Word-of-mouse marketing

By Renata Mathewson, Maple Marketing

Should social networking sites be part of your marketing plan?

By now you’ve heard people talking about the latest tweets they’ve seen and boasting about the number of ‘friends’ they have. You’ve been forwarded a number of links to YouTube videos to watch. You’ve probably even received a few emails inviting you to get LinkedIn to someone you used to work with. You most likely already have a personal profile on one of the many social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter or MySpace.

But are you still wondering whether or not your business should have its own profile?

The short answer is, it depends.

It depends on what your business is, who you want to attract, what sort of image you want to portray, and what kind of publicity you want to generate. Let’s take a closer look at the phenomena that have us tweeting, connecting with, and re-friending people we haven’t seen in years.

Have social networking sites actually made us less social?

Are these actually anti-social networking sites, making it easy to avoid actually getting in touch with people in person or over the phone? Well, no. Most would agree that we are now in touch more regularly and are reconnecting with more people. It’s just the way we are communicating that has changed. Just as websites like Amazon, eBay, Trade Me, Nzsale and 1-Day have changed the way we shop, the internet has changed the way we socialise as well. As the media changes, our behaviours change. As our behaviour changes, we modify the technology. And so the cycle continues. We spend more time with our computers, PDAs and smartphones than ever before and it has become the norm to transact, research and communicate using them. Oddly enough, while we no longer actually need to go to the shopping mall, we do so largely for the social interaction that we’ve lost due to our use of social networking sites. But I digress...

Should you be using social networking sites?

Yes. You should be reading them to see what is current and relevant – what are your consumers talking about? What are the latest interests, concerns, hot topics? Whether your business, however, should actually have a profile on these sites is another question. Think about the sites and the image they might portray for your business.

Facebook is more of a social site – people sharing personal news, photos of new babies, holiday snaps, opinions on political and charitable causes. In their own words, “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” In a similar way, but perhaps feeding into our need for immediate gratification and our growing impatience with anything taking longer than five minutes, Twitter claims to be “without a doubt the best way to share and discover what is happening right now.” Facebook asks “What’s on your mind?” while Twitter allows users to answer the question “What are you doing?" in under 140 characters (making it even easier to use from your BlackBerry, iPhone or other addictive mobile device).

LinkedIn, on the other hand, makes the claim that “over 47 million professionals use LinkedIn to exchange information, ideas and opportunities”, including “executives from all Fortune 500 companies”. As a result, it is seen as more of a professional networking site, rather than a social club. Its users are more interested in furthering their career than their social life. When they say “relationships matter”, the folks behind LinkedIn are referring to professional networks, industry contacts and business opportunities.

One senior manager I spoke to recently informed me he uses LinkedIn for almost all of his hiring decisions, either for seeking out new talent or getting referrals for candidates. Twitter, he added, was the 2009 version of his ‘open door policy’ – his way of keeping in touch with what his younger employees were interested in while creating an easy and non-threatening way for them to approach him with ideas and concerns.

Plan before you post

With the great number of people you can reach with any of these networks, it is essential to establish at the outset what your objectives are before you begin to haphazardly post information and comments. Social networking sites have many potential uses for your business, including:

  • gathering consumer insights and conducting rudimentary market research (find out what all the cool kids are wearing, drinking, buying, uploading, debating, watching, etc.)
  • raising brand awareness and generating publicity (particularly if there is something unique or controversial to get people talking about your business)
  • releasing product details and sharing company information (new sites, sales, offers, hiring news, product launches, promotions, etc.)
  • communicating with employees and internal stakeholders in an informal way
  • finding out first-hand what the word on the street is (particularly important if you are a sole proprietor working from home, or if your business relies on knowing about international trends before they hit local shores)

Word-of-mouse marketing

In the words of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, “people influence people”. We rely heavily on the opinions and endorsement (and research already done) by friends, peers and colleagues. So the role of traditional advertising and marketing campaigns for many sectors is taking a back seat to the social influence created by online networking. When someone shares their opinion, good or bad, of a particular product or company, it has a viral effect that spreads with greater momentum than any 30-second ad could generate. Because many of us now spend more time in front of our computers and mobile devices than our televisions, the power of word-of-mouse marketing is immeasurable.

In the ‘old days’, someone would compliment you on your haircut or clothing and inquire where you’ve been shopping. Now all you have to do is rave (or complain) about a new find on your MySpace profile, post a video about it on YouTube, blog about it on WordPress or bookmark it on Delicious and sales immediately respond. It’s the new version of product placement, only now it’s free and in real-time. Some companies actually initiate these forums themselves through their own product or company pages. Online posts and discussions have the power to generate attention and commentary in a way that traditional media cannot – faster than any production or media deadline, and internationally without the restrictions of time zones or currency exchanges.

So where do we begin?

Social networking sites can be a great tool when incorporated with other marketing efforts. The greatest impact on consumers or clients can be made by reinforcing a message across a number of media over time. Don’t forget to maintain consistency with your brand identity. Just because these sites work on spontaneous and short bursts of content doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t approach them strategically and take the time to plan your content.

This is where it is important to know which sites are appropriate for the brand personality you are trying to create.

To get started with online social net-marketing:

  1. As with any other marketing campaigns or media, define your target market.
  2. Create a personal profile on some of the sites and monitor them for a while. Don’t use your company name and don’t post anything (or at least anything controversial). The purpose here is to monitor the sites, not draw attention to yourself until you can determine if the fit is right.
  3. Determine what you’re going to use your online company profile for. For example, will you provide information about your products, announce new releases, solicit testimonials, or upload instructional videos?
  4. Once you’ve found the right fit, create an online company profile and tell your customers/prospects/employees about it by putting links on your company website, intranet and e-newsletter.
  5. Schedule time into your diary to regularly maintain and update your online presence.
  6. Monitor the feedback and posts your profile receives. These will provide valuable insight into how your product or company is perceived by the public. Remember to respond to all queries promptly – this is actually another customer service channel that needs regular attention.
  7. Always maintain professional conduct.

Stop and think before you upload

Whichever site you decide is right, be aware of the possible reactions to and consequences of what you post. Uploading content to the internet is referred to as ‘publishing’ – to make public. Don’t publish anything online that you wouldn’t (for ethical or legal reasons, or otherwise) put in print. A social networking site is not the place to defame your competitors, disclose sensitive or confidential information to employees, or just simply use any inappropriate material. Because it is becoming increasingly easier to find out about people online, many of us Google potential business contacts ahead of time. Photos of you drunk at a stag party might be just the thing that makes you lose that next project, promotion or new client. Remember, it is relatively easy for what you consider personal information or photographs to be shared among networks without you initiating it.

Like your own company website, social networking profiles need ongoing attention. The beauty of online marketing is that you can update content quickly and react to market influences immediately. A website or social networking profile with stale or out-of-date information on it does more harm than good.

So, yes, include social networking sites in your marketing plan. This is one area of your marketing activity that costs relatively nothing, other than your time. Just remember to work strategically and at all times professionally.