With the tidal wave of how-to articles, jargon and self-proclaimed “social media experts” hitting the online world, it’s easy for marketers and business executives to view social media as something akin to the unexplored regions of the earth as presented on medieval maps—”here be dragons.” Potentially fascinating, but dangerous, mysterious and scary.
Social Media Demystified
In reality, social media marketing is simpler than you’ve probably been led to believe. At its core, social media is not about doing new things, but about doing things you’ve always done as a business person differently. Specifically, social media marketing involves five common, very traditional business activities. It provides a rich new toolset and set of techniques for carrying out these processes, but the processes themselves are familiar: listening, networking, interacting, information sharing, and promoting.
Social Media Listening
Think about “listening” in the broadest sense of the term, encompassing all of the things you do to keep abreast of what’s happening in your industry and your market. What are your competitors up to? What are the trends? What new products and services might help you operate your business more effectively and efficiently? What’s happening with prices? And most importantly: are your customers talking about you? And if so, what are they saying?
Business people have always had to do this, and have used a variety of tools: trade publications, direct conversations with vendors and customers, analyst reports, seminars and other events, trade associations newsletters and other sources. Social media doesn’t change the fact that you do this, but it does do two key things: it makes it easier for people to talk about your business, and it gives you new tools for listening to your market.
Social media reduces the friction of customer communications. Writing and mailing a letter to a company to complain about or praise their products or services is a lot of work. But expressing your opinion on Yelp, epinions, Twitter, Facebook or any social site is easy and takes only a few minutes—and your words reach a far larger audience.
Tools for social media monitoring (listening) range from free (Google Alerts, SM2 Freemium) to low-cost (uberVU) to sophisticated (Vocus, Cision). The brilliant Dan Schawbel of Mashable has written more about free social media monitoring tools and tools worth paying for.
From the dawn of commerce, business people have always used networking to meet new people and establish new relationships with suppliers, potential partners, industry experts, and most importantly sales prospects. Historically, most of this activity was done face-to-face, at trade shows, conferences, seminars and other industry events.
Physical networking at such events is still important. But social networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Plaxo and tools like Twitter enable you to put this activity on steroids, building online relationships not only with people you’ve physically met but also with smart, interesting people literally across the globe who you’d unlikely ever meet in other contexts. The etiquette is similar (introduce yourself, ask questions, have something interesting to say, don’t immediately go into “hard sell” mode) but the tools are far more powerful and far-reaching than traditional networking.
Interacting is simply the conversations that typically follow networking—following up, gathering more information, and asking and answering questions. Again, this is a traditional business activity that’s commonly been done by phone and for most of the last 20 years also via email. For confidential or highly specific communications, these mediums are still ideal.
But again, social media enables you to take interactions to an entirely new level. What about answering common customer or prospect questions? Social media makes it easy to answer such questions online not only for a specific prospect, or even all the prospects you’re aware of, but also for potential prospects not even yet on your radar. Your answer is not only available immediately to a larger group of people, but indexed and globally searchable (so you better have good answers!).
Social networking sites are among the key tools for social interaction, but such conversations can happen almost anywhere on the social web where people are talking about your brand, asking questions about products or services, or simply discussing what’s happening in your industry, including review sites, blogs, wikis and forums.
Before the internet, sharing an interesting industry news article, how-to guide, coverage of a company or your own thought-leadership content was a tedious task involving copying and then physically mailing or faxing a document to selected recipients. Email made the process much easier, but distribution was still limited to known contacts.
As with listening and responding, social media has dramatically reduced the friction of such information sharing and dramatically expanded the audience. One can now post a link to and short description of interesting information to a LinkedIn group, Facebook page or Twitter stream in seconds and reach an audience of hundreds or thousands of interested individuals. Blog posts, news articles, product reviews, reports, images, videos, customer interviews, presentations and other information can be distributed to large groups with a few mouse clicks. And again, distribution isn’t limited to those you know, but also includes interested parties you’re not yet aware of—this enables prospective buyers to find you, exactly when they are looking for what you have to offer, instead of you having to use expensive, interruptive marketing techniques in the hope of hitting the right buyer at the right time.
In terms of advertising, social media is much like other, more traditional online mediums. It’s as easy to place an ad on Facebook as on an industry publication website.
But the power of social media lies in its interactivity, in participation. In this respect, companies need to handle direct promotion carefully. While direct promotion through social media can work well for certain types of businesses (e.g. a restaurant owner tweeting about today’s lunch specials, or a retailer offering special discounts available only to fans on Facebook), it’s a delicate balance for most companies. Particularly in the b2b world, indirect promotion works best. That is, rather than trying use social media to tell people how wonderful your products and services are, it’s much more effective to demonstrate your knowledge by answering questions, sharing interesting and pertinent information, and highlighting third-party endorsements in the form of favorable reviews, blog coverage or customer comments.
Participation in social media is no longer optional for most companies. Customers, pundits and others are already talking about your industry and quite likely your company on these sites. Ignoring such conversations amounts to tacitly endorsing whatever is being said about your firm, your people, and your products or services. Understanding that social media doesn’t involve doing entirely new things as much as doing things you’ve always done, but in new and more powerful ways, should take some of the mystery and fear out of social media engagement.