Social media as a strategy for mutually beneficial brand engagement

* Jennifer Leggio is on vacationGuest editorial by Justin Cooper Gartner's Adam Sarner recently released a report predicting that more than 60 percent of all companies will have a community for engaging their customers by 2010. This is a clear sign that many brands are coming to terms with the huge opportunity that social media offer companies to communicate directly with and learn from their customers, but it still begs the question of how they will get tangible ROI out of these communities.

* Jennifer Leggio is on vacation

Guest editorial by Justin Cooper

Social media as a strategy for mutually beneficial brand engagement
Gartner's Adam Sarner recently released a report predicting that more than 60 percent of all companies will have a community for engaging their customers by 2010. This is a clear sign that many brands are coming to terms with the huge opportunity that social media offer companies to communicate directly with and learn from their customers, but it still begs the question of how they will get tangible ROI out of these communities. As companies begin to embrace social media as a strategy (rather than as a tactic or a campaign), we see many examples of how the conversation can help or hurt household names. These high profile successes and failures are a good thing because we are learning, but also indicate that we are still navigating the social media waters.

The next area for developing understanding is how companies can appropriately engage with their customers in a way that is mutually beneficial to consumers and the brands alike.

Marketing executives need to do away with the "top down" mentality in reaching their customers. Traditionally, marketers create their messages, test them with some people in their deemed "appropriate" demographic (often other marketers and analysts, not customers), fine tune them, and then push the message out to the masses. With the Internet, we now have the ability to hear directly from consumers what they want, and need to embrace this way of communicating. Whether we like it or not, social media and technology in general are changing the way that marketing and advertising executives have to approach their customers, and if they don't change their approach, they should be prepared for a public flogging. Dell is one example of a company that has learned from harsh criticism that the social Web has enabled, and is now recognized as one of the more innovative companies that utilizes social media to collaborate with its customers.

While we have taken great strides since the inception of social media, I see a big hurdle that people are only just beginning to get over: the "build it and they will come" model (i.e. create a "social media campaign" that typically has a beginning and an end, or set up branded social networks or Facebook fan pages and wait and see what customers will say). This model of building a campaign and simply listening to your customers is flawed for few reasons:

  1. You can't just listen because you may misinterpret what is being said. Social media is more about purposeful discussions - it should be used to set goals and have conversations around specific ideas or issues, whether it be your next ad campaign, product development or marketing initiative.
  2. Listening doesn't mean waiting for your turn to talk: the second flaw with the general social networking approach. Consumers want to interact with the people at the brand that are making decisions and do so because they hope to impact those decisions. Therefore, not having this conversation jeopardizes the opportunity to have a great competitive advantage. By inviting consumers to be a part of the behind-the-scenes action that goes on with a brand, you'll see how enthusiastic they are about providing feedback that is meaningful and worth the investment.
  3. Listening without actively participating is difficult to measure. Opportunities to learn from customers through the social web are endless, but if you can't analyze it and report back to the folks footing the bill for your efforts, it will be all for naught. You need to know what to do with the information you learn, and have the tools to analyze and harvest it into a useable fashion and then act on it.

This is an exciting time to be a marketer because social media allows us to finally have two way conversations with our customers. The market researchers have historically only listened to customers in focus groups whereas marketers are blamed for only talking at them. Brands need to embrace this concept or inevitably get left behind.

Justin Cooper is the co-founder and head of marketing + innovation for Passenger. An expert in customer experience design, brand strategy and customer collaboration, Justin's work bridges the traditional rift between brand objectives and consumer expectations through a creative, but business-pragmatic approach to innovation. You can stay up to date on his work via the Passenger blog.

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