Tweeting, Twittering and Tubing
For some, it may mean Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn. To others, it may mean blogs, chat rooms, YouTube, Twitter and Wikipedia. However you think about it, in essence, social media is simply a cluster of online tools that customers can use to share information. And they are changing the dynamics of a brand’s marketing and communication more quickly and forcefully than any other technology since the invention of the printing press.
Before social media outlets took hold, promotional communication was basically controlled by the brand. The who, what, where, when, why and how of messaging was dictated by management, advertising agencies and marketing vice presidents. But that is no more. Brands have lost full control of their message. Social media has democratized the hype and the role of both business and customers. It has taken the conversation from a one-way function of B-2-C (business to customer) to a two-way conversation between B and C and more critically, between customer and customer—or prospective customer.
Social media are quickly moving from the fringe of marketing communication into the mainstream. An estimated eight out of ten U.S. businesses are already using social media to garner leads or drive traffic to their website, and 48 percent of them are increasing their social media budgets. Even luxury brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, Neiman Marcus and Saks 5th Avenue are starting to integrate social media tactics into their promotional strategies. They are discovering that it is no longer enough to have a website so they are exploring a variety of social networking tools to decide which fit best with their image. They are thinking that it will be a more powerful message to have an outfit featured on a blog post or on a Facebook page than merely shown on their websites because blogs and Facebook are really word-of-mouth advertising, and can be seen by millions of Facebook friends.
On the other hand, their websites are considered to be just another paid advertisement and only seen by those that click through to the page.
The basic theory here is that of “swarm marketing.” Fueled by connectivity, digitally linked communities (i.e., customers) are thought to behave similarly to a swarm of bees or a school of fish. That is, they tend to move together. The digital influence of a single customer (often called an influencer) can quickly become the actions of 100 customers. By carefully integrating various Internet communication platforms, your business can explore unique ways of communicating with customers and enhancing a sense of community among them.
Examples of brands successfully using social networking are starting to surface. Some have a Facebook page where customers can post “postcards” about their brand experiences. This encourages them to know each other outside the brand environment, building a greater sense of community. Other businesses have set up Twitter accounts so that customers can tweet their friends and family about their brand experiences—often in real time. Still others use blogs to gather opinions about possible store events, or to update customers on renovations taking place in their facilities. These tools can also be used for surveys, polls, competitive scouting and idea generation. After all, if customers find something in another venue that might work at your company, they could blog, tweet or post a picture to a photo gallery to spark your innovative thinking. And, of course, you, as owner or manager, could establish your own blog to disseminate updates and behind-the-scenes looks at the latest trends, events, programs, products or services. Locally, Bob Fish of BIGGBY COFFEE does a great job of building a coffee community through social media outlets.
A word of caution, however: Social networking as a marketing tool is still in its formative years. For all of its benefits, it can also bring problems in the form of security, regulatory compliance, scammers and undisciplined users. So if, after due diligent research, you decide to enter the social networking fray, make sure you establish guidelines for both employees and customers. You will have to walk a fine line between encouraging customers, employees and guests to use these sites, and establishing friendly policies and procedures for their use. This is particularly critical to protect proprietary information, personal privacy and brand image.
Because social media is still a new field, it is quickly evolving and every business is on a steep learning curve trying to figure out how to best leverage this latest communication medium. Consequently, there are few, if any, formulas for successfully using this dynamic tool. Brands have historically been a hallmark of personal social interaction among customers who share similar lifestyles. How social media can be used to augment that interface is just now beginning to evolve. Whether you decide to integrate social media into your marketing strategy is a judgment that takes careful analysis. Only then, will you have confidence in your decision to use or not to use social media tools in your brand’s marketing strategy.
Happy twittering, tweeting and tubing. Your bottom line will thank you.
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Bonnie J. Knutson, PhD is a professor at The School of Hospitality Business and Broad College of Business at Michigan State University.