Marketing and brands are relationships between consumers and products, and relationship building is a two-way conversation. It is not the one-to-many broadcast commercial that defines a customer's relationship with a brand. Rather, it's the more informal -- often personal -- interactions with a product or company that result in long-term brand engagement. Technology, specifically the social web, has transformed marketers' ability to run lower cost, targeted marketing campaigns with measurable return on investment. The result is a new category of marketing: social marketing.
Social marketing is conversational. It's focused on facilitating interactions that are more directly connected to the process of relationship building with customers. And social marketing is, in all cases, propelled by social publishing technologies that turn spectators into member and contributors, and transform websites into community platforms for engagement with customers and future prospects.
Enterprise software vendor JackBe offers an example of this new strategy in action. JackBe sells enterprise mashup software to developers that enables them to use web services to connect internal and external data to create new, loosely coupled (or "mashed up") applications. Because this is a new approach in software development, part of JackBe's marketing agenda is to educate developers about mashups -- what they are, how to build them, and what applications are a good fit for this approach.
To do this, JackBe adopted a social approach in its education strategy by building the JackBe Mashup Developer Community, which targets the developers who will potentially be using JackBe's software to build their own mashups. The community is not about JackBe -- it's about mashups in general. Most importantly, the community is all about the members themselves. They can connect with one another; share ideas, experiences, and even best practices; and ultimately help move the enterprise mashup industry toward maturity.
In researching available technologies that could be used to build its community website, JackBe considered a number of options, including traditional proprietary software, software-as-a-service, and open source products such as Drupal. Because JackBe is a small, venture-backed startup company, the project's budget was finite, and the company needed to get the most bang for its buck. But JackBe also needed to move fast, with less than two months to deliver a member-ready community.
After much deliberation, JackBe ultimately chose the open source option and built its website on Acquia Drupal, a commercially supported distribution of the open source Drupal social publishing system. Keeping its budget well within range, JackBe spent only 25 percent of what a comparable proprietary solution would cost and was able to implement 90 percent of desired functionality within the same period. Such a project could easily have cost six figures for the software alone if purchased from a traditional software vendor.
JackBe's community site provides the framework to establish a deeper dialogue with customers. The developer community is a place where software developers can converse with each other, ask questions, share code samples, research mashup solutions, and educate themselves and their peers on how best to build and deploy mashup applications.
For example, one community user was researching mashup technologies on the site in preparation for a proposal to his boss. He used the JackBe community to educate himself on the market space in general and JackBe's products specifically. Not only did he use a number of the presentations and videos available on the community, but the community member felt comfortable enough to call JackBe to ask specific questions as he prepared his proposal. While only a certain percentage of members will get to this level of conversation, such interactions are only possible within a social marketing environment like JackBe's community.
Thus far, the Mashup Developer Community is exceeding its initial goals. From the day the community launched, JackBe saw a sustained increase in traffic across all of its website properties. A thousand members joined the community in the first few months, and the community now has more than 2,000 members, resulting in an almost immediate 30 percent incremental increase to overall web traffic. While JackBe could have temporarily bought this type of traffic increase, it could not get this type of sustainable traffic without building its own community.
Most importantly, members of the community have shown that they are willing to interact instead of just look. And interestingly, JackBe's employees were just eager to join the new community. Upon launch of the site, some of the best forum participants and blog posters were JackBe's own developers. This outward-facing community became a conduit for people with vast knowledge on the subject who previously lacked a public outlet to share experiences.
Better sales and customer support. In addition to the incremental increase in site traffic across JackBe's web properties, the company has seen the Mashup Developer Community have a decided impact on its sales efforts. Since its launch, the community has resulted in additional leads to the company's marketing database. More importantly, the community's influence on closed sales deals is trending toward 100 percent -- almost every single lead that results in a sale is a person who is visiting the community and taking advantage of it as a resource.
One reason the community site touches almost every deal is that the enterprise mashup software market is in its early stages. All of JackBe's prospective customers are beginners who have questions. Of course, each potential customer who downloads JackBe software has an account team and sales resources assigned to it. However, the community complements this traditional sales ownership as prospects visit the community for answers to their questions and learn by doing. The result is a scalable way for the buying audience to find high-quality answers to questions without inflating the demands on the sales teams.
Better market research and market reach. At the same time, JackBe's marketing and development groups use the community as a valuable first-hand market research tool. Whereas statistical research and analyst reports offer generalized, high-level analysis (typically with a high price tag), the community offers immediate, tangible feedback unlike other traditional market research vehicles.
Forum questions, blog posts, community polls, and other user-generated content on the site provide tangible, concrete market research directly from the people who are using them. In addition, JackBe's community has quickly resulted in high organic search engine rankings in dozens of niche search terms and phrases. The resulting click-through traffic is highly focused and therefore very likely to be engaged by the content on JackBe's community.
Measurements of campaign success include the following points:
- 30 percent increase in overall web traffic
- Delivered 90 percent of desired functionality in two weeks
- Platform development required only 56 lines of custom code
- More than 2,000 new community members in six months
- 25 percent the cost of a proprietary solution
- Community influence on sales pipeline close to 100 percent
Lessons learned and best practices
Marketers looking to construct their own online communities can take away several lessons from JackBe's experience in building its Mashup Developer Community. A few best practices and lessons learned include:
- The agenda should be broader than your products. Make your community an educational resource on a general topic (and not just another marketing outlet for your product), and you will appeal to a much wider audience.
- Everyone is a member. You cannot predict who will be your best contributors, and everyone should have the opportunity help sell and market your company, including your own employees.
- Help people help themselves. Provide an environment where visitors can learn by doing, and they will become members. Enable members to discover answers to their questions on their own, and they will keep coming back.
- Don't reinvent the wheel and pay for it. Explore open source social marketing technology as a cost-effective way to extend the reach of your limited marketing budget, while taking advantage of innovative new concepts and technologies that enable you build better relationships with your customers.