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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Riddle Me This, Marketers: Why oh why should brands have a social media presence?

RiddleMe_Grey I've covered the need for companies to use social media to listen to their markets more (and talk less). And I've covered social media best practices (a ton of them). Yet even after all these years, and all these posts, I repeatedly get asked a question, and a core one at that.

While it may seem a basic question to many who are already actively using social media, the question has much merit given that social media is still very new territory to many companies, and it's up to us to guide them in their learning curves. And their learning curves undoubtedly begin with this core question:

Why oh why should a companywhether a B2B or B2C organizationhave a social media presence; what are the true gains to be gotten in going to the time and trouble of launching and maintaining a social media presence?

The thing is this: that there isn’t an answer to that question.

Well, there isn’t one answer.

There are many.

So it’s sort of a trick riddle. (Yeah, I'm tricky like that.)

Why, then, should companies establish and maintain a social media presence? Well marketers, the reasons are both vast and varied, ranging...

  • Awareness. The business world is a competitive place, there are a lot (!) of brands battling for market share, and new competitors emerging daily. If you're an established brand, you need to maintain your foothold, and if you're a new brand, you need to establish your footing. Awareness is critical. And to be on the radar of your markets, social media is a pivotal tool for staking, keeping and growing your market position. Remember, wherever your markets are, those are the places where your brand should be as well. So think of your social media presence as brand awareness insurance for the present, and the future.
  • Branding/Positioning. I commonly say that a Web site showcases a company's competencies, but social media vehicles, such as a blog, proves them. Web sites are important for static information, like product specifics, but social media tools are vital for dynamic content that support your company's competencies. And in an era where markets, not marketers, are in charge, it's up to us to provide them with ongoing proof of our value proposition and how that value provides them with distinct, differentiated benefits. So you shouldn't think of a social media presence as "your brands having a blog" but rather,"the ongoing, distinct value your brands provide your audiences through maintaining a blog."
  • Community Building. Using a social media presence to promote and cultivate a community is hard work, but it pays dividends. First and foremost, a company needs to understand how its products can contribute to online communities, and whether its presence should work to build its own community or support existing ones. Unless you have a product with an avid or cult following, you're not likely going to build a thriving community around it--but you may be able to build a community around a passion, interest area, benefit, hobby or pain point that your brand solves, supports or complements. You may also support a community that already exists around one of these areas (note: many times this is the case and best strategy). The benefit to enriching communities is that your offering now has a valid place in the conversation. And, hopefully, your presence encourages product referrals and recommendations from community members, in both their online and offline discussions with others.
  • Communications. On the Web, messages circulate at what seems the speed of light--and the communications that you provide through your social media presence come directly from your company vs. through third parties. Some companies use a social media presence, like a blog, to promote their developments. Others use these channels to set the record straight and inform their audiences. In any case, using social media to ensure a high-level of communications is one of the most compelling aspects of these media. Because while you can't control the overall message, you can be in control of the message you're communicating to your markets--and by having a social media presence, your markets now have a venue to hear directly from you.
  • Customer Evangelism. Marketers can't create evangelists but they can certainly produce fertile ground for brand evangelism to grow. And evangelism is best cultivated through creating exemplary products, services and experiences for audiences. While evangelists will create their own social media presence for the brands they're fanatical about--a la Facebook fan groups and blogs dedicated to their favorite brands--by having a social media presence, you provide another vehicle through which to communicate, inform and excite your customers, and you're most definitely encouraging budding brand advocates and evangelists to take hold.
  • Customer Service. Customer service shouldn't be limited to the phone or email; it should know no boundaries and be present in any environment where customers are. This is an exemplary use of a social media presence for customers--and one I tap when I need help, and need it fast. Take Twitter, and how several companies offer users the ability to contact them on that platform to let them ask questions or to apprise them of problems. When companies are responsive on these platforms they aren't only taking care of the singular customer voicing a concern, they're showing how much they value ALL their customers... because they're doing so in public and thus, others are seeing their level of care and response in action.
  • Crisis Communications. May your company never experience a crisis, but if a crisis is where you find yourself, may you never find yourself unprepared! In a crisis, both the response (your message/actions/communications) and the timing of the response are nothing short of critical. And the fastest way for you to communicate with your market, press and the overall industry is through social media tools. Remember,the public isn't waiting on you to respond, they're using these tools to discuss the crisis among themselves--and if you're not present, it makes you appear out-of-touch or, worse, not taking the crisis seriously. But if you need to establish a social media presence smack dab in the middle of turmoil, even though it takes mere minutes to setup a twitter account, you’re now at a double handicap as you have to grapple with both the crisis and the fallout from slow response times. If, however, you've already established a feedback loop, your brand is in a far stronger position to handle any backlash and to start rebuilding and repairing perception, instead of having to use precious time in launching a presence. Moreover, if you've already established a presence, you've likely already established relationships with people that are happy to help you during a crisis by pointing others to your presence to find and spread accurate, helpful information. (Never underestimate the power of friends during difficult times.)
  • Product Improvements. Complaints aren't fun, but a decrease in market share is far less so. And what many marketers forget is that feedback and complaints serve as opportunities to improve products AND improve customer relations. Marketers also forget that these complaints occur whether or not they're listening or responding to them. But given a social media presence, you can use this feedback to your brand's advantage... and if you ever need a strong case to nudge your management into supporting product improvements and enhancements, there's nothing nearly as strong as showing them feedback voiced through public channels. (Amazing how fast even the slowest of companies move when faced with negative feedback on their brands posted in public forums!)
  • Relevancy. The best brands, and the ones that survive the test of time, are the ones who address the needs, wants and problems that their markets have right now. In sum, they are relevant. You don't need to be the most hip or exciting offering, but you can't appear stale or out-of-touch. Your customers need to perceive you as a stable company that's not outdated nor behind the times when it comes to the tools they are using... be those tools the telephone, a blog or a twitter account. Remember, you need not only remain relevant but also appear so; perception is reality both in real worlds and virtual ones.
  • Research & Development. The Web (and especially the Social Web) is a veritable incubator of product ideas and innovations just waiting to be tapped. Companies should be monitoring online conversations for feedback that uncovers new product ideas, but they should also use their social media presence to query and directly involve their audience so as to identify new product ideas and innovations. The term for this practice is "crowdsourcing," and it's a tremendously beneficial one, especially given what we're finding now that customers have a voice: people are not only willing, but happy to give us groundbreaking ideas, and for free.
  • Sales/Promotions. Several companies are using their social media presence not just for branding and communications but for promotional campaigns and sales--like airlines releasing last-minute flight deals or software companies running limited-time specials. In this sense, companies are turning their presence into a profit stream merely by apportioning creativity in how to tastefully promote products to an audience that's open to receiving them (note: I say "tastefully" as brands don't want to use these tools as billboards to shout at customers, since sensitivities to such tactics run very high in social media).
  • Testing. One benefit that's not tapped nearly enough through a social media presence is the tremendous ability to test. After all, brands are afforded the equivalent of a free, available-at-any-time focus group with which to test their messages, promotions, product ideas, even price points. While companies are used to running such tests either behind closed doors or through limited test markets, they are now afforded a new vehicle through which to assess the viability of many areas simply through querying audiences, running a limited-time promotion or even assembling community members to test products and ideas. And brands can receive feedback both in public forums or through establishing private online communities. Haven't we all wished for a little foresight or assurance of how viable our programs are? Through a social media presence, and using it to adequately test, you now have exactly that.

