Social media continues to dominate marketing conversations, but research shows that it's more than talk. Marketing services provider Alterian's recent study suggests that 66 percent of marketers will be investing in social media marketing this year. And if the investments being made by traditionally innovative brands are any indication, the trend is toward making consumers' entire online experience a social one.
In such an immersive experience, there definitely is a place for the large social destinations -- Facebook and Twitter get the most brand focus -- but thoughtful marketers are rediscovering the value in their own Web sites, what Forrester refers to as owned media. Brand owners' Web sites are back in the spotlight because of the potential they have to deliver on three business outcomes dear to the heart of every marketer: affinity, insight and conversion. And here's the good news: today, we understand social media well enough to predict the application and usage patterns that will produce those outcomes. We can define these outcomes with the following terms: Social Branding is the use of social media to foster brand affinity, while Social CRM is the use of social media to gain product and brand insights; and the use of social media to improve conversion rates, can be defined as Social Commerce.
Social Commerce: Driving Conversion
Online retailers have been using point-of-purchase ratings and reviews to influence conversion for years. Social Commerce is a second-generation approach expansion of this practice. When designed and executed properly, it helps to draw more visitors to a Web site, and, once there, helps to keep those visitors more engaged. Engaged visitors are more likely to take actions that move them down the marketing funnel. They are more likely to share information about themselves, to download coupons, and ultimately, to purchase product. Brands like Target, which recently announced plans to build an e-commerce platform on its owned media -- after years of relying on Amazon.com's platform -- recognize the potential value of integrating social media and e-commerce on their own digital properties. For conversion to take place, brands have to understand their audience and the kinds of social experiences that appeal to their specific interests. Lowe's Corporation has created an online place where enthusiastic "do-it-yourselfers" visit when they're ready to tackle their next home improvement project. Lowe's Creative Ideas lets visitors share their projects via product journals and encourages real-time comments. These journals have great SEO value, and they also offer customers an opportunity to document the Lowe's products and tools they employed in their projects. Ultimately, Lowe's provides useful, enthusiast-generated, search-friendly content that can tie directly to product-level conversion.
Social CRM: Gathering Insight
CRM is mature and far-reaching, but social media provides an entirely new channel for connecting with and engaging with prospects and customers. Social CRM lets brands turn their web sites into invaluable, ongoing sources of insight about their customers, products and services. It helps brand owners listen to what their target audience is saying about the brand and its products, respond to the audience directly when they ask questions, and reward them when they support a business objective - whether it's on the core digital property or off of it.
To gain insight, employees must be engaged in the conversations, responding, conversing, and then filtering the information back into the organization to effect change. The valuable insight gathered through this process helps brands better understand how their audience is segmented, what opportunities they have to create profitable extensions to their product and services offerings, and where they can improve the way they support and interact with their customers. Kraft is a great example of a company that truly understands the value of Social CRM. Its site, kraftfirsttaste.com , is a half-million person focus group. The site gives loyal customers the opportunity to test new products, and then share their thoughts on the products, and see what others have to say. Kraft participates and listens in on the conversations taking place around these new products and bases future product and marketing decisions on what it hears.
Social Branding: Building Affinity
For brands, a lot of marketing is still about fostering affinity. Social Branding gives brands what they need to make their own web presence an engine for affinity. Successful Social Branding deployments use social media to entertain and inform visitors; they endow the sponsoring brand with a reputation for expertise and commitment to the audience; and they build a community around topics for which the brand's core audience feels passion. The most successful Social Branding deployments become part of the core audience's online routine. The value to the brand in all of this is heightened brand awareness, recall and advocacy.
It is particularly in the area of Social Branding that bridges from a brand's own digital property to social destinations like Facebook and Twitter have great potential value. When visitors to a brand's site can easily share their enthusiasm for the brand with their "real" friends and family on Facebook, the brand has a commanding social media strategy.
For example, with Nation of Go, BF Goodrich has created a Social Branding destination that celebrates driving. The focus is on the driver and the experience, and not BF Goodrich products. Visitors can easily share photos and videos of their favorite on- or off- road drives directly on the site, or through an easy to use iPhone app. The drives are linked to a Google map-driven interface using GPS coordinates. Through Nation of Go, BF Goodrich is winning the affinity of a sought-after demographic group by offering a very innovative social experience that is all about driving. And much to their pleasure, even though the site is not about tires, a lot of tire conversations take place.
What Lies Ahead
Brands are learning that a low-engagement presence on a variety of social networks delivers limited marketing value. Most closely watched -- and emulated -- are the brands that are creating thriving interactive communities on their own web sites, where conversations flourish, products come to life, and the brand has full insight into the results of those activities. These brands are demonstrating that Social Commerce, Social CRM and Social Branding can truly produce value. As 2010 unfolds, one thing is for certain: for marketers in brand companies, social media will remain top of mind, and brands will be pressed to implement ever more advanced marketing strategies to meet the expectations of their social media-savvy consumers.