"Social media has become mass media. It's the oldest form of marketing-word of mouth-with the newest form of technology." -Marc Pritchard, Chief Marketing Officer, Procter & Gamble
Since my grandpa Varnum (yes, his real name) had a bakery in Kankakee, Illinois (oh, those lemon squares!), word of mouth has always been the most reliable way to build a business. Studies show it is more effective than ever: word-of-mouth converts a sale at roughly 82%. Paid advertising? 10-14%.
Social media spreads word-of-mouth marketing orders-of-magnitude faster than ever before. If you do good business, you will win the hearts of brand evangelists who will form a marketing army for you. They will promote your business better than you ever could, because people trust one another more than they trust your company. Moreover, one person can reach a lot of people who trust them. In seconds. For free. We're in a word-of-mouth economy here. The timeless maxim is:
Good business is good for business.
Social media has been a rousing triumph for early adopters such as Dell, Whole Foods, Starbucks and JetBlue. Sadly, the landscape is littered with many brands that do not understand what is going on. Fewer still are willing-or more tragically, able-to engage.
Social media continues to grow at a breakneck pace because our desires to connect and beheard aren't wants. They're needs. We have been compelled to do this stuff since people etched the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave paintings almost 30,000 years ago.
That is why social media is powering businesses smart enough, and brave enough, to enter the fray. People are trust filters for one another. They always have been and always will be. If you have a small bakery on Main Street or a big brand on Wall Street, social media is where people are talking. The difference now is that they're using simple, yet sophisticated tools that travel faster than ever. If a person doesn't like your brand, their 140-character Tweet can influence the opinions of thousands. Or, even millions.
I stare, mouth agape, in a semi-drooling state of befuddled awe, when companies say to me: "We don't have the time or resources to dedicate to social media." I wonder: "Where are you dedicating your time and resources? There are hundreds of millions of people-your past, current and future customers-who are defining your brand, making product recommendations and influencing oneanother's purchase decisions more broadly and more rapidly than ever before. One satisfied customer can bring 50 new customers to you in a single Tweet. One displeased customer's scathing review on Yelp can prevent hundreds, or thousands, from ever doing business with you. You don't have the time or resources to dedicate to this? Um, hello?"
Cavalierly dismissing social media as "trivial," or "irrelevant" or "too difficult to understand" is a grave mistake. Whoever you are, whatever your goals, if you want to excel in your career, boost your business, enrich your life, or change the world, you need to consider engaging in social media.
The barrier to entry is virtually nil. There are no excuses to prevent the ambitious and good-hearted from doing whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want, with whomever they want. Social media allows you to do that.
The Rewards: What You Stand to Gain
Social media is like a freight train. If you catch it just right, "oh, the places you'll go!"
However, if you wait too long or if you make a misstep, at best, you will miss an historic ride. At worst, you and/or your business can be left behind with blinding speed.
Let's say you catch the train. Here's what you can realistically stand to gain from social media.
Let's look at it like a pyramid, in the following order, with Brand Awareness at the base. The first few benefits are relatively easy to achieve. As you move "up the pyramid," the benefits get tougher to realize.
When you start engaging in social media, you can get on people's radar relatively quickly. They see a Tweet or a post and within minutes, they're moseying over to your website (or more likely checking your social footprint) to see whatyou're all about.
This raises a salient point: people are learning about your brand in ways you wouldn't expect. Think they're forming impressions about you from your website? Think about. They're savvier than that. They know that your website was planned and edited and honed and refined ad nauseum.
To learn what you're really about, people will Google you. They'll study your Twitter timeline. They'll scour your Facebook page. They'll even dig into what individual employees work for you, and what those people are saying from their personal social profiles, in their free time.
While you cannot control what others are saying about you or your organization in social media, you can guide the discussion in your favor. It's imperative that you do. People are talking, and if you are not part of the conversation, they will lead it, and in the process they might undo all of your best branding efforts and well-laid plans. Social media puts the "public" back into public relations. If you are in business, you must take the time to listen, engage, care-and take part. It no longer something you can ignore.
