Social media is here to stay, and the smart e-marketer is already deeply involved, logically seeing social media sites as an opportunity for acquisition and monetization. But e-marketers can often be frustrated by the very nature of these sites, which tends to rely on community input rather than marketers’ sales techniques. The very nature of social media sites—that same community—is the real strength they offer to e-marketers: a special sort of customer relationship marketing.
What marketers really need is an opportunity to focus a private social network on a brand, product, or service, and allow the subsequent viral activity to take place within that focused area, while at the same time being a part of it.
How does this build loyalty? Any community has its loyal followers, and the more they frequent the site, the more loyal they become.
If a company sets up its own social networking portal, it is in essence inviting people to be part of a community centered around either its products or services, or at least around the activities promoted by its products of services. For example, an outdoor-supply company’s community could include discussions of hiking, kayaking, geo-caching, etc. The branded social media site thus created would enable community members (customers, prospects, subscribers) to set up personal social networks akin to private discussion groups—but that are clearly branded and provide access back to the e-marketer’s website.
The structure of the actual social community is at the discretion of the e-marketer. The community created by a chain of pet stores might put some emphasis on sharing files and photos relating to members’ personal pets. That of a landscaping-equipment company might include forums where participants can ask questions of staff and troubleshoot problems.
One cosmetics company used its branded community to leverage currently produced content (tweets, pictures, video) on other social networks and collect all that content in one place, bringing customers closer to each other and closer to the company by letting them talk with each other and with beauty experts. Members also receive exclusive deals and discounts as a reward for being a member and participating in the community.
The value of these communities for the e-marketer is clear: participants give the e-marketer feedback on products and services via forums, click on links at the community homepage that generate revenue for the e-marketer, and become more and more loyal to the brand as their involvement in the network increases. At the same time, they become evangelists for the brand, sharing their experiences with others (and issuing invitations to join provided by the e-marketer) and providing viral growth and content development.
It’s a place where customers and prospects provide honest, thoughtful feedback on how the company is performing, a place where they really get to know the company’s experts in forums and on message boards, and a place where they get to know each other. Customers and prospects can shop in your branded community without being constantly offered competitive products and services, and without being interrupted by unrelated noise.
For private social networks to work, the business has to have a product or service (or be a lifestyle brand) that people want to talk about, and it has to be a situation where value is created for the participants who are talking about the product or service.
Finally, there has to be a solid commitment to this community, and there must be additional resources put in place to make it work: anyone who has tried to work the open communities such as Facebook and Twitter has an idea of what kind of time commitment is involved there; the private portals can easily absorb twice the time. A community that begins strong and then peters out through lack of support is the very opposite of good CRM!
The longer any marketer can keep customers engaged, the more profitable they are, and they are more likely to tell their friends about the company. It’s a great way to acquire new customers at a low cost … and to create an ongoing relationship with them as well.