How to Boost Your Online Presence

Like most savvy online marketers, you probably already use a combination of outreach channels to get your message into the hands — or, more accurately, the eyes and ears — of your potential customers. That’s great. But you can do more. Here, I’ll dive into a handful of easy social techniques and tools that you can use to not only get your party started but keep it lively and make it popular as well.

You’ve started with the basics, such as online media, keyword buys, and e-mail aimed at your opt-in customers. These always have and still do make sense. Regardless of age or technology-use profile, nearly everyone online now makes use of at least one of these channels.

Now you’re wondering, “What else can I do?” For starters, change that question and instead ask, “What can my customers do for me?” If you’ve got your interruptive outreach channels covered — meaning, you’re potentially visible and simply waiting for notice in all the right places — then being more interruptive probably isn’t going to get you very far. At a certain point, saturation, the point at which additional spend in outreach channels results in a near-zero or negative change in positive awareness, takes over. More likely, and at a somewhat lower spend level (in other words, occurring earlier than standard saturation models would suggest), interrupting your audience at all is a turnoff. The consumer backlash against interruptive media and advertising documented in 2004 by Jim Nail (then at Forrester Research), Pete Blackshaw (then at Intelliseek), and others is real, and it can hurt you.

Given the widespread use of the social Web by a growing segment of mainstream consumers, instead of adding to the clutter, ask how you can enable your customers to do your work for you.

The big assumption here — and we all know the old saw about assuming — is that if you hand your customers a microphone they will say something nice about you. If they won’t, stop reading here. Until you can change this, interruptive media that denies your customers a voice is probably your best bet. Of course, sticking your head in the sand won’t build your brand, at least over the long term. The effective use of any social channel begins with a delightful customer experience. If you aren’t providing one now, then print this column, grab your COO, and take her to lunch. Work out a plan to improve your customer experience.

For those who provide a solid customer experience, turning message control over to your audience isn’t nearly as daunting as it seems. Following are the elements I recommend starting with:

  • Engage. Give your brand a voice and let your customers manage it. Add a corporate blog to your online presence and let your customers use it. Software platforms like Movable Type, ExpressionEngine, Jive Software, Lithium, and Mzinga make it easy to add this capability. If you add any social elements to your online presence, you’ll also want a set of internal policies that speak to who blogs, how bloggers are expected to conduct themselves, the importance of disclosure, and the processes that ensure it, as well as operational issues like post and comment moderation. Lithium and Mzinga both provide turnkey services in this area. IBM provides the gold standard in blogging policy. Review IBM’s procedures as a starting point in developing your own.

  • Participate. Are your customers, or a significant subset, using Facebook? Create a fan page. Fan pages are much better than simple profiles; fan status means you’ve earned the ability to directly message your audience. Yes, it’s more work than simply setting up a profile, but it’s worth it.
  • Listen. Employ the microblogging channels — and not just for talking, as you won’t gain followers if your conversation is all one-way. Make sure you listen, too. Brands like Zappos, JetBlue, and Southwest Airlines make great use of Twitter. There are more, too: Identi.ca, Ping.fm, FriendFeed, and Jaiku are all part of your potential mix as well.
  • Show yourself, literally. Use Seesmic to create the video equivalent of a text-based microblog. Many new laptops have video capability, either through a built-in camera or one that can be easily added on. Check out “AskSeesmic,” the company’s support forum; you’ll instantly see why video makes so much sense in this application. Create short, topic-focused videos using Seesmic, then watch as your customers create their own video responses. You’ll see how ridiculously easy it is to use video compared to typing everything.

Taken together, these techniques will boost any online presence. Of course, two big caveats apply. First, align any social efforts with your business objectives. Without this essential grounding, you’re flapping in the wind. Second, check your customers’ capabilities. If they aren’t able or likely to create content, don’t build a social strategy that counts on user-generated contributions. Focus instead on giving them alternatives to interruptive media that will simultaneously engage them and introduce them to the idea of creating their own content. Social media gurus Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li provide a simple, easy-to-use tool that will help you begin to understand what you customers are likely to accept.

None of this is technically challenging, but it is different. You may need to provide some tools (“Click here to make your own video post”), some motivation (a contest or sweepstakes), and some help (“Check out our Member Forum for tips”). But again, all of this is pretty easy and well within the reach of most budgets. For the actual implementation, technology partners are ready to help you. Grab your business plan and your current marketing outline. Look at both, along with your audience, and give some thought to adding a social element to your company’s online presence.

Join us for ClickZ Presents: Online Marketing Summit, September 25 at the Sheraton San Diego.

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