Whether your company uses a social media presence for one, several, or all of the above purposes, the case for a presence is sound, and strong. Nope, no joke here. And even though you'll need to have a plan and set of goals in place before you launch your presence, you'll likely be surprised in the benefits--and the most rewarding uses of your social media presence for your specific brands--only after you're actively involved in this space. 

But if your brand doesn't take advantage of the myriad benefits of these social media tools? Well, then I guess the joke (er, riddle) is on you.

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Great post, CK!

To this I would also add that social media is now the prism through which we are creating context. If you want to remain relevant in the lives of your customers, it is time to learn what this means for your products and services.

Wow - you covered it all! Bookmarking this to share with others. I would add that companies do not have to rush in and create a social media presence for all of these various reasons at once. Which is the most critical for meeting business objectives? Start there. Expand gradually, and only on the social networks where your customers actually hang out.

Good post, CK. To Gavin's point, I think social media is still a long way from being the prism he speaks of, but if our customers are using social media, than our company needs to be there. I say if because more than a few companies' customers, especially in a number of B2B verticals, do not use social media. And at the end of the day, we should use those tools that reach our customers, not all tools.

CK, I think it's about managing extremes.

Your "evangelism" and "crisis" bullets above get to the point of how companies should use social media. In any customer base there is a spectrum of people who range in emotional response: they love you don't think about you or hate you, and of course most people are usually in the middle. However, it is the extremes that provide leverage. Lovers can be brand advocates that spur word-of-mouth or viral success. Haters can turn into Motrin moms who create a shitstorm of controversy around you, perhaps undeservedly.

In the past, it was impossible to find the ends of this emotional spectrum. Now, the value of social media is it allow companies to manage the extremes. You can't connect with 1 million followers -- but if you build a network, you may connect with the 500 people within that base who either really love you or hate you.

Building a social-media network takes time, and in the short term, the perceived "ROI" for a company may feel weak. You're building connections to a lot of people, and most of them are apathetic. But as you uncover the polar opposites in the spectrum, you'll identify lovers and haters whom you can reach out to and shift... creating real change for your brand.

So that's my view. Social media, for company customer service, is about managing the two ends of the customer spectrum.

PS, sorry to swear in your comments, but you know me, sometimes you gotta be extreme ;)

great post ck, those companies who are late movers in this space will find it to their disadvantage.Remember the last one entering the classroom is always treated funny....companies can ill afford that.

Ok, so I'm a little late in discovering this! Better late than never!
I belong to a business networking group and I've been trying to "educate" them about social media and why it is important for their businesses. It's a difficult task as most of them don't even have a website outside of the one their company provides.
I am going to incorporate some of your great points in my talks with them. Thanks!

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