Commentary

The Simple Beauty of Social Media

Optimization -- that fancy word for making a selling process more relevant and engaging for your customer --could be said to have four major approaches that have critical value for marketers: experimentation, targeting, behavioral and social.

In recent weeks I outlined how marketers can use the first three for improving performance metrics on all types of websites. Social media is the last of the major optimization approaches to explore (at least for now).

What Is It?

Social media is a phrase most of us in marketing have come to recognize, though its meaning is not always clear. In its broadest sense, social media means the coming together of people within a community (whether that's an actual online community or simply a section on a Web site dedicated to giving consumers a voice) to actively participate in the creation of new and/or the management of existing content.
This could mean allowing users to post their own photos or videos, to rate and review products, to create tags for content, to write or respond to blogs, to change existing content (like wikis), and more.

Social media has allowed consumers to feel empowered and in charge of their Web experiences, but it can be far more than that for marketers. When marketers harness social media elements, they can use the "wisdom of the crowds" to great advantage to increase sales and to generate goodwill among visitors.

Optimization using social media is a way to allow your visitors to influence what you show other visitors. When done correctly, it offloads the work of determining relevance, so that rather than having to guess or use something like a recommendation engine to offer relevant content to visitors, other visitors essentially take care of that for you.

Where Social Media Work

There are several simple ways to allow your visitors to engage in social media:

· Reviews -- In retail and travel, customer-written reviews have been a clear value to consumers. With their massive consumer base and long history of operation, those two verticals are still the kings. But companies like BazaarVoice can give this advantage to any site. The key with reviews is participation -- the more coverage your products have, the more effective the reviews will be.

· Ratings -- Ratings include stars, thumbs up and down, "paws," and a myriad of other forms. Consumers register their level of approval, and the product's rating becomes based on some form of average of responses. This type of consumer feedback is incredibly useful for optimization because it is easily rankable. Have on-site search? Why not rank results by popularity? This is a fabulous way of providing relevance through ranking.

· Digg/Reddit -- Social sites provide a clearinghouse for user responses. The most well-known, Digg, allows sites to put up an icon on articles that lets the reader "Digg" the content. More "Diggs" and the article shows up higher on Digg.com, a central site. Reddit is done in a similar fashion. This is cheap and relatively easy, but useful primarily for editorial content. It can increase reach by popularity ranking across a huge base, but it is easy to be irrelevant.

· Social Shopping --Like Digg, but for products.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Optimization using social media is perfect when you have a very broad product set -- for example, a travel site that may represent literally millions of combinations of locations, properties, and services.

It would be impossible for a single company to build up its own well-attributed database to help customers make decisions -- in other words, to offer recommendations based on behavioral targeting -- but by allowing consumers to do the work for you, others still get the benefit of recommendations.

Social media also works well where a deep level of interaction with the product or service significantly enhances the merchandising of that product. For example, high-end electronics like audio gear and printers are very difficult to merchandise based on manufacturer information. Consumers that use the products can often provide a layer of editorial content that can drive consumer preference and conversion.

On the other hand, highly branded environments are not as receptive to basic social optimization. In many cases, the selection of imagery and arrangement of products is a critical part of marketing. When you hand this over to customers, you run the risk of devaluing the product.

Social optimization only works when the consumer base is willing to participate. Promoting the fact that you have recommendations and ratings when nobody has actually recommended or rated anything is as compelling as entering an empty restaurant on a Saturday night. Having nothing may, in fact, be better. Even small populations of participants can be risky, as individual negative and positive reviews can skew recommendations in a sub-optimal way.

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