Social Media: Your Customer Is More Important Than Ever

Raise your hand if you are a social media user. (OK, you can put it down. Your coworkers are starting to stare.)

Not sure what a social media user is? Let’s take a little test. Do you have a profile on Facebook or LinkedIn? Do you write a blog? Do you frequently IM or send text messages? Do you use Skype, Basecamp, or delicious? How about uploading photos from your cell phone to the Web?

If you said yes to any of the above, you are a social media user. And as we race into the beginning of 2009, you’re far from alone. That term applies to just about everyone who uses a phone or computer.

But there’s a deeper meaning to social media than just visiting sites or using devices. What it really means is participation. And participation is a very important idea because it’s related to collaboration. Collaboration produces a kind of co-ownership, a collective contribution. A shared stake or responsibility, an ongoing relationship. When we participate, we co-create.

In other words, your customers help create your product. And when power shifts to the consumer, that’s serious business.

But what exactly is social media? Aren’t all forms of media social?

Not by a long shot. Television, as entertaining as it often is, isn’t social. Neither is radio, though call-in talk radio gets close. Print materials (billboards, newspapers, and magazines) aren’t usually social. And direct mail definitely isn’t social; some would even call it anti-social.

Social is a two-sided affair. Whereas television broadcasts information, the Web invites collaboration. This has more or less been the case all the way back to the 1980s, but in the last several years we’ve seen a revolution in user behavior. The Web is the same, but it’s being used much differently. In 2005 and 2006 alone, social behavior on the Web grew exponentially. Look at any chart depicting social Web sites compared to static ones in the last three years, and you’ll see two lines diverging radically. The former is climbing toward some Himalayan summit, while the latter is treading water at sea level.

It drives home an important point: broadcast media is dead. Gone. Your teenage kids don’t even remember it.

For businesses in 2009, the new digital brand challenge isn’t getting the word out, it’s bringing users into the fold. It’s about engaging your customers to co-create new value for your business. What do you do when your customers have a genuine stake?

Part of the answer is to give them a voice. Offer a mechanism for them to create value for themselves. Empower the people, and they will generate authenticity — a coveted brand identity that can be earned but never truly bought.

It’s quickly getting to the point where consumers expect to find user reviews on almost every site they visit. An e-commerce experience without user ratings looks almost naked. If your site doesn’t utilize a review/ratings component, there’s a good chance your visitors will go elsewhere to find them. Business will be lost.

In other words, social media is good for your bottom line. Very good.

And now a plethora of tools — WebTrends, Bazaarvoice, Omniture, and BuzzLogic, to name but a few — is emerging to measure just how good. Imagine being able to monitor online chatter and sentiment, to streamline the effort of engaging meaningfully with customers. And have this all wrapped up in your monthly site metrics.

Measuring the success of social media means deemphasizing terms like “reach,” “frequency,” “impressions,” and “click-through rates.” It means understanding who your users and customers are, who influences them, and how to engage with those influencers. It means emphasizing engagement over conversion. It means participating with them to build your brand.

In the new marketing landscape, all else may be secondary.

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