Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What are your thoughts on social media for companies and their brands?

This question was posed by my colleague Jen. Before I launch into the answer, a few words about blogging on this subject:

1. I’m going to respond within the context of micro and small businesses. My assumptions are that the brand is undefined, formative, or MIA.

2. I could write a whole article/white paper on this subject (and I might just do that!) but for today I am going to shoot from the hip and also try to keep it brief.

3. For brevity, and because you’ve introduced the B word, I’m going to limit my discussion of “social media” to what’s available and typically undertaken by this audience—not custom platform development or integrated marketing campaigns. Also, my comments will be highly generalized. And I will use sentence fragments.

Now, my thoughts on social media for companies and their brands.

If your company does not have an established brand or brand guidelines, does not have a brand strategy, or has not organized internal branding efforts, whatever you do/say “socially” will build your brand for you. It sounds simple and a given, right? Without a brand to align communications with or to test your tone against, you are not doing much to “shape” the impressions of your intended audience.

SIDEBAR: We assume that this is possible or we would not invest in any marketing, packaging, advertising, research, etc. (although not necessarily in that order) and yours truly along with 167,463 other people with the title Marketing Manager in the U.S. plus who knows how many others would not have a job (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, 2006).

But it’s easier to go off and do the social media thing, jump on the bandwagon and just participate, than it is to do the hard work of creating a brand. It’s seemingly cheaper, too—a fact that is not lost on small business owners. It’s when we ask questions of effectiveness that social media, when conducted in this manner, falls apart. That’s why I say “seemingly.” Building on Econ 101, if there’s no such thing as a free lunch, how much does a cheap lunch actually cost? Which leads to the question of who’s managing those impressions at what hourly rate. Or at least monitoring.

At the heart of social media is a conversation, and someone has to take the pulse. We have to listen and speak. We have to do both to connect with people, although some marketers will insist that you be a spokesperson. I think there are important usage decisions to be made. It will depend on your business and your relationships with others (and how that gets played out). I like to put it this way: Are you a megaphone, a two-way radio, or an antenna?

If you’re a megaphone, you’d better be (a) pointing in the right direction and (b) saying something worth listening to—as defined by your listeners, which really means you have to do some sort of listening, even if it’s not via social media channels. There are too many broken records, especially on Twitter. If u tweet about the same thing over & over & I don’t care about it, reverse marketing happens: Unfollow & boycott. (That’s 116 characters, BTW, and you can RT @tracydiziere.)

If you’re a two-way radio, you have to be comfortable with whatever comes back. And gracious. And accepting. When you open up the discussion for feedback, and readers use the opportunity to knock your service or product, you have to be able to respond positively. Unfortunately for micro or small business owners, who feel like they ARE the product/service, this isn’t easy. In the best case scenario, you have a process in place for capturing that valuable feedback, which would otherwise be very costly to obtain. Of course, it may not be representative of the entire market and it will trickle in vs. be conveniently culled, but it’s your data and you know how to use it to your advantage, thanks to your process. If you don’t have a process, don’t bother with social media. Community members, consumers, and would-be customers can (a) spot a faker a mile away and (b) will be even more disappointed if you don’t have an honest response that attempts to fix the problem.

If you’re an antenna, you’re picking up on what’s being said in social media circles that apply to your business, but you’re not contributing or launching anything. This is a good place to start. Listening can make your marketing efforts uber-effective, not to mention make you a more tuned-in friend, family member, boss, co-worker, consumer, voter, etc. Even as an antenna, you can acknowledge you’re receiving a signal on occasion. What you do with the information is important too. Use it to spark internal discussions, to understand consumer views, to track the competition, etc. Again, have a process for what you’re doing and a way of transforming content into data.

Finally, the question most people want to have an answer to: Should we do it at my company? Some marketers convince every client that they all have to be megaphones in all the usual suspects of social media—Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter, blogs, Ning, YouTube, etc.—and create their own communities or be left behind to die in the desert of traditional media. There is no question that mainstream media is freaking out, is in trouble, is still too silo’ed, lacks freshness, and has to change. To tell you to ignore that and go ahead with business as usual would be beyond foolish. But social media efforts are not one size fits all and I’m not selling you some elaborate plan for social media domination either (as if it were possible, duh, it’s democratic). I’m just saying small businesses need to consider all the factors that come into play when designing (that means professionally constructing an organized and creative effort) their communications strategy—regardless of media. Those factors include not only larger issues of who are we trying to reach and WWMBD (MB=my brand) but also who is going to do what, how often, how long, at what expense, and the most important considerations of all: What if, what if, and what if?

If you need an extra head to think those things through, mine is for rent. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. And why not post a comment acknowledging your feat, calling me out, or lending your support for something I’ve said? Tracy Diziere & Associates is a two-way radio, but it’s awful quiet out there! Feel free to post your burning marketing questions as response to this or my previous post "Can We Talk?"