As a small business social media strategist, I’m very happy to see so many companies finally beginning to recognize the need to invest some of the marketing dollars into social media. I’m ever more happy to see how many of them are willing and able to dedicate some internal staff to the matter. On the other hand, I’m finding that many of these companies have absolutely no idea WHY they need a social media strategy. They just feel the pressure to get involved and hope something will come from it.
Unfortunately, that’s no way to build a strategy. What good does it do to invest time and money into a blog, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or any other number of social media outlets if you have no goals, no measurement and quite frankly, no idea why you’re there.
What companies need to do is embrace the benefits of social media while very carefully thinking through the goals of their outreach efforts. Different goals will require different strategies. Taking a shotgun approach of simply trying to “get out there” will rarely result in a solid payoff. It’s far better to sit down and carefully consider what your company’s goals are and to build backward to create a strategy that’s most likely to meet those goals.
2009 is coming to a close and most companies are already deep in planning with their 2010 marketing budgets. With that in mind, here are four key reasons why your company needs to consider planning and launching a social media campaign next year.
Reason #1: Social Media Gives You Unprecedented Ability to Listen to Your Customers
For companies that don’t already have some type of social media strategy in place, this is usually the best place to start. While it takes a little bit of common sense and guidance to create an active and vocal outreach plan that will deliver results, pretty much anyone is capable of listening to the existing conversation.
The goal here is threefold.
- Find out where your customers are: The first thing you’ll need to do is find out where your customers and potential customers are spending their time. You can run a search for groups or fan pages on Facebook, search for keywords related to your business on Twitter Search, set up Technorati and Google Alerts or using a free service like Social Mention. You can (and should) also check your log files to see what types of social sites (blogs, forums, Twitter, etc…) are sending traffic to your site.
- Find out what your customers think of you and your competitors: Once you’ve figured out where to look (or as part of that process) it’s a great idea to run searches for your company (and products) and for your competitors and their products. This lets you know what your customers like and don’t like which gives you an excellent starting point for making changes, playing to your strengths and otherwise building offerings that will appeal to your audience.
- Find out what your customers’ passion points are: This becomes one of the keys of a social media listening strategy and it’s one that’s often overlooked. Social media listening isn’t just about hearing people praise or complain you, it’s about identifying subsets of potential customers and learning about the things that drive them to conversation. Finding out what makes them tick and finding the hot button topics that get them focused.
Basically, companies need to view social media as a sort of endless focus group they can tap at any point in time. For companies that invest in listening and really sit down to consider how this information impacts them, there’s amazingly valuable information available. Using this information to impact all forms of marketing can make this specific strategy perfect for companies who don’t have time to invest in a social media voice, but who want to reap some of the benefits.
Reason #2: Social Media Gives You the Chance to Build or Introduce a Brand
Sometimes, the entire goal of a social media strategy is to create awareness about a new product, a service or a brand. Consumers are heading online in droves to have conversations and thanks to the explosion of interest in microblogging, social networks and blogs, they’re talking about more topics and reaching more people than ever before.
Getting a customer to talk about your product used to mean they mentioned it to a handful of friends or co-workers. These days getting them to talk about it might mean they share it with hundreds of friends on Facebook, thousands of contacts on Twitter or even tens or hundreds of thousands of readers on a blog. That’s a massive amount of potential exposure.
- Use social media to introduce a brand new company to the world: This is one of the most popular ways of using social media. New companies are springing up all the time, often in very competitive markets. Finding (or paying for) brand evangelists to go out, build relationships and educate communities about these companies can be very effective. The key here is to come at things from the relationship and educational side of things. Plugging or pushing products on social media rarely works, gently creating opportunities for exposure by becoming part of the community can get the job done very effectively.
- Use social media to introduce an existing brand to a larger audience: For companies that simply haven’t gotten into the social media space yet, there’s tons of opportunity to grow beyond their current reach. These are the types of companies that benefit most from looking at their analytics and talking to existing customers to find out what communities they’re part of online. From there, it’s a matter of branching out into new and similar communities (i.e. if you get great traffic from parenting forums, seek out new parenting forums) or finding creative ways to equip your current customers with the desire to evangelize you to their friends.
- Use social media to introduce a new product or service from an existing company: This tactic is very similar to introducing an existing brand to a larger audience. These companies generally have the head start of an existing base of loyal customers from which to build. This means they can approach existing customers who have active voices in social media and offer them the chance to test and experience the new products or services.
