Social Marketing: Reach Out and Engage Consumers

Americans report having fewer close confidants due to longer work hours and lengthy commutes, reveals a recent Duke University study by Professor Lynn Smith-Lovin. This is hardly a surprise. One can see the results of this phenomenon in the rapid adoption of social marketing, including wikis, message boards, online forums, and other collaborative forms of media. All these technologies fulfill a very real human need to connect.

When a friend recently confided she had a serious medical problem, the first place she turned was the Internet. It not only provided detailed information on her disease and options, but, more importantly, it provided forums and message boards where she could get support from others in her situation. (My column on NFPs cites several examples of this.)

As marketers, we must understand these personal needs and social trends. Rather than plaster every available screen with advertising, we must break through the clutter to develop relationships with the real people at the other end of our communications. As marketers we are brand ambassadors and partners with our consumers.

Social marketing enables marketers to take engagement to the next level. It’s about having a public dialogue in which consumers and marketers alike participate and respond. Marketing is no longer just about broadcasting a message to a mass audience to drive sales and buzz. Instead, it’s a return to old-fashioned communication that happens to occur in a public forum. Marketing is participatory. Jim Nail, CMO of Cymfony, calls this Influence 2.0.

This has important implications for how marketers develop ongoing relationships with core consumers. Doing social marketing right takes time, thought, caring, and, most important, an ability to listen and respond with empathy. Socialtext CEO Ross Mayfield has graphed his Power Law of Participation, a great visual that shows levels of user engagement and its relative strength.

Using Social Marketing to Connect With Customers

Ways to incorporate social marketing into your marketing mix include:

  • Create message boards, forums, and wikis to reach out to customers. Based on your marketing goals, implementation may vary. Intuit’s QuickBooks Community offers a mixture of advice, blogs, forums, and other resources for its small business customers. Intuit actively solicits customer input regarding fixes to its software as well as to its marketing. It takes this conversation to the next level with Better Because of You, a page dedicated to its users where it posts the changes it’s made based on user feedback.

  • Develop a corporate blog, and post on relevant third-party blogs. To have a real effect, these blogs should engage readers in a frank dialogue about important aspects of your product line and its use. It must be genuine, not rehashed company-monitored PR-speak.
  • Solicit consumer input on your site to track and engage in a one-on-one conversation. To stay relevant and show you’re behind this effort, a knowledgeable staffer must promptly respond to comments. Don’t use an autoresponder that sends a thank-you email.
  • Engage in public forums relevant to your brand. Like other types of social marketing and blogging, you must be transparent and relevant.
  • Advertise on relevant forums to get users to engage with you. Sponsoring carefully targeted content on third-party sites may work better than straight ads. Relevance to the consumer’s needs at the time of action is critical, as users are there to interact with each other.

Measuring the Results of Social Marketing

To assess how the use of social marketing has improved your business, check these metrics:

  • Track consumer posts and time spent on these areas of your site. This shows you’ve moved a user to action. As a corresponding metric, monitor how many posts were responded to and response time. You want consumers to feel you’re interested in their comments. You can use email responses to drive sales.

  • Monitor buzz using such services as Technorati, PubSub, Google Alerts, and IceRocket or more sophisticated offerings, such as Neilsen BuzzMetrics or Cymfony. All help assess what’s being said about your brand and company to better understand how the public views your corporate and brand image, and whether it’s in line with what you’re trying to project.
  • Assess the corporate value of recommendations, such as the value of reduced time to develop innovative product improvements or using consumer feedback in lieu of valuable market research.
  • Measure costs associated with these initiatives and compare to benefits.

Consider less direct metrics, such as improved corporate image and customer satisfaction, as they may not immediately translate into sales. Engaging consumers and interacting with them in a positive way creates opportunities for future sales.

Social marketing is one way to engage consumers directly in a relationship you can work to build over time. Like any other form of marketing, social marketing requires planning, resources, and measurement of results. Doing a good job at these one-on-one interactions isn’t easy, but it builds bonds to your target market that are difficult to acquire in any other way.

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