I know I have touched on this before, but the more I get into (and talk to people about) social media, the more I see just how confused people are about how engaging in online activity can help their business. It's a polarising subject, with most people falling into two distinct camps.
The fanatics can be rather intimidating and, frankly, quite scary. They are obsessive both in their frequency and detail of subject matter (and in some cases may even have lost many of their conventional social skills – using their own new language of 'online speak'). Their technological prowess and highly specific areas of online discussion frequently prove impenetrable or daunting to the layperson. This can be enough to make people who might otherwise be interested switch off and ignore the potential of the medium.
Meanwhile the sceptics stick firmly to the view that social media is merely a passing fad, and that ultimately it will simply fizzle out. They are keeping their fingers firmly crossed that we will soon return to a familiar broadcast marketing world, where those who shout the loudest win the business. With their heads planted firmly in the sand, they are desperately hoping that the whole business of having grown-up conversations, showing transparency, listening and responding sympathetically to customers, and providing the right product at the right price for the right audience, will simply go away – which frankly 'ain't going to happen'. We are way past the tipping point of social media; the horse has well and truly bolted and is long gone over the horizon.
The other fundamental point here is that online media has blown the sales interface wide open. This, in many cases, has revealed the candid truth behind how some companies try to foist inappropriate and substandard products on an increasingly resistant public. The veil has now well and truly been lifted. Consumers now have a powerful voice and they simply won't tolerate poor quality products or services any more.
Beautifully put in a quote I recently read in Marketing Week, "Brands are no longer what we (marketers) tell people they are, they're what their friends tell them they are".
So whether or not Twitter continues its meteoric rise or Facebook gives way to 'the next big thing', the principles of social media, and the impact these have on the way we should do business, are here to stay. It will continue to provide a platform for peer-to-peer endorsements (and a place to share grievances), and companies that choose not to engage with and involve their customers will fail to harness this powerful sales potential – not to mention its many other business benefits
So here's the sensible middle ground. By taking the time to understand the new rules of marketing, companies can successfully tap into this exciting new world and hugely benefit from building a realistic online media strategy. The knack is not to panic, nor to charge in and put the cart (activity) before the horse (strategy). Companies need to understand the building blocks of social media and not simply 'dive in' because everyone else is. Just because it's called 'social' media – doesn't mean it should be without a strategy or not in keeping with overall business goals. Important questions need to be considered before leaping into Twitter accounts here, and Facebook fan pages there.
"Who are my various 'influencer' groups online?" i.e. existing customers, new clients, media, stakeholders, employees, potential partners, investors?
"Where are these 'influencers' hanging out online?" i.e. Facebook, LinkedIn, niche communities, Twitter?
"How do I want to come across with each of these groups?" i.e. knowledgeable, fun, approachable, credible, human, exclusive?
"What is my desired response from each of these groups?" i.e. sales, PR, referrals, endorsements, investment, general brand engagement?
"Realistically, what resources do I have?"
So to the sceptics still out there I say please don't be put off by the fanatics, and don't stay in a social media hermit cave. It's time to come out and find out what's involved. It is not nearly as complicated as you might fear.