(I will use "fans" to refer to Twitter follower and MySpace friends as well going forward). Fans, by definition, have raised their hand to indicate some sort of affiliation to a brand. The intent of that affiliation can vary widely, depending on the individual. Perhaps the "fan" simply wanted to tell her friends about a brand she liked, one time. Perhaps the "fan" wanted to get the coupon offered by a brand for becoming a fan. Or perhaps, and this is the one the brands want to hear, the "fan" wants to hear from and talk to the brand going forward.
Whatever the reason, an individual has opted to form a loose connection to a brand within social media. There is no doubt that this is the next generation of CRM (customer relationship management), and will be an incredibly valuable tool as brands better learn how to communicate in a social media setting -- but it is no way a complete answer to social media marketing.
Consider the number of brands the average person interacts with in his or her daily life. Now consider how many of those brands a person would be willing to become a fan of. Even if an individual is willing to become a fan of every brand he interacts with, at what point does the amount of communication coming from the brands become too much? Also, in what setting does marketing to your most loyal fans only constitute the whole of your marketing efforts?
Many people become fans because they are already sold on one aspect or another of the brand, and they are very likely already customers (hence the usage of CRM). The power of social media marketing is to reach out to people who are not already fans, outside the setting of direct communication between brands and people -- instead generating conversation between people about brands. The difference is between Nike talking to me on Facebook, versus a friend and I talking to each other about Nike on Facebook. Authenticity is found in peer-to-peer communication, not just within a core group of loyal fans, but reaching out to the community at large.
Activating this strategy will unlock significant reach and generate the ROI brands are looking for to justify social media investments (re: new customers). Think about it this way. If I am a fan of Reebok on Facebook, should Nike's marketing give up on me? Or what if I'm one of the millions of Americans who just don't exercise enough to have a favorite brand of athletic gear, at least not one that I would be a fan of -- should Under Armor not hope to reach me with its message through social media?
People are spending more time in social media all the time. This month I would recommend reading Forrester's report on social media adoption by Sean Corcoran, "The Broad Reach Of Social Technologies." Adapting best practices to leverage fans/friends/followers is a must, and should be a major component of every social media marketing plan, but managing relationships with your fans is just one component of social media. Perhaps the bigger question could be phrased, "How do I make more people fans of my brand?" -- and not just by having them click a button.
As always, drop me your thoughts on Twitter @joemarchese (www.twitter.com/joemarchese) and leave a comment below to add to the conversation. How do you value "fans"?