Breathes there a marketing person so out of touch with the current scene that he or she does not yearn to do a better job of social media marketing? I seriously doubt it.
In fact, it's safe to say there are only two kinds of advertisers in this day and age: those that are already involved with social media, and those that soon will be. Advertisers recognize that consumer attention has shifted to the social networks. Many advertisers have already put a toe in the social media water, and many more are testing to see what it's like and how it works.
There is a great deal to learn.
Dave Kerpen, chief buzz officer at theKbuzz, an innovative New York City word-of-mouth and social media marketing firm, says that advertisers "are discovering the power of social networks but in large part not using them well. In 2009, over 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies will attempt social marketing campaigns, and 50 percent of them will fail to achieve their goals."
While social networking still accounts for only a small part of the total online spend, it's already obvious that the social endorsements it provides are more powerful than plain impressions. But social media marketing is in many ways so unlike regular advertising that it's almost the opposite: The more you tout your product or service, the worse the impression you tend to make. In social media, it's common for less to be more.
That's why advertisers in social media must find the "sweet spot" between being too self-effacing and too aggressive.
Nick Gonzalez, marketing manager at socialmedia.com in San Francisco, an advertising campaign developer that provides simple and scalable word-of-mouth marketing for brands, encourages advertisers to consider this "sweet spot" to be the optimum point for their product, service, or campaign on the relatively conventional spectrum between reach and depth. "The extremes," he suggests, "might be text link campaigns versus social applications on Facebook, getting a link distributed massively versus a message shared among thousands."
To make social media marketing work for you, say the experts, aim in the middle.
According to Nancy Marmelejo, CEO of VivaVisibility, an online visibility and social media strategist based in Anaheim, Calif., "Advertisers are trying to understand what they can get out of social media marketing. It's not as overt as conventional advertising. There's a conversational aspect to it. By focusing not on the selling but on building a relationship, advertisers can build networks of followers. The trend [to do this] is definitely up."
And SM offers good potential for a wide variety of advertising campaigns. "Any marketing where you want to generate word of mouth or pass along information presents a good opportunity for social media marketing," says Gedioen Aloula, VP of marketing at socialmedia.com. "We think most consumer brands are good topics of conversation because, outside of price, a recommendation from a friend is a key driver of purchase intent for most things we consume. Social networks are a great platform to spread that message more efficiently across a friend network, and scales better, too."
For example, Zappos.com, the shoe company, has been using Twitter from the start. Tony Hsieh, the CEO, got hooked early on and encouraged everyone in his company to become a brand ambassador there. Marmelo calls this "the best example of encouraging social networking, using employee interactions as a form of marketing for the company." She adds, "You become fascinated watching their Totally Awesome Sandwich Board."
Gonzalez points out that information now spreads through small groups of friends. They blog. They email. They vote things up or down. As a result, the media world is moving faster, changing to a more trust-based environment with more value on transparency. Smart marketers are adjusting as fast as they can.
Aloula urges advertisers not to think of social media marketing scale, for example, in terms of reaching millions of consumers with one message. "The average person on Facebook has 150 friends," says Aloula, "but even if people have only 25 or 30 friends, social media marketing lets you get lots of conversations started within these small circles of friends who strongly influence each other."
And while it's possible to create a negative impression (witness the heavily discussed Motrin mistake, the Skittles home-page confusion issue, or Jeff Jarvis attacking Dell), most failures are simply fizzles rather than attention-getting crashes-and-burns.
In fact, one can make a fair argument that the Jarvis-Dell maelstrom may actually have worked to Dell's benefit. After Jarvis raked the company over the coals for poor customer service, Dell began paying more attention to social media and, by getting into the arena, began shaping the conversations, eventually encouraging people who loved Dell to share their experiences with others.
Aloula grew into social media marketing from Procter & Gamble, where he realized that "brands traditionally spend a lot of time aiming before they launch a campaign because the huge fixed costs give them only one chance to get it right, get it perfect before we throw it out there. There's a 100 percent focus on the prelaunch. But with social media, campaigns are more iterative, more about getting feedback and making changes on the fly. It's a two-way conversation, and we must listen as well as talk."
