Real marketing examples of how Facebook, Twitter and friends can help your business
Stick more than a toe into the social media sphere and who knows what business benefits you'll find, says silicon.com's Natasha Lomas...
There's no doubt social media has empowered consumers.
Heard the now infamous consumer complaint ditty United Breaks Guitars? Even if you haven't, more than seven million YouTubers have tuned in to this customer service complaint in musical form.
And then there's the saga of last year's Christmas number one. Unlike so many before it, this song did not come out of the Simon Cowell X-Factor factory. It was a 1992 track by US rock/metal group Rage Against the Machine called 'Killing in the Name'. It featured the less than festive line: "F*** you, I won't do what you tell me".
Why did an expletive-laden song from 1992 become Xmas number one in 2009? It got there off the back of a Facebook campaign to get people to buy it - specifically to prevent yet another winner of the X-Factor TV show cleaning up at Christmas.
By tapping into social media today's consumers can have both claws and clout - so little wonder that some retailers eye this unpredictable, unfettered and apparently unstoppable arena with genuine fear. Naked customer opinion, without so much as a stitch of spin? The horror!
But if you're a business with an online channel - and even if you're not (yet) that big on ecommerce - ignoring Facebook, Twitter, YouTube et al just won't do. Chances are your customers are already there - so pretending web 2.0 doesn't exist is no strategy at all.
However, spending all your time worrying about what's being said about your business on Twitter (or wherever) is not a cunning plan either. Treating social media as an inevitable negative will colour your experience of it and - worse still - could negatively shape people's opinions of you.
Negative actions have a habit of reverberating around the social media sphere - repeated and retweeted until they loom larger than life.
Think of social media as a party...
... where lots of people are going to be talking about you. Staying at home not only means you won't know what's being said but you won't have any chance to influence opinion among the partygoers either. Getting involved really is the smart thing to do.
But equally you'd be crazy to turn up at the party and sit brooding in the corner. Or walk through the door and start shouting at everyone to keep the noise down and sit in neat orderly rows.
Instead of spending time and energy worrying about social media's negative impact, it's far better to approach it without fear - think: 'what can web 2.0 do for my business'?
But if there are pitfalls to avoid when it comes to web 2.0 there are also opportunities to seize and sophisticated rewards to reap - of the customer loyalty variety.
Consider this story of the power of social media. Rowan Gormley, founder of online wine retailer Naked Wines is a social media enthusiast, and last year used it to turn one of the less well known wines - German Riesling - into a "surprise success sale".
Gormley explains: "We've got a group of customers... who are the most talkative and networked. They're on our Facebook and Twitter and everything else so we sent out 50 free bottles as samples to these guys. And they all came back raving about it - posting it on their pages - and because they're linked to hundreds of others this just exploded."
Such a marketing coup would surely have been all but impossible outside the social media sphere, as Gormley notes: "If we'd put up a German Riesling and said 'hi we're Naked Wines, we're real experts and we recommend you buy this', nothing would have happened because everyone would go 'well you would say that wouldn't you because you're selling it'. Having the customers say this - and especially saying it in terms like 'I hate German wines but I absolutely loved this' - bang, off it goes."
"Other people's point of view is infinitely more powerful than ours and, dare I say it, more powerful than if a wine critic recommends a wine," he adds.
Online gifts and gadgets website Firebox.com also has a positive sales tale from the Twitterverse.
"One of our best-selling products last year was launched as a direct result of feedback from our Twitter followers," said its MD Christian Robinson. "We were asked if we sold 'Spreadable Bacon' - an April Fools' joke product created by one of our US competitors. We told our followers 'no, but we might sell a new product from the USA called Baconnaise if enough of you want it'. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and the product went on to sell thousands of units at Christmas."
Of course for businesses that get embroiled...
...in social media it's not all going to be sales jackpots and evangelical customers - it's prudent to expect some bite-back from unhappy consumers too. People do love to complain and social media gives them a channel to make their complaints heard. However - provided your business overall is good - bad comments can actually work in your favour by underlining the credibility of your online presence and even boosting brand loyalty.
"[Having a presence on social media means] you expose yourself but at the same time if you treat your customers in the right way they'll be your first defenders," says Gormley. "And far better for your customers to be on saying 'look stop whining' than you to be on saying 'stop that', because you can't."
Gormley has another anecdote to illustrate his point: "We had a very shouty person in capitals on Facebook - [saying] 'I'VE DEMANDED MY REFUND AND IT HASN'T COME' and all the rest of it. And then seven or eight customers came straight on it and said 'I don't know what you're worried about, I've never had a problem with them. You can't blame Naked Wines for the fact the British banking system takes three days to transfer a repayment electronically'."
Nor is it just online-only retailers expounding the benefits of social media, as you might expect. Simon Dawes, head of merchandise and selection at John Lewis Direct, is also convinced web 2.0 opens up new opportunities for businesses - to change their relationship with their customers for the better, creating a more dynamic, two-way exchange that allows both sides to benefit.
Dawes says: "There is some negative feedback that you get from customers [online] but actually you can turn that into a real positive because it's a part of the honest dialogue that you have with the customer and if you're seen to react to it in a positive way - with buyers tailoring their buys around what the customer is telling them - then it's all part of that one-to-one relationship that you want to encourage with the customer."
So when it comes to turning a negative into a positive - be it a crate of Riesling into a sales success or a customer complaint into increased credibility - don't underestimate the power of social media. Innovative and honest businesses will find that empowered consumers are no bad thing at all - just as businesses that shun web 2.0 will risk a lot more than their reputations by refusing to join the party.