Your Customers are Talking. Are You Listening?
The universe of social media is expanding, with curious names like Orkut and Ning joining the more established Facebook and Twitter. But social media is no longer just a sandbox for Millenials – it offers businesses that embrace it new opportunities to build awareness of their products and services, increase sales and revenue, and even find the right employees.
Digital marketing website eMarketer.com predicts the number of social network users will grow 16 percent worldwide in 2013. Mirroring that trend, a 2012 University of Massachusetts Dartmouth study of Fortune 500 companies found that 28 percent had corporate blogs, 73 percent had Twitter accounts, and 62 percent had corporate YouTube accounts.
Social media is not just for corporate giants; middle market businesses can also benefit. “People are realizing that they can use social media to make better, faster, and more satisfying decisions,” says Bill Parkes, executive vice president and chief digital officer at nFusion, a digital-centric integrated marketing agency in Austin, Texas. “The implication for businesses is, if you don’t start figuring out how to be a part of that world, you’re going to get cut out.”
Embracing this growing phenomenon requires a radical shift away from traditional thinking about marketing. “This is not about broadcasting your product and service,” Parkes says. “The real power of social media is in driving engagement and turning the whole decision-making process inside out.”
As consumers face overwhelming clutter in the marketplace, they are engaging their network of online connections that they know and trust to inform their buying decisions. They don’t have to rely on the integrity and trustworthiness of a marketer. “If you have a great product or service, people are going to want to talk about it,” Parkes says. “With social media, you’re giving them massive megaphones to do so.”
Parkes says companies that are new to social media must understand what the “contextually relevant” sites are where they should have a presence. The simplest way to get started is to create a Facebook page that lists your products or services or set up a LinkedIn account. Photo sharing sites Pinterest and Instagram (which have seen their share of social media traffic grow recently by 5,124 percent and 17,319 percent, respectively) convey less information but are still very effective in creating “buzz.” Thanks to its algorithmically driven content that interprets what information it thinks is relevant based on one’s field of interest or career, LinkedIn is seen as the best option to engage colleagues in an industry-specific discussion, recruit talent, or position the CEO as a thought leader. Facebook and LinkedIn have both free and paid options.
In order to build a following on your selected social media site, Parkes recommends using email, advertising, or industry events as a “call to action” to encourage stakeholders to follow your brand as a Facebook fan, “Re-Pin” a company-related photo on Pinterest, or respond to your “Tweet.”
Once a company has established a social media presence, the possibilities are endless. They can engage in real-time chats with customers; conduct surveys, including asking what kind of coupons customers prefer to receive; offer sneak peeks at future products; post endorsements from happy customers; and link to the company website. One example of the power of social media: After a traditional ad campaign fizzled, tongue cleaner Orabrush re-launched recently with humorous videos that went viral. Today, Orabrush’s YouTube channel boasts over 53 million views, and the product has landed shelf space at Wal-Mart.
Parkes cautions that companies must regard social media as an ongoing program rather than a one-time project. “You need to be ready to be committed to it for the long haul. Once you get a page going, it requires someone to develop and publish content, engage with the community, and mitigate customer service concerns.” He adds that while highly regulated industries like pharmaceuticals and financial services can use social media, extra diligence is required to know what can and cannot be communicated.
Still, social media is here to stay and even if a company isn’t involved, it doesn’t mean its customers are not. “You can say, ‘This isn’t important to us, it’s a fad, it’s hard,’ ” Parkes says. “It is hard, because it’s a very different way to think. But the genie is out of the bottle and he’s not going back in. The question becomes, how are you going to fold this new reality into your business plan? It throws out the argument that ‘That makes sense for the Fortune 500 of the world, but it doesn’t apply to me.’ No, it does apply to you.”