"The nice thing about social networking is that it's liquid, constantly moving and flowing," says Nir Eyal, CEO of AdNectar, an advertising platform specializing in the integration of branded "virtual items" across social networks. "Unless you really screw up, the market balances itself out. The people who like you and who don't like you both comment. If you add something of value to the user's experience, they'll reward you with overwhelmingly positive comments. Sure, you'll get the occasional bad comment from a lone weirdo with a chip on his shoulder, but other people will discount what he says. People are generally good-hearted, and they are more passionate about saying good things than bad."
"Social marketing should be about building communities of customers, fans, potential customers, and potential fans," explains Kerpen. "Social marketers should work to build relationships with those four groups of people, not try to 'sell them' now. Soliciting feedback, testing new ideas and products, sharing new content, and giveaways are all great marketing tasks on social networks. The way to get great results is to build a community, and provide value for them."
Based on successful advertisers' experiences to date, here are some guidelines on finding your own "sweet spot" in your next social media marketing effort.
- Build relationships first -- they're called social media for a reason. You can sometimes work in a "call to action," but make sure you're very subtle about it. "You must add value to the experience," says Eyal. "You have to give the user something that's valuable if you want them to give back to you."
- Rethink your product or service, if not your entire brand, to make it more exciting for people to watch and follow. Eyal suggests that advertisers "sit down and figure out why people buy the product." With method, AdNectar's cleaning products client, people buy not just cleaning, but the environmental angle, according to Eyal. "So we made messages that have an environmental angle and are inherently giftable. In another case, we saw people giving virtual boxes of chocolate. After we added the name, people gave their friends 1.2 million virtual boxes of Godiva chocolate. Getting branded impressions and individual endorsements like that, the brand benefits greatly."
- Fight any internal pressures to use social media for hard-sell pitches; this is a place for the soft sell. People want to feel like they're a part of something. Make your audience feel so involved that they don't feel they're being sold. Never go with a "buy now" message. Instead, be more suggestive than commanding. Your goals need to be very clear.
- Spend more time listening than talking. People come to social media because they're interested in each other, and they want to see what their friends are contributing. When brands pull people away from focusing on their friends, they generate a backlash. You want to win over fans, break down resistance, and create community. Before you can sell anything, you have to create movements around the brand and the product. Good brand awareness and reputation provide huge advantages.
- Maintain as much transparency as possible. Today's consumers are skeptical about messages coming across their screens, and they respect authenticity and honesty. For some, especially smaller companies, it makes sense to have one dedicated social networking person who is the voice of the company. For others, it's better to reveal the depth and breadth of the people in the organization.
- Earn your audience's loyalty and endorsements. Recognize that within social media, each person sends a product endorsement only when it's deserved, and will tell a friend about your product only when they perceive the friend is receptive. That's usually an ideal combination for an advertiser. Strive to be worthy, and you will build a loyal audience.
- Be nimble and quick without being hurried or harried. It's no longer enough to conceive a launch for your campaign. You must also monitor, react, and respond in real time to the public's reactions and counter-initiatives. Think in terms of a marathon, not a sprint. Take your time to learn how your audience reacts to various messages, and feed that back into the creative process.
- Customer service goes on 24/7. You can't afford to leave anyone underserved or disgruntled for very long. Mark Twain famously said, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." Within today's social media, marketers can no longer afford to allow any negative information that kind of head start.
- Your creative is even more important within social media. If you can capture the imagination and interest of your audience, you can give your message extremely long legs. According to Marmelo, "There are certain things that can be replicated across the board. But because each business is different and has a different target market, in social media you approach things and phrase things without a template." You want to find the language your audiences are eager to hear.
Ultimately, advertisers have to go where the users are. The big, new opportunity within major social networks is to leverage consumers' existing interest and energy, and bring them value they will appreciate.
"As long as advertisers on social media are providing something that users want, as opposed to annoying users, they'll be fine," Eyal says.
Kerpen advises advertisers to go with rather than against the energy flow within social networks. "With unprecedented abilities to hypertarget people based not only on their age, gender, and location but now on their interests and profiles," he says, "there is a temptation for advertisers to use that targeting to sell. I believe this may sometimes yield positive short-term results. But the real path to long-term results is through building community. If Coca-Cola has 3 million fans and Pepsi has 400,000, Coke will win. If you build a significantly larger social networking community than your competitors, then you will win."
Robert Moskowitz is a consultant and author.