Millions of people use the Internet for detailed research on products and services, to book their holiday, discuss hobbies and interests with like-minded people or to maintain a network of friends and business contacts online. They do so through various social media ranging from social networking sites and forums to blogs, websites and wikis. Interactive forums like these were for a long time neglected by businesses. Due to the rapid increase of social media users, however, many companies have started to leverage Internet meeting points to promote their organisation and products and to engage with existing or prospective customers.
For some businesses this is not only desirable, but also essential given that the much of the stakeholder communication nowadays takes place outside of the scope of traditional media.
Social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn, which are used to create a virtual network of offline and online friends or contacts, are having enormous success. Yet marketing on these sites is not easy, as online communities are typically averse to overt commercial messaging.
Not all social networking sites are comparable. They tend to occupy slightly different niches on a spectrum from purely social to more business-minded networking. Some social networks are also used exclusively in certain regions.
As a result not every social network is useful for every business and every brand.
The age of the target audience is often a major factor. If brands appeal to customers from teenagers to mid-twenty year olds the use of social networks is absolutely essential for businesses, because most of their customers are already using them. For brands that appeal to customers aged in their 20s and 30s the strategic use of social networks is likely to yield positive results. But as networks like Facebook are starting to attract older users, other brands may also adopt social networks as a marketing and communications tool.
Large brands that are very popular will often find that fan pages for their brand and products already exist, even without their own initiative. In these cases companies should engage with the people running the page, rather than attempt to shut it down, because their brand may not be properly managed.
The main objective for engaging in social networks is interactivity. While it may be helpful and useful for consumers to be informed about products, events and other news, the real value of social network for businesses is derived from the interaction with consumers.
“The objective of our use of social networks is interaction with the Cayman community, to raise awareness of events, promotions and the product in general,” says James Mansfield, commercial manager at Caybrew.
Caybrew identified Facebook as the most used social network in the Cayman Islands and set up both a group and a fan page.
“On the group page we broadcast events. The fan page is more interactive. We get for example people who have been on Island requesting where they can buy the product in the US or people who want to order merchandise,” he says.
With interaction comes responsibility and a need for management. Several strategic issues will have to be addressed, before staff can be assigned to execute the social networking strategy. How will the business start a dialogue? How will it respond to wall postings? What kind of interactive elements can be used, for example wallpaper, badges, widgets or video to enable users to spread the brand and its messages? Because visitors will already have some relationship to the brand, how can this be fostered and deepened?
Dedicated staff must then monitor the social networks and respond to postings in the same way the company would reply to enquiries via its website or corporate email.
Social networking sites are technically easy to use. It is important to remember, however, that not every brand has the same appeal. Businesses that offer consumer products to younger customers, such as mobile phones, sports apparel or soft drinks may find it easier to connect with their customers on social networks than holding companies or banks for instance. These types of business may be more successful by using blogs.
A company’s customers, prospective customers, investors, employees and the media are all often familiar with using blogs to get the information they need. Blogs are an effective way for businesses to communicate with these groups, but building a blog takes time and planning.
Blogs can be applied in different ways. They are an easy means of determining what people are saying about an individual company, its market or its products. Businesses can also participate in conversations in other people’s blogs and they can start to shape conversations by setting up and writing their own blog.
Before a business starts its own blog, it should begin by listening. Blogging is more than just writing and a company does not operate in a vacuum. It should monitor what his out there in the blogosphere in blogs in the industry, from competitors and customers.
A blog must have a goal. Is it a means to communicate new product releases or is its objective to support customers? Should it respond to news and industry issues or does it aim to give the business a more personal, human face?
A blog can be maintained by one or several authors. It is important to determine who will take editorial control and what the editorial process will be. How official is the blog? Will the blog be part of the company’s website or will it be independent?
In many cases a blog design that is slightly different from the website design has the advantage that it indicates it is not going to feature corporate speak. When writing a corporate blog, the blogger must remember to write as a person and not just represent a business entity.
Blogs are a social medium. This means they are intended for two-way conversation. Not only is it necessary to monitor what is said to respond timely to comments on the blog, but moderation of the blog may be needed to make sure that off-topic or offensive chatter can be avoided. Most blog software has an approval feature to watch out for inappropriate comments, but again dedicated staff is needed to do this.
It is important to recognise in this context that inappropriate and critical comments are in most cases two different things. Debate is generally a better reaction to critical blog posts than censorship.
A blog will have to build an audience over time. It must be marketed, for example through emails to customers and links from the company’s website, online media room or product pages. It could also become part of the personal email signature of the blog authors.
The blog content should also be relevant and updated regularly to attract followers. Commenting on other people’s blogs, in particular the ones identified during the monitoring of the blogosphere, with links back to the own blog are often a good way to build an audience.
When writing the blog, the name of the company, its brands and products should be placed in the titles and texts of the post, so that the post can be picked up by search engines and direct traffic to the blog.
Most blog software services provide tools for measuring traffic. This data is valuable as it reveals, where blog users have come from, what search terms they used to find the blog and which posts have generated the most interest. A blogger should think like a publisher and make use of this data to refine the blog and its reach.
Forums, which thread posts and responses together under a specific topic, are the oldest social media tool. Ratings and reviