Social Business: Creating a Foundation for Growth

As social media continues to gain mindshare — common reports show that 80 percent of all marketers now use social media — the basic challenges remain: where to start, who to involve, and what to do. It doesn’t help that the majority of the marketers claiming to “use social media” have simply created a new talking point on Facebook or Twitter.

Instead of being early examples that you might look to for guidance, these new “social talking points” are simply extensions of traditional marketing. That means you’re right back where you started: sorting out for yourself how to get started. Here are three realistic steps that will get you headed in the right direction.

Step One: Build Your Understanding

The starting point for nearly any social media program — Fortune 500, small business, B2B (define), B2C (define), city government, or nonprofit — is understanding what the social marketplace is saying about you right now. This seems obvious, yet basic monitoring isn’t a universal best practice.

Traditional, awareness-based push marketing is different from participative, collaborative engagement of customers through social media. Shifting from one to the other requires a solid understanding of current, unfiltered perceptions. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Tools like Techrigy’s SM2 and BuzzStream are good at delivering this insight simply and clearly, and at a cost that is surprisingly accessible to any organization. I’m a solo practitioner, for example, and I use and pay for both of these services.

Why listen as the starting point? Understanding, from the customer’s perspective, what works and what doesn’t, across the entire end-to-end experiences that your organization creates, is the key to preparing for transparent engagement on the social Web. With the basics in place, you can move up to active listening, where you can also develop and manage relationships, visibly responding to and incorporating what you learn.

Step Two: Create Your Presence

With a solid understanding of customer conversations, you’re ready for the next step: establishing your basic social presence. Of course, if you’re looking to “Bogart” the conversation, you can skip listening and jump right to Facebook business pages: just recognize that much of what you say will pass without effect, into the void. Assuming you’ve taken the time and invested the energy to listen and understand, then creating a presence around a blog, like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn is next.

Take a page from the book, “Groundswell” here: taking note of your business objectives and audience, choose your points of presence. Build on your CEO or founder’s credibility and link this to similar-level decision makers — a CEO blog (that your CEO writes), combined with LinkedIn is a good starting point. Build a dialogue with socially connected consumers — Facebook, powered by short posts to Twitter and more thoughtful, provocative (think comments here) blog entries are what you want.

However you proceed, by listening first and then engaging, you maximize the beneficial conversations and minimize the likelihood of being overrun by detractors. And if your early listening reveals a large share of detractors, address the issues before encouraging unstructured conversations.

Step Three: Collaboration

Suppose you’ve set up a listening platform and put in a genuine effort at understanding what people are saying. Suppose some of it is negative. Now what?

If you don’t know how to address the issues, ask your customers, as Sam Walton suggested. By the way, have you noticed the changes at Walmart? The stores near me are brighter, with wider aisles, and offer a more appealing experience than a few years ago.

The social Web is a great place to gather the kinds of insights that lead you to beneficial change. Social customer relationship management providers, like Lithium Technologies and, offer “ideation” platforms that elicit helpful feedback. Beyond listening and accepting what you find, the challenge is to put what you learn into practice.

Here’s where the going gets a bit tougher, but the rewards are correspondingly greater. The most likely outcome of active listening is discovering opportunities that require a cross-functional effort to resolve. As a marketer, you may hit a wall right about now: that wall is your internal company structure, the departments, hierarchies, and “silos” that exist for good reasons (mostly relating to efficiency), but nonetheless thwart change.

If you’re in a matrix organization, you already have some of the tools you need to develop cross-functional teams: this is the nature of matrix organizations. If your organization is instead run according to isolated departments, you’ll need to recruit champions across the range of disciplines relating to the current problem, and also those that offer keys to the solution. Take the time to reach out, connect, and enlist — whatever it takes to put a team together that can address the challenges that your customers have identified.

Showing customers you recognize and act on suggestions for improvement — even if your experiences are “near perfect as is” — goes a long way toward calming the naysayers while encouraging your evangelists to share their positive experiences. Though much easier said than done, this is how you win in the long run in a socially connected marketplace.

Wrapping It Up

Listen-Participate-Collaborate. Follow this basic sequence, and you’ll set your social marketing extensions on a solid business footing.

The purchase cycle still begins with awareness and ends with purchase, but your promotional efforts have a whole new dimension right between the two. The consideration phase is the new battleground: as Pew’s John Horrigan put it back in 2002, “No matter what your customer sees, hears, or reads on TV, the radio, or in print, it will be verified on the Internet.”

Use social media for more than pushing your own message. Build your skills the right way and you can use this basic, new reality to your business advantage.

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