Businesses, both small and large, have embraced online communities and social networks as the next big thing in marketing. Public social networks, such as Facebook, have seen a dramatic rise in popularity and business adoption as marketers scramble to stay one step ahead of the competition and on top of the latest social tools to broadcast their message.
For marketers thinking about jumping into the social networking fray, the following guidance will help you determine the strategy that best fits your goals, and what to consider before you take the leap.
The business benefits of social networking
The business benefits of an online social community are many. Businesses of all sizes can use networks such as Facebook and Twitter to stay connected to their customers, to extend the lines of communication with prospects, and to place their brands at the center of the conversation. Social media on the web has also created countless niche communities revolving around the focused points of interest of its members.
Before entering the social media arena, it's important to first identify your goals. Some typical goals for business social marketing include:
- Create and share new digital content
- Provide a community/resource for your customers
- Monetize your digital content
- Get input, feedback, and ideas from your customers and prospects
- Drive members or users to a specific website or product
- Monitor the online conversations surrounding your brand or business
An online community can help you achieve all of these goals, but before you can get started, you have another decision to make: Which method will you use to build your community?
Fee or free
One of the hottest debates in social media revolves around the use of free public social networks, such as Facebook, versus a customized, branded online community, which isn't free. Both options have their advantages and drawbacks. To determine which is right for your business, you'll need to consider several factors above and beyond your marketing budget.
Free ride: The obvious advantage of the public social networks is that they're free, and many already boast a large audience. These networks offer an easy way to get involved in social media, develop a presence, and take part in the conversation without a big investment.
These networks provide an outlet for companies to share their updates and activities, company news, and other valuable information that can help spur interest and interaction with their customers and prospects at large, all while building credibility in their respective markets.
In addition, many sites integrate with other popular social networking tools and also allow network members to chat and share content such as videos, photos, links, and more between networks.
While there are numerous advantages to public social networks, marketers and businesses must also be cognizant of the drawbacks. One of the biggest challenges that marketers face with a free approach is the lack of control over the network. They don't own the network or the platform, so they are limited in their ability to handle specific nuances of their users' communications.
Also, the network provider owns all monetization rights and revenues, which can be a significant deterrent to a company looking to use social media as a monetization tool. Another point of contention is the catch-22 nature of large public social networks: While the biggest networks may be the most attractive, their very size and mass appeal make them extremely inefficient for identifying interested audiences.
Pay to play: Perhaps the most compelling feature a custom social network provides is an environment where a brand can allow members to express themselves and share their opinions. At the same time, the brand can share its own proprietary content safely, which is very attractive to marketers. Additionally, custom social networks offer a brand-safe environment that fosters the conversation around a brand, but enables control over the content and ads that appear on the site.
Branded online communities do require a capital investment, but they offer much greater customization and flexibility in terms of usability, networking features, and multimedia.
For example, if you are looking to build a start-up online community around, say, extreme sports, and want to venture into the world of paid social media deployments, depending on the level of depth and complexity you want to implement, you should expect to spend in the neighborhood of $50,000.
For that price, expect a fully-hosted social media platform that provides bandwidth for all media, social media and monetization tools, website and platform design, and infrastructure implementation. However, major brands (think: Coca-Cola or Procter and Gamble) that require fully customized implementations, multi-platform backend integration, additional functionality, and the bandwidth requirements to support millions upon millions of viewers and participants should look at budgeting upwards of $100,000 annually. Generally, the bandwidth and customization issues are the most costly, so be sure to examine your needs before moving forward.
If that budget is not in your future, there are lower priced self-service options that can run as low as several hundred dollars per month. These solutions still offer a brand-safe social media destination and provide complete administrative control and monetization functionality. Businesses that have more modest budgets, bandwidth, and customization needs may find that the self-service option is their best bet.
There are definitely pros and cons for both public and private communities, but whichever you choose as the foundation for your social media initiatives, be sure it aligns with your company's internal resources, long-term goals, and budget.
When properly executed, whichever you decide on can work wonders for your brand. Keep these factors in mind, and you'll have a much clearer perspective when you decide to take the plunge.
Cynthia Francis is CEO of Reality Digital.
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