Making Sense Of Social Media

When your 80-year-old mother forwards a video to you each day and your mother-in-law writes a blog, you can't help but pay attention to the growth, acceptance and utility of social media. According to Forrester's 2008 Social Technographic Profile, three out of four U.S. adults use web technologies and tools to connect with other people and to share information. Adoption has grown from 56% just a year ago.

We have always been a very social culture. Lacking an overt class structure and the conventions of the old countries where social mobility was severely limited, we have long traditions of sharing information, open commentary and feedback, collective opinion polling and creative expression. We are a nation of voters, critics, reviewers and satirists. Long before Mark Zuckerberg showed up millions of people were participating in discussion boards, user-groups, chat rooms and professional online forums of many stripes.

Blogs, photo and video-sharing like Flickr, RSS feeds, Twitter and Digg are the latest evolution of our need to say what we think and tell others. Social networks are the digital extension and expression of our love of clubs and fraternal organizations, an update on Aunt Blabby's annual newsy Christmas letter and an outlet to empower and unleash our inner yentas.



The early adopters have jumped into social networks to the tune of $920 million according to eMarketer, three-quarters of which was spent on MySpace (51%) and Facebook (19%). As with most early adapters, the attention gets focused on the means rather than the marketing strategy. Every marketer you meet fantasizes about creating a low-cost viral video that skyrockets them to fame and ROI-heaven with millions of free page views and mentions or replays in the mainstream media. This fantasy is validated by a Feed Company survey in which 71% of creative executives believe that viral video will become a standard marketing practice in one to three years. Forty-one percent of clients told Jupiter they intend to upload video to social network sites in the next twelve months. The hold-up, according to the Jupiter Research's 2008 Advertiser Executive Survey, is cost, anxiety about adapting existing TV creative, and doubts about targeting.

The critical questions for marketers are: How do we insert ourselves credibly into these networks and conversations? What's the optimal use of this two-way communication and distribution channel?

The answer begins with an appreciation of how these new networks are evolving and how people are electing to participate. Social media is evolving as cable TV did, from the broad initial pioneers who prove the concept and attract mass audiences to niche channels that hyper-serve specific market segments or aggregate content into broader sub-categories like dating, health or careers. If MySpace is the pioneer, then LinkedIn is the B2B play, and the contenders for other spots along the spectrum are beginning to line up.

Josh Bernoff talks about a Social Technographics Ladder, a pretentious sounding 6-step construct, to illustrate how people actually use and participate in social media. This idea suggests that some people are online but "Inactive." They basically don't care about any of this. "Spectators" read blogs, watch videos and are passive voyeurs. "Joiners" sign up for things, create profiles and visit sites regularly. "Collectors" are one notch up; using RSS feeds, recommending and voting for content and adding tags to web pages. "Critics" are active participants posting their own content, commenting on blogs, or adding to and editing wikis. And "Creators" sit atop the social media food chain publishing blogs, posting images, making videos, creating mash-ups and downloading music. It's a fair bet that the ladders map to a bell curve with "Inactives" at the right and "Creators" at the left. The hump is moving to the left as more people do more things.

Breakout Solutions, a Fort Lauderdale software provider, called this state of affairs a "social media revolution" and advised its clients, "Whenever a new discipline is introduced that changes the entire dynamics of what influences consumer buying decisions and how you deliver your marketing message, you simply cannot afford to remain unresponsive and stagnant in formulating new strategies to meet business objectives." And while I wouldn't put it quite that way, I agree. So here are five things to do to seed social media into your marketing strategy.

Find your peeps. It's all about targeting. The goal is to comfortably intersect with your customers and prospects. In some cases, you can add social media elements to your Web site and to your marketing campaigns. In other cases, it makes more sense to go where they are already going. Think like an anthropologist. Find your people. Watch what they say and do. Look for patterns. Ask them what they like and what they want.

Dare to be embarrassed. Social media shifts control from brands to customers. It's about what they think and what they want; not what you're pushing. Some think you suck. But you knew that and it's okay. To embrace social networks is to risk being next to content that you don't control, to receive and respond to reviews and criticism you're not used to -- and possibly to take your brand not so seriously.

Lead with your long suit. Social networks give brands the opportunity to expose things they know, showcase expertise, present ideas or designs, float trial balloons and introduce personalities. It's an unparalleled chance to invite customers and prospects into your world. Don't underestimate how into your brand your best customers are. Don't be bashful. Put your people and your best stuff out there. Don't let the lawyers tell you otherwise.

Play around. We're in the early stages. There are no proven formulas and no real best practices. It's a real chance to play around by asking users to send in things, participate in contests, answer survey questions, sample products or services, download coupons, upload photos and who knows what else? Test and learn your way to greatness.

Play to the cheap seats. Social media is like talk radio or old-fashioned telephone party lines. A tiny percent call -- but everybody is listening. The beauty of having friends and linkages is seeing what they are doing and watching them experiment from the sidelines. The numbers of passive and occasional users far outnumber the hardcore players, even among the younger demographic groups. But don't ignore them because they're getting off and getting their own ideas watching what goes on.

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