Today's social media environment is nothing new, except of course the scale and speed of conversation. As marketers, we often look at social media as a new media outlet. The core of social is not outbound messaging, instead the value is found in interpersonal communication. So marketers seeking to participate in these conversations need to recognize the parameters of conversation and avoid becoming "chatterers" and instead welcome participants in the conversation.
These five simple strategies can help you get your brand into the social space without becoming a bore:
Listen to conversations
One should never forget that we have two ears and one mouth -- therefore we should spend twice as much time listening as we do talking, and the same rule applies to social media. With so much going on in the social space, it's tempting to jump in and start talking, but your audience will very quickly disengage and stop listening to what you have to say. The first criteria of any good conversationalist is listening to others and then adding to the conversation. So how do you listen in the social space? There are a wide variety of tools you can use, but the first step usually starts with search (like many other web interactions). Go to your favorite search engine and type in your company name and you'll get an instant snapshot of what's being said. With many search engines you can now limit your results to a specific social channel (e.g. blog posts) and see what's being said about your company and/or products. Twitter's search tool provides insights into what's being said within their space, and similar search functionality appears in many of the social environments. Once you've become comfortable with the tools, you should probably consider upgrading to a social monitoring service. There are many choices of them out there, each with specific benefits, so I'll avoid making any specific recommendations. One important thing to understand is that even with these tools, social media monitoring (or listening) is a time consuming but very worthwhile effort. Monitoring systems are great tools, but they still need man power to manage and understand the implications of what you find. It's critical you invest not only money, but also the necessary time to be successful.
Surrounding conversations is a great way to be part of the social space without distracting the conversation. The idea here is to be where the conversations are without taking them over. I liken this approach to the practice of stadium advertising. Whenever you attend a major sports event, you're often inundated with ad messaging throughout the venue. Perhaps it's a few simple signs around the auditorium, or 25 logos plastered on every car driving by. You've inserted your message/branding into an environment where people have come together to share an experience. In the social space, this is typically incorporated as banner or text ads surrounding conversations. By placing ads in this manner, you're letting your audience know you're aware of their interests and what they are doing, but you're not trying to interrupt. In general, you'll have a low response rate to these ads, but it does a tremendous amount to build awareness with relevant audiences.
So what do you do when there aren't conversations that make sense for your product or service? One great option is to provide a venue for the conversation. Much like the liquor companies that sponsor events at spring break, providing a venue for people to engage in conversation can be a great way to establish your brand among your core constituents. Some good examples of this can be found in the blogosphere where corporate and topic-specific blogs have been created and communication is encouraged. For example, in the pet care industry there are several blogs that are "sponsored" by major brands, but they provide a facilitated discussion about pet care, often with a well-respected veterinarian leading the conversation. By providing this type of resource to consumers, the brands are perceived as helpful and benevolent, and this can significantly add to brand loyalty.
Participate in conversations
So here we are at strategy No. 4 and I'm just now getting to the idea of participating in the social space. While this is the first place most brands want to go, it's important to recognize the value the other approaches provide before engaging in this type of effort. Participating in conversations requires dedication and prudence in posting. You don't want to just jump in to any venue and start random postings, you need to have a very focused effort and consider the array of places your audience may be. For example, one major computer manufacturer is closely engaged with one of the online answers sites. When folks post questions about related products, they have a trained staff member post related answers. The answers aren't "salesy" in nature, but instead offer valuable information to consumers. One item of note in this approach is that it's crucial to be fully transparent about your brand affiliation. Don't try to hide behind an anonymous post. Instead be very public about who you are and why you're answering this specific question.
Encourage engagement in conversations
Finally, as any smart marketer knows, the best customer is the engaged customer. Your Facebook fan base (or do we call them "like base" now?) is a highly engaged audience that has publically raised their hand to say they like your products and/or services. Wouldn't you like to do more with this group? There are many approaches to take these audiences to the next level such as offering mailing lists, surveys, or even member events can get your social audience to the next stage of engagement with you.
Social is about conversation. There are a lot of ways to get involved. You need to look at your objectives, overlay these strategies, and determine which tactics will deliver on your goals. One last word of advice: Go back and read Emily Post's etiquette guide on conversation. You'll find some great tips there that still apply and will help make you the person everyone wants to chat with at the cocktail party!
Peter Platt is chief digital officer for Catalyst Direct.
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