this, as are Facebook Pages. The robust APIs (define) offered by Google for many of its products (e.g., Maps) and Apple for the iPhone all point in this same direction. A great thing to make these days is a platform for the development of new applications rather than the development of the applications themselves.

Which means that the Small Players suddenly have their chance to play at the top level again, just the like Big Guys. The problem, though, is that the Big Guys now want to look more like the Small Players. The whole thing reminds me of “The Sneetches,” to be totally honest.

Marketing Has Become Personal (Again)

When the Big Guys want to look like Small Players, they make deep investments, mostly in social media. If you look at Coca-Cola‘s Facebook Page, for example, it doesn’t look remarkably different from any other Facebook Page, even those created by tiny companies.

On that Facebook Page, Coca-Cola — one of the largest companies in the world and possibly the most recognized brand on the globe — is presenting itself as not just small but also personal and approachable. In fact, if you are a fan of its page, you can write on its wall. Coke has videos of its fans and simple pictures of people enjoying a Coke. These aren’t professional, glossy images but the sort of pictures we’ve come to expect online: a bit grainy, not well lit, and very real looking.

The rule, and indeed the opportunity, of the new medium is to make your marketing personal. You need a bit of guts to do it. We all have a natural tendency to speak and act in ways we feel are professional when doing business, and this is true online as well. But social media is the single most important media space for brands right now, and its nature is different. If you are a big brand, you don’t need to pretend you are small, but you do need to find ways to become approachable, engaging, and personal in the way that small brands do.

Let’s Get Small

There are a few rules to follow when you try to get more personal in your marketing. Use these methods and you can start putting some real faces next to the brands consumers think they know:

  • Start with the current fans.This is really the great story of the Coca-Cola page. It was started by two guys who simply loved Coke, not by company itself. They amassed a following of brand loyalists, totally on their own. The company came to these guys and asked for the opportunity to help them out and keep them involved. Exactly what you would do if you were an actual human being, not a great big company more concerned with protecting its trademarks than in connecting with consumers.

  • Have a person be the face.People connect with other people, especially in social networks. Certainly, people will become fans of brands and visit brand pages. But the great opportunity here is to dive at least one level deeper and provide your fans with an actual individual they can feel a real bond with. Comcast gets lots of credit for its work on Twitter through the comcastcares account. But when my cable went out and I complained about it on Twitter, I got a response from (and now have a relationship with) a particular individual. When the problem was fixed, I was compelled to send him a direct note, letting him know that everything worked out.
  • Respond like a person.Let’s be clear: the Twitterbot is an abomination. Things that respond automatically to messages on social networks should be stricken from the earth. If you are going to get into social media, get into it in the right way: a real commitment by a real person to engage with consumers. Don’t use even more technology to mediate or automate the interaction. You can use tools to help you search, sort, and monitor content. But make the interactions your business.

Corporations Aren’t People

Legally, a corporation is an interesting concept. Thanks to the work of some clever lobbyists, corporations are sometimes like individuals and sometimes like group entities (usually depending on whether the corporation is avoiding either taxes or lawsuits). That legal definition often guides the way that a company or a brand acts. But this new media lets you put much of that aside and simply let your brand act just like a person.

Join us for a one-day Online Marketing Summit in a city near you from May 5, 2009, to July 1, 2009. Choose from one of 16 events designed to help interactive marketers do their jobs more effectively. All sessions are new this year and cover such topics as social media, e-mail marketing, search, and integrated marketing.

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