Conversations about your brand are happening, whether you like it or not. No longer can you expect to tightly control every one of your marketing messages. Today, it's consumers who are in the driver's seat when it comes to wielding power over your brand.
While that prospect may seem a bit frightening, it's not such a bad thing. By becoming part of the conversation, brands can engage consumers, drive traffic, and build customer loyalty like never before.
Many marketers are getting the message and are integrating social media tools -- including blogs, photo galleries, forums, ratings, and reviews -- on their sites. In the process, they are transforming their web properties into socially enhanced experiences where people not only browse product information, but also interact with friends, exchange information, share ideas, and create new content.
But you can't take a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to building community. You need to provide a reason for consumers to connect, converse, and contribute to your site. This is not as difficult as it sounds. Consumers are eager to talk about what they're buying, how they're using it, and the brands they love. It takes a combination of tools, strategy, and organizational involvement to socialize your brand in the right direction.
Here are five tips for strengthening online growth through social media.
Know your audience.
Some brands and products are more conducive to user-generated photo galleries and video galleries. For others, basic text-based ratings and reviews might be more appropriate. Scotts Miracle-Gro is one company that's getting the balance right. Scotts recognized that the gardening and lawn care market is an information-intensive category fueled by passionate consumers who want to learn more and share their knowledge. Scotts enables consumers to participate in blogs, forums, and photo galleries designed to assist gardening enthusiasts.
Additionally, the site allows consumers to congregate in distinct groups, including urban dwellers, pet owners, and first-time home owners. These micro-communities are tailored to the individual user, allowing them to share their experiences and offer practical gardening ideas and recommendations. To date, the Scotts site has hosted more than 500,000 social interactions between consumers.
The keys to community building are authenticity, responsiveness, and personal engagement. To get it right, you must first identify the people in your organization who are comfortable with social media tools and who naturally represent the company well. These people don't even have to be in the marketing department. They could be engineers, customer service reps, or senior executives. Whoever they are, they must know how to strike an easy, authentic tone without getting bogged down by stilted marketing messages. Consumers want to see that your organization is human and capable of interacting on their terms. Prove it to them, and they'll reward you with their business and loyalty to your brand.
Kodak's "A Thousand Words" is a fantastic example of a corporate blog with a human voice. While there may be a temptation to pitch and position Kodak's every product, the blog's authors do an admirable job of keeping it focused on all things photography, occasionally and appropriately referencing Kodak's own distinct role in the history of that topic. Like other companies, Kodak is in business to make money -- in addition to A Thousand Words, Kodak runs a separate blog called "Plugged In," spotlighting the company's products and customers.
Provide relevant content.
The right content can light your community on fire and generate valuable contributions. Focus on topics or questions that your customers are already talking about. Take, for example, Whole Foods Market's social media initiatives, where customers can come together through forums to learn more about organic food and express their thoughts on a range of topics central to the Whole Foods community.
Further enhanced by blogs, video, and audio podcasts, social media is used by Whole Foods experts to alert customers to topical issues like the recent safety concern over peanut butter, as well as share the inside scoop on new products coming to market. Passionate customers are now eagerly contributing their opinions and interacting directly with Whole Foods via its unique combination of online social experiences.
Drive community back to you.
It's critical to go where your customers live, and many of your best customers are clearly living on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. But it's equally important to direct consumers back to where your brand lives. Why? Because consumers today are incredibly sophisticated. They expect to be able to talk back to you online, and they're demanding richer, deeper interaction capabilities with your brand.
Dunkin' Donuts has found a good balance between leveraging open space on the internet and its own core digital asset, www.dunkindonuts.com. Dunkin' Dave, the company's designated representative on Twitter, interacts with people in a casual manner and still manages to be witty and on-topic about donuts. What's more, he often directs consumers back to Dunkin' Donuts, both offline and online, in an unobtrusive manner. For instance, on President Obama's Inauguration Day, he sent out a tweet informing customers in South Florida of free red, white, or blue frosted donuts at their local store.
Leverage social syndication.
The next frontier for socially enabling your brand is allowing the many interactions that happen on your site to travel to wherever they are most relevant. Just as some large news organizations syndicate their content to thousands of smaller outlets, you can shape and extend your brand by allowing consumers to effortlessly pluck information from your website and carry it with them wherever they go.
As an example, if visitors post comments, review products, or ask questions on your site, enable them to cross-post those interactions wherever they want, thus enabling their friends and family to see and participate in the conversation. In other words, the content no longer resides on your site alone, but in other important places where your consumers live online.
Another example is eHow. In addition to leveraging social media throughout the site, eHow gives its community the ability to cross post their contributions (articles, comments, etc) directly to their Facebook profile as well as Twitter. This approach effectively broadcasts social interactions that originate on a site to other interesting and relative places around the social web.
By adding social media features and experiences to their digital destinations, brands of all shapes and sizes can quickly build a sense of community and humanity. These qualities are critical -- surveys repeatedly show that consumers are more likely to trust each other than they are to trust marketers. Inviting customers to take part and engage with a broader community not only provides a rich content experience, it fosters long-term trust and loyalty. In an increasingly connected online world, it's these interactions that drive all-important purchase behavior and brand loyalty.