Authentically engaging in social media shows your customers-and the world-that you care enough to invest the time and resources to talk with them (and not at them via traditional marketing). Two-way conversation is the best branding there is. Brands that do not engage on Twitter-a free and easy-to-use social media platform-are essentially saying to past, present and future customers: "We don't have the time or energy for you, our customers." That is a terrible blow to a brand. Twitter and Facebook are the two most powerful customer service platforms in the history of business. They allow brands to address customer concerns and issues in real-time: one-to-one interactions, via many-to-many platforms. If you properly cultivate your community, your loyal, informed customers will start helping and serving one another in these channels! That's the Holy Grail of customer service.
Our social media agency sees this a lot with our clients' Facebook pages. These living, breathing, thriving communities are so passionate about these brands that they volunteer their time to answering one another's questions! It not only saves our clients time and money by easing the burden on customer service, it actually elevates the customer service to another level. For free.
This is social media's most obvious benefit. Social media is now the fastest-growing form of communication in history. Brands that disregard this new paradigm may be left behind with blinding speed. In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell speaks of "Connectors" as: "...people who link us up with the world...people with a special gift for bringing the world together. They are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances." Influential Twitter followers and Facebook fans (we're still calling them "fans"; we refuse to call them "likers") are Tipping Point Connectors.
But, take heed: these sophisticated TPC's won't generate word-of-mouth marketing for you or your company unless what you produce is awesome. Not salesy. Awesome. (See Timeless Truth #8: People Share Awesome Stuff.)
Next is customer loyalty. This occurs when existing customers find you in social media; they develop an affinity for what you're doing-and they become more inclined to keep doing business with you.
By engaging with, and listening to, your customers-and providing them with stellar service-they will not only remain loyal to your brand, they might evangelize it. Therein lies the secret sauce of social media: enlisting evangelists through superior service and interaction. Getting others to speak favorablyabout you is the Holy Grail of marketing. Social media can help you achievethat, but you've got to be willing to work at it, just like you would a human relationship.
An effective way to conduct market research in this digital economy is to put it to your communities in social media. Tap the collective wisdom; it can provide a richer and more textured result than a few experts (just look at how Wikipedia is faring against Encyclopedia Britannica!). Asking a large number of people a question in social media is known as "crowdsourcing" (a play on the word "outsourcing") and it is arguably the most effective and economical form of market research there is. But for it to be statistically significant you need critical mass: You need a few thousand followers and fans. Quality is important in social media, but so is quantity.
Negative press can inflict terrible damage on a brand. As a business, you should be listening 24/7/365. Ten years ago, it wasn't as important. If people had a problem with you, they might send an email to their friends (which would almost invariably flame out), or they would write a blog post (which was largely hidden from view). Now, everyone is a veritable media outlet. Sweet, demure Karen from Kansas has a captive Twitter following, loyal Facebook friends, an engaging YouTube Channel and an influential LinkedIN business network. Do not underestimate Karen. She's a powerhouse, and she'll take you down. Right down to Chinatown.
In Gladwell's "The Tipping Point," he speaks to another critical group of people who help "tip" a brand. They're called Mavens, and in social media, they are more empowered than ever.
Not engaging with, and thanking, your Mavens could be the biggest mistake you could make in growing your business. These people have enormous influence-and are ready, willing and able to serve as your volunteer marketing department. Your social media efforts should bring them into the fold and empowers and inspire them to be "forces of nature" for your brand. It breaks my heart when I see dormant Facebook brand pages where these energized Mavens are posting-and the brand is cavalierly dismissing them because they're "too busy" with other matters. Please: Pour yourself a glass of wine and spend 30 minutes a week loving on your Mavens.
Social media and traditional media are converging fast. No, strike that: as I wrote this, they converged. Social media can give rise to coverage in traditional media. Journalists and reporters have never been more accessible than they are today. A simple, lighthearted "@-reply" (a public message on Twitter) can garner a response in days-as opposed to weeks (or never!) with the outdated method of emailing a staid, tired press release.
