Don't Just Build a Community - Engage It
Social media is about leadership. That's why people have followers. And leadership is about being first to know something and act on it. How are you going to be first to learn if you are only learning as fast as the community you are monitoring? An outbound social media program is nothing without a strong inbound program to ask customers basic questions.
Social media can be wonderful tools for sales and marketing, but so far most companies and most anecdotal evidence that I have seen point to practices that are mired in old-think, with the result that social media is being questioned as a strategy. Here are some ideas that I give my clients when they are trying to figure out an approach involving social media.
It's a new world, so stop treating it like the old world. In the old world customer outreach meant using relatively sophisticated tools to bludgeon customers over the head until they capitulated, the only sign of capitulation being a sale. That may sound hard, but I think it's accurate. It doesn't seem to matter what the technology de jour is; we see the same approaches with direct mail, email and now social technologies like Twitter and Facebook but also LinkedIn, blogs and wikis.
As I wrote a few weeks back, we are beginning to see a backlash of vendors abandoning social strategies because they do not appear to work. My last article on the subject discussed a company that did zero research or testing before launching its Facebook presence. According to the CEO, the fact that the company didn't do its homework and might have been better off with a different approach was irrelevant. Social media marketing just didn't deliver.
The New World
So what's the new world? Simple: On social media people are social, meaning the may not follow the directives of your carefully crafted marketing campaign, and if you make too much of a fuss about it, they'll just turn you off. What to do?
There is no shortage of articles with bad advice about social media as a marketing tool. Here's something I picked up randomly, "Talk is all social media really is. Leveraging social media, then, requires a deep abiding understanding of how to manage community chatter. It is about quickly turning negative talk to positive and positive talk to sales.
No. It. Isn't.
Social media is about leadership. That's why people have followers. And leadership is about being first to know something and act on it. How are you going to be first to learn if you are only learning as fast as the community you are monitoring? You can't.
The quote above actually almost gets it right. You need to direct the chatter, not simply monitor it. And you can't turn it, you need to direct it into a positive path as it is formed. Once it's formed you are too late. That's where leadership comes in. Social media is about asking open-ended questions of your community and then analyzing the incoming data. Finally, it's about applying your learnings to the market.
Failure to ask results in the blind leading the blind, but asking questions leads to power because it gives you insight. With insight you can build products, programs and messages that meet market requirements. This is not hard, but it requires foresight. It means putting a plan in place that might take a few months to mature, and that, I think, is at the heart of so many failures in social media.
What's Right and What's Fast
We're a culture dedicated to and directed by instant gratification. We expect to get exactly what we want off the shelf whenever we want, and the idea of waiting is strange. So too often, rather than doing what's right, we do what's fast. If set up properly, social media can become a revenue engine, but you have to do the hard work up-front. And you have to continue doing things; there's no quitting.
We are our own enemies when we implement outbound social media programs without first implementing inbound programs that ask some basic questions from our customers about need. Inbound data gathering ought to be our first priority, and it should be the side of social media we use the most. Why? Well, if you're really on top of what your customers think, you don't need to invest as much time turning negatives to positives and reading tea leaves.
My rough rule of thumb is that you'll need to spend more than half your time capturing customer input and analyzing it. The minority of the time you'll spend messaging with ideas that more often hit the mark.
So don't just build a community; engage it and keep engaging it with questions and activities that keep people engaged and coming back. Those people will give you the information you need to build products and implement winning strategies.
Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant's research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is the author of Hello, Ladies! Dispatches from the Social CRM Frontier and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.