When taking friends to your favorite restaurant, what's the first question they ask when the menu arrives? Nine times out of 10 it's probably, "What's good here?" No surprise, right? Whether we're buying a car, staying at a hotel, planning a vacation, or even ordering food, we all look for endorsements. It's human nature; we want to minimize the uncertainty in life.
With our natural tendency to solicit this type of input, why would anyone be surprised by the adoption rates of social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube? These sites allow us to extend our reach beyond our friends, neighbors and family, to get to people just like you and me anywhere. Every day people are creating content on these sites about their interests and experiences that you and I can then search to find their endorsements or read about their experiences.
But how does search marketing fit into this social networking craze? In essence, social networks are really just another form of search. Think about it, when you're on these social sites, you're conducting queries, or browsing through categories and topics, or you're inviting people to join, or your being invited... all in an effort to find something of interest.
Finding that something is usually not a problem, for the interests of these communities run both wide and deep, and these communities are virtually never at a loss for something to talk about-- and generate content about. And whether you like it or not, your brand is probably already a topic being discussed. What's scary is that you have no control over it. You can't run that online content through the creative department, or the brand team or the legal folks. You just have to grin and bear it. But you don't necessarily need to be afraid of unfavorable content.
In truth, unfavorable or negative content can serve a purpose. As a consumer or researcher, finding negative opinions is just as important -- if not more so -- as finding the positive ones. People want to know why others didn't like something before making their final decision. Not only will it help the decision-making process, but it will also help set expectations about the product or service about to be bought.
Now granted, in a perfect world every one of your customers would speak highly of you and provide glowing referrals. Unfortunately, our world is not perfect, and as the saying goes, "you cannot please all of the people all of the time." So somewhere along the line -- if not already -- you're bound to encounter some user-generated content that creates doubt and suspicion and reduces the level of confidence during your prospects' decision-making process. So your goal is figure out how to outweigh this negative rhetoric with positive content.
How and where to start
But prior to investing the time required to create mechanisms to generate such favorable content, search marketers need to assess the value of social networks and determine whether or not developing a strategy would be worthwhile. A good place to start is by identifying some metrics.
Though you as a search marketer may not realize it, chances are you're already using this channel. MySpace.com currently presents its visitors with sponsored ads driven by Google AdWords based on queries conducted by MySpace site visitors. Therefore, if you participate in AdWords, depending on the prominence of your ads, you're ad may be syndicated out to MySpace.com. Xanga.com, another social network site of Weblogs, displays sponsored results based on queries that are syndicated from Yahoo's Search Marketing Program (PPC). So if you have a Yahoo PPC campaign, your ads might already be reaching this community. If either of these are the case for you, this is a great starting point to evaluate the value of such traffic from the social networking channel. You'll need to analyze your web traffic logs to identify sites like these as the referrer. I would caution you not to focus solely on clicks and on the desired action (conversion) that you want visitors to your site to take as the key performance indicators. I believe that the users of these sites are typically looking for non-biased, non-commercial content, and are not looking to click on an advertisement. As a result, when they do click on an ad, chances are they won't act favorably.
However, the key here is to look at other metrics to either support or refute the idea of developing a social networking strategy. For example, consider using impressions as an indicator on whether or not an opportunity exists for your products and services. But don't make the mistake of looking at this channel through direct response lenses only. Instead, try to measure brand influence and increase in awareness, and treat it as a channel that will lead your audience to search or to your site directly. Granted, creating this shift in thinking and measurement is easier said than done, but it will provide the information you need to make a strategic decision about this medium. According to the "Viral Marketing: Beyond Social Media" report published by Jupiter Research, "74 percent of viral marketers surveyed say they hope to increase brand awareness with their campaigns, while 54 percent expect to drive online sales and 44 percent hope to drive offline sales."
Besides tangible metrics, I would suggest identifying metrics that you can then correlate with other channels. For example, say you created a buzz campaign on MySpace, and then experienced an increase in natural search referrals. Be sure to keep a record of your timelines in order to draw correlations with increases and decreases across channels.
In addition to identifying metrics for your assessment, there are unique social networking characteristics that you should consider when developing your strategy. It is important to realize that it's a creative process. Not "creative" in the traditional sense, but rather in the "cool idea" sense. Typically, a social networking strategy will need to push the envelope when it comes to a brand's comfort zone in order for it to be effective within a social network community.
Once you've identified your metrics and assessed the value, your first course of action is to figure out how to create some buzz and get the community talking about you on their own. BMW is a great example of the power and reach of this technique. A little while back, the auto-maker created several five-minute action movies with big celebrities showcasing their cars. The result? Major buzz. The films were passed around from one fan to another and were posted and linked to everywhere. Now while I doubt that someone immediately went and bought a car after watching one of these short films, I am certain the campaign gave BMW's brand awareness and recognition a boost.
Beyond creating unique, exciting and entertaining content that will be "picked up" by this community, marketers should also consider creating a competition or a game of some sort to engage such communities. This approach is similar to a viral marketing campaign, where this channel can become the launching pad. In addition, if you have a promotion or a new product launch, you can actually sponsor a group with these sites. I'd suggest getting some of your best customers who are loyal and true to you to engage in the dialogue. These types of customers have strong social networks, especially in the gaming and entertainment area. Sprite's MySpace campaign is a great example of how a social networking site can be used as a promotional vehicle.
Clearly, social networks have become a powerful channel that when leveraged correctly can improve brand awareness and create buzz. But on a fundamental level, social sites are really just a different form of search, as people are always looking for something within these communities. Search marketers need to determine how to measure and quantify the channel, and the resultant brand recognition will produce either direct traffic or eventual searches in mainstream search engines. The bottom line is that your brand is being talked about in social networks. The question for search marketers is, do you want to be a part of the dialogue, with or without your audience knowing?