How to craft a social media plan that connects

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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.
 
Get real.
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.

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