The socialization of the web was the most important and transformational trend of 2006. It was even more present in 2007, and it's showing no signs of stopping this year. With more than 70 percent of Americans (ages 15 to 34) actively using social networking, and 90 percent of marketers now characterizing online customer engagement as "essential" or "important," there's little confusion over why brands are increasingly thinking and behaving like community and content companies.
But with the pace of Web 2.0 innovation, marketers are confronted with a tsunami of features, concepts and oddly spelled lingo. With all the noise and jargon being tossed around, it's often difficult to discern prescience from platitudes.
As a practitioner of "online community" for more than 10 years, even I occasionally mismatch my moblog with my meebo or mistakenly twitter my trackbacks. So what exactly is social media? What's a simple definition that I can use to organize my thoughts and make some basic decisions about where and how I should be investing in this new dimension of online marketing?
To get straight to it, social media is composed of three core concepts: (1) user-generated content, (2) user-enhanced content, and (3) social networking.
Let's take a look at each of them.
With user-generated content (UGC), your visitors create or submit their own content to your site. This type of participation may take the form of blogs, forums, photos, videos or several other formats. UGC turns the microphone over to the critics, experts and fans you never knew your brand had. It gives a real voice to the consumer and is perhaps one of the most profound ways to demonstrate that your brand is truly customer-centric.
Adding UGC to your online marketing initiatives gives visitors another very compelling reason to stick around for a while, return and ultimately build a relationship with your brand. Cautious marketers might be fearful of deleterious UGC winding up on their sites, taking the brand experience off-message. But don't let fear of negativity stifle your efforts; you'll find that candid criticism makes the praise even more credible and potent -- and it buys you consumer insight that's seldom detected through traditional research.
An inclination towards trust is supported by a recent Forrester report that showed that more than 80 percent of reviews in Amazon.com's Electronics and Home & Garden categories were positive, and the negative reviews were generally considered helpful by shoppers.
In the case of user-enhanced content, you've already got original editorial or product content, and you let your users annotate, score and share it according to their preferences. By empowering site visitors to animate your content, you can quickly enable entirely new ways for consumers to experience your brand and learn about your offerings online. Consider the notion of letting users rate your product portfolio. In addition to presenting your version of the catalog, couldn't a "top-rated" rendering help drive awareness, consideration or preference for premium products? Could similar scoring and sorting models help consumers make more confident purchase decisions, thereby reducing returns and stimulating repeat? Those scenarios are more than likely, given that a full third of internet users say that their purchase decisions are influenced by socially driven content.
One of the most common misperceptions about community is that it can be had simply by enabling some level of participation or contribution. But does a list of reviews attached to a product page really constitute community? Marketers should filter ideas and objectives about building true community through questions like:
- Can you hang out there?
- Can you carry on an engaging conversation?
- Can you meet people and form meaningful relationships?
The right level of social networking holistically ties together contributions and contributors across your site. In fact, this dependence is actually co-dependence; just like user-generated content on its own doesn't equal community, social networking never succeeds when it's done purely for its own sake. In order to generate value, social networking must be "about" something. Your brand and the constellation of attributes and values that encircle it are as good a connective tissue as any for long-lived and purposeful social networking.
So what's the downside of using social media? The most common concern I hear from marketers is about content risk. With any social media endeavor, it's important to find the right balance between openness and oversight. Nine times out of 10, it's simply not necessary to hand-review every piece of content before it is published. You'll find that dispatching a few of your trusted and most personable staff to tour the floor and engage with customers is worthwhile and immensely additive -- and not surprisingly, this practice is highly complementary to virtually any customer-centric brand experience, online or offline.
For example, in CircuitCity.com's CityCenter community, knowledgeable customer service reps and even experts from CircuitCity's Firedog business regularly jump in to answer questions and assist users. The difference is that online, those customer interactions are on display for the world to see -- and that's high leverage, from both a customer service perspective and a customer-centric brand building perspective.
The three core principles of user-generated content, user-enhanced content and social networking as I've laid them out here should serve as building blocks around which to organize your concept development and planning. It's important to point out that there is no right or wrong prescription for weighting the elements of social media, and the specific combination of capabilities that's right for your business is heavily dependent on a multitude of factors.
As a starting point, here are three questions I encourage marketers to know the answers to before embarking on any significant social media initiative:
1. What is my intended audience already doing online?
Are they shopping, researching, dating, social networking? What sites do they frequently visit, and importantly, what is their predisposition to social media and expressing themselves online? Do 8 percent or 80 percent of them have Facebook profiles?
2. Where is my greatest opportunity to add value through social media?
In your typical customer funnel or "journey," what are the points along the way where online plays the most important role? Where has online or community moved the needle in the past?
3. What are my criteria for judging success?
Why are you doing it, and what outcome are you looking for? What will you do if and when you reach your objective? And what if you don't?
The opportunities and applications for effectively using social media are plentiful. Photo contests, celebrity blogs and sponsored communities are just a few of the ways marketers can begin to leverage the power of community.
While social media clearly transforms many of the online techniques marketers have embraced over the last 15 years, business fundamentals and the laws of physics have yet to change. As with any marketing initiative, marketers are well advised to apply the same practices of testing, measuring and improving, iteratively and constantly.
No matter how you decide to further your community strategy, remember that success doesn't come easy. Planning the integration of social media into your marketing efforts deserves as much thought and attention to detail as you would give to other similarly budgeted programs. Taking a hands-on approach, thinking holistically, and getting staff directly interacting inside the community are important pieces of bringing an integrated brand experience to market.
As the web becomes a more social and porous medium, remember that interaction and community are going to happen with or without your involvement. You can watch the conversation take place, or you can own and guide it.
Adam Weinroth is director of product marketing for Pluck. .