How Not To Build A Ghost Town

Around the turn of the 20th century, people were moving into North Dakota in large numbers. With the growth of railroads, settlers from Norway and Germany filled empty swathes of landscape with vibrant, rowdy towns.

Over the years, the railroads have long gone and the settlers have disappeared. Nowadays, few words of Norwegian or German are heard on the North Dakotan plains. The empty towns stand silent -- testaments to better times, serving as stark reminders of what might have been.

Ghost towns might seem like obscure relics of a bygone era. But they have come back to life in the first decade of the 21st century. Just take a look into some of the nightmares of online marketers. More often than not, a brand marketer looking to build a social networking group cannot help but think: "Will they come?" and "If they come, will they stay?"

In 2009, several brands connected with people in a meaningful way via social networking. JetBlue offered travel updates through its Twitter page. The Starbucks MyIdea site and Facebook groups provided people with an opportunity to provide real-time updates like "Stop wasting so many pastries!" and "Free refills with gold card." Skittles boldly went where no fruit-flavored candy had gone before and changed its home page to a listing of Twitter posts that contained the word "Skittles."



In addition, Kimberly-Clark delivered relevant content to expectant moms through a pregnancy countdown widget that they could embed into their social networking profiles. Graco chose to engage moms on its brand community site Graco Nation, an approach also deployed by automotive makers like Mercedes, the BlackBerry lounge and the Fox show "The Simpsons."

These are some of the success stories. However, the Internet is also littered with more than its fair share of empty or hopelessly sluggish social networking groups, the modern-day equivalent of the Old West ghost towns.

It was no wonder that 2009 saw a spirited discussion on the best ways for marketers to sidestep the minefields that lay scattered across the social marketing landscape. A variety of studies served as useful pointers to marketers in this regard.

A September 2009 Harris Interactive study indicated that marketers were better served by building trust and relationships with people via email before engaging them on social networking sites. A recent Nielsen study emphasized the importance of listening to consumers. It recommends that retailers not only listen to what they have to say, but to actively take part in that conversation. Through online listening, retailers can observe conversations that occur naturally to understand people's attitudes and needs -- and then proactively engage customers transparently to answer key questions or concerns."

At the IAB MIXX conference this past September, a variety of keynote sessions and tracks dealt with how marketers were building vibrant and authentic community sites. Of particular interest was a session in which Cheetos discussed the Boredom Busters campaign with Federated Media, and how Betty Crocker brought moms together for birthday planning sessions on

These are still early days for social marketing. That said, there are certain best practices through which marketers can avoid building the next generation of ghost towns:

Have the right users It's obvious. Really obvious. Any social networking program is as good as its community members. Just like you can't make good pizza without good dough, you can't build a good social networking group or site without the right members.

At the very outset, marketers can garner responsive members for their social networking group by tapping into their in-house list. These are people who have already reached out to your brand and said that they want to hear more from you. Why not talk to them through your social networking effort?

Marketing can also deploy performance marketing (CPC/CPL) campaigns to recruit new users. Performance marketing is not only more cost-effective; by its very nature, it delivers a more engaged user -- the college student searching for that laptop on Google, or that sports fan signing up for a special offer on

Engage consumers at multiple touchpoints Communicate with your member base through multiple touchpoints -- even beyond your social networking site or group.

Email is a highly effective vehicle that marketers can use to keep consumers engaged with their brands. According to the Harris study referenced earlier, 96% of online U.S. adults said that they have provided their email address to receive special offers or more information from brands.

Take a look at one of the most successful social marketing programs of all time: The Obama Presidential Campaign. Beyond the Facebook group, the Obama campaign kept users engaged through email, YouTube, iTunes, vertical sites (Asian Ave, BlackPlanet) and Twitter.

Listen And answer honestly. Building a relationship in the social networking space is not very different from a relationship in the real world. You have to be honest and transparent for the relationship to be meaningful. is a great example of a Web site that alters its offerings based on consumer feedback. In addition, all Twitter posts regarding Skittles make it to their home page -- not just the ones that say "OMG. You are the best thing to have come into the world since sliced bread."

By following these practices, marketers can drive engaged consumers to their social networking groups and keep them there. They can keep their sites from becoming ghost towns. I am sure there are other ways that marketers can harness the potential of social networking to the fullest. What are some other best practices you can think of?

2 comments about "How Not To Build A Ghost Town ".
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  1. Kevin Lynch from ComBlu LLC, December 16, 2009 at 3:24 p.m.

    Great post. Our just released study, The State of Online Branded Communities, covers 22 Best Practices used in 135 online communities. It is a terrific benchmark for any brand.

    Kevin Lynch ComBlu LLC

  2. Bill Roth from NCCT, December 17, 2009 at 10:35 a.m.

    Excellent article! The research in The Secret Green Sauce has documented a "Know it, Embrace it" path being adopted by consumers of learning, experimentation and then procurement. Your three best practices of targeted users, engagement and listening reflect the Awareness Customer's search for aligning value with values.

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