Reason #3: Social Media Gives You a Unique Way to Gather Feedback
Another excellent reason to turn to social media is the ability to gather feedback from your target audience. While this may sound similar to the concept of listening to the conversation, there’s a strong difference in the two goals. Listening is focused purely on listening to the existing conversation without trying to influence it’s direction. Using social media as a feedback channel is all about actively soliciting input, ideas and even complaints about your products or services.
The thing to remember with this type of social media strategy is that it takes some serious investment. You can’t just show up on a popular social media channel and ask people to tell you what they think. You have make a heavy investment into building relationships first.
There are several different ways to do this:
- Use your blog to run ideas past loyal readers before you launch them: The great thing about building up a reputation as a company who listens is it gives people reason to talk. Southwest is one of the best examples online of a company who has established a strong feedback channel with their loyal customers via a blog. If you regularly take ideas to your readers and demonstrate that you not only listen to, but act on their advice, you can open amazing doors of opportunity. Listen to your customers. Talk to your customers. Use social media to find out what they want and then deliver it. You won’t be sorry.
- Use social media to recruit a team of beta testers: Sometimes you have ideas or products you need feedback on, but are not yet ready for public consumption. While social media seems to be the very essence of “public consumption,” it can still be a very valuable outlet for beta testing. Why? Because you can use social media to establish the types of relationships needed to put together a small group of beta testers. You can reach out into the community to find influencers, build relationships with them, and offer them exclusive and early access in exchange for their feedback and ideas.
- Use social media to ask direct questions: Sometimes using social media is as simple as asking a direct question to a larger audience. Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and even YouTube can be immensely valuable in terms of getting your question out to a group of people you already know share an interest in your topic or your product. The ability to ask your customer base what they want so you can find a way to deliver it is one carries a lot of value.
Reason #4: Social Media Gives You the Chance to Demonstrate Personality
One of the single greatest advantages the Internet and social media has given small business owners is the ability to once again go head to head with their big box counterparts. A decade ago, this was because web sites gave no indication of business size. The small mom and pop shop could have a site that looked just as good, was priced just as good and carried just as much inventory as a company like Sears or Walmart. These days, smart small businesses are using social media not only as an equalizer, but as a competitive advantage.
You don’t have to look far to find a story of a consumer who feels unappreciated or ignored by a larger brand who has made them unhappy. No one likes to sit on hold for 2 hours trying to lodge a complaint or have a product replaced. Smaller brands who sell the same product at the same price but actually answer the telephone have the chance to differentiate themselves and bring in loads of new customers. Beyond that, small companies who establish a voice via their blog or social media outlets have the chance to build credibility by building relationships directly with consumers.
Here are a handful of ways to use social media to do just that:
- Demonstrate your unique personality by communicating as a person and not as the company: Companies are faceless, people are not. Using social media to tie your business brand to a personality can go a long way toward making even the largest company feel small and approachable. Whether it’s answering questions on Twitter or sharing anecdotes or stories on your blog, letting some of your personality shine through goes a long way toward helping consumers feel connected to your brand.
- Use various social media outlets to make yourself both available and helpful: This may be the single biggest way companies are using social media to establish personality right now. Whether it’s the president of Zappos making lunch plans with a complete stranger while he’s in town on business or someone from Comcast responding to customer frustration with a solution…big brands are using social media to communicate openly and helpfully with consumers and it’s paying off.
- Use social media to communicate in the way that’s most natural to you: Back in the early days of social media it was all about blogs. The problem with this is not everyone is a good writer. These days, a lack of natural writing ability won’t keep your personality from shining through. Whether it’s shooting video, recording a podcast or simply sharing unique finds and quick insight on Twitter, social media has opened up a ton of ways (other than writing) for people to communicate. This lets everyone play to their strengths and gives you a chance to be “you” in the best and most comfortable way you know how.
To be honest, there are dozens…maybe even hundreds of reasons to get involved with social media next year. These are just some of the strongest. What it all boils down to is this; your customers are online and they are using social media to communicate. If you aren’t, you’re business is missing opportunities. No one says you have to master every use of social media all at once, but you’re doing yourself (and your bottom line) a disservice if you don’t at least give some thought toward creeping into the social media space next year to do a little listening.