A great fringe benefit to engaging mainstream media via social channels is that the pitching/booking process can generate as much awareness as the media hit itself! The old-school method is you email a press release or call a reporter. All of that is done in private. What a missed opportunity!
If you are looking for media coverage for your cause or company, research yourtarget media outlets' social presence and hit them up on Twitter!
Let's call it PR 4.0.
Social media has a way of focusing us on the things that matter. What would you publish on Twitter? What do you want people to know about? Generally, that holds meaning for you-and in that way, you social media properties become online journals for yourself, or your business.
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh wrote a piece: "How Twitter Makes You a Happier Person." Hsieh believes social media can make you a happier person, because it inspires you to catalog those little moments that may have passed you by.
"Twitter helps me reframe reality. Anytime something that used to get me upset or frustrated happens, I try to find the humor in the situation and think about how the situation can be reframed. I've found that almost every "bad" situation is actually an opportunity that can be entertaining to my followers on Twitter, which also forces myself to see things in a different light. Infact, I now almost looked forward to situations that would normally be frustrating, because I've learned that almost any situation can be reframed to be funny as a tweet, which then makes the situation in real life funny as well. For example: Recent Tweet: "Airport bathroom: guy tries washing hands - auto faucet motion sensor broken. He tries voice recognition instead by yelling "Wash!" at sink." If it weren't for Twitter, I would have instead probably been a bit annoyed waiting in line behind this man who was unfamiliar with motion-activated sink faucets. But instead, Twitter forced me to search for and find the humor in the situation by taking a step back and realizing that itactually was a pretty funny situation."
I resolutely believe that social media can unleash a world of social good. I've seen it first-hand as charitable organizations raise awareness, and dollars, fasterthan they've ever been able to do it before. If your business does good, let the world know and let them amplify that good. Don't be bashful or have false modesty. You can lift up the world in these channels. If you aren't engaging in social good, resolve to do it. It can be good for you, good for your business and good for our world.
This benefit is listed last for a reason: it is outrageously hard to move conversations to conversions. It's just tough to drive transactions via social media. People are inundated constantly with sales pitches. For them to purchase something, they need to be significantly compelled. It can be done, but trust, care and service must precede this benefit.
By optimizing a website for the major search engines on relevant keyword strings-and producing the most effective "inbound marketing" there is via blog content-a brand can drive sales and track where every dollar came from. That's a powerful attribute of social media: it is measurable to the most minute detail. You can code a Tweet, a Facebook post or a YouTube video with a trackable link, and see, almost in real-time, how your message is impacting your market, and if it's compelling them to purchase.
The Risks: What You Stand to Lose
There are a lot of folks who say social media is free. To that I say: "Bollocks!" (One of my favorite words. It's what my triathlon coach used to say when I wimped out of training with false excuses.) Social media takes up a good deal of your only non-renewable resource:time. To do it right, you need to invest focused time, much like you would do that in an important personal relationship.
If you don't properly design and deploy your social media, you can lose a lot of money-in the form of business and brand equity. If you exercise poor judgment, or post content capriciously, you could shed a tremendous amount of wealth.
History has shown that companies, and people, that embrace new and powerful mass-markettechnologies thrive, while brands too blind, too naive or too unwilling to adapt can be left behind with blinding speed. The question you should ask yourself isn't so much: "What is the cost of moving my social media from good to great?" It's: "What is the cost of not dong that?" While there are many benefits to be had, there are many myths to understand and mistakes to avoid.
Jeremiah Owang of the Altimeter Group observed that: "Websites with no social features and no connection to the brand's social presence are becoming irrelevant."
Those who refuse to engage in social media are quite like those who refused to "use the Web" in the 1990s. They were fine with the public library, thankyouerymuch. Once they realized they were at grave risk of becoming irrelevant, they jumped in.
The social media train is leaving the station. Are you on board? Do you have your seat? Be sure you do, because it's going to be a fabulous ride.
Eric Harr is a best-selling author and the Founder & CEO of Resonate Social Media, a leading integrated marketing agency in San Francisco, Calif. To learn how social media can tangibly drive your business objectives, email: [email protected] and mention "SocialMediaToday" in the subject line.