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How Companies Are Wedging Into Social Media

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By Barbara K. Adamski

Social media is making waves in retail. Sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and tools such as blogging and podcasting, allow thousands to tap into peer-to-peer communication. Brand awareness and product reviews are taking place either as part of an overall marketing strategy or as a more organic communication among peers. And whether you’ve planned it or not, your company likely has an online presence.

Some companies quickly tapped into this new media. Best Buy has a community forum, described as “a place to ask questions and to exchange ideas, information, opinions and tips with other technology” according to their Web site. At bestbuy.com customers (and potential customers) can compare products, share tips and tune into the store’s own announcements.

Other retailers have created a presence on Facebook and MySpace, two highly popular social networking sites. Multinational clothing retailer H&M has over 1 million fans who check in to view fashion photos and videos and find out about events such as store openings and new collections. And bookstores such as Barnes & Noble have groups promoting book-signing events.

The number of people frequenting these social media sites is rising rapidly. According to a release put out by Nielson/NetRatings in late 2007, Facebook saw a 117 percent increase in traffic from August 2006 to August 2007, when it received a whopping 19.2 million unique visitors with the largest increase (122 percent) taking place in the 12-17-year-old demographic.

While MySpace, a slightly older social media site, is still quite popular in the U.S. market, Facebook has a stronger presence in Canada. More than seven million Canadians actively use Facebook, making Canada the top country outside the U.S. in terms of the number of Facebook users.

Videos, including commercials, can develop a fan base on YouTube, which allows people to view videos and pass them along to others through Web sites, mobile phones_, blogs and e-mail. More than nine million viewers have watched a certain Levi’s commercial and Home Depot, through a contest, encouraged YouTubers to create_ their own commercial, offering a $25,000 gift card to _the winner.

Mitch Joel, social-marketing expert and president of Twist Image, an interactive-marketing agency, believes that it’s important to have a strategy before entering into the world of social marketing.

The first step, he says, is to identify your goals, by asking relevant questions: Why do you want to do this? What do you have to offer? What community would be accepting of this message? “From there,” he says, “you can figure out those next steps.”

Those next steps include figuring out which channel to use.

“Go for the channel that’s appropriate for you,” says Joel. For video and irreverent stuff, YouTube is likely your best bet. For short quick messages you want to get out to the masses, perhaps Twitter is the right way to go. Twitter takes your mobile text messages and sends them out to your group of friends and posts it to your Twitter page.

If you’re targeting a certain crowd, and you know its members have groups on Facebook, then Facebook is the place to go. In any case, says Joel, “It’s important to consider the strategy before the tactics.” MySpace, blogs and e-mail messages are all tactics. The strategy includes the message, your audience and your reason for communicating.

There are some key advantages to getting involved in social media.

“At its sort of core nature, where it is right now, these conversations are happening already,” Joel says. “There are people talking about brands and sales and deals, and where they bought stuff, and how they bought stuff. They’re looking for peer-based reviews. And so, if these conversations are already happening, then wouldn’t it be great for a brand to be able to engage in those conversations-not interrupt them and advertise to them, but to actually be a part of them, and see what consumers are talking about, see what gets them excited.”

Through social media, you can also build up a certain level of trust for your brand. Peer reviews, such as those that appear on company Web sites, are highly successful because, Joel says, people would rather trust Sally from Etobicoke than Big Brand X.

Even if customers say negative things about your brand, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“People say good and bad things all the time about everybody,” says Joel. “Conversations that are usually around the water cooler or in the backyard are now available to millions of people. We’re sort of all shocked by this. And I don’t know why.”

To deal with any negativity, retailers should try not to make a bigger deal of it. Joel suggests that retailers “monitor the situation, analyze it, see who’s controlling some of the newer conversations.” He even suggests taking part in the discussions. If customers see you’ve been a part of these conversations, they’re more likely than not to be accepting of an apology, he notes. Problems arise when retailers don’t pay attention.

Joel finds that many of his clients realize the value in taking part in these new forms of media.

“I think they’re understanding that at the time right now, it’s important to be a part of this. It’s important to know about it. It’s important to monitor it and analyze it and see what it is. It’s important to pick your plays and to see how you can be a part of it.”

There are some significant advantages to being involved in social media, according to Joel, who says, “What a great opportunity to not only empower your consumers but also literally power them: give them the tools to make them more effective, to be more loyal to the brand, to make them have a higher affinity. And at its micro-micro level, what a great opportunity for marketers to enable their consumers to talk to one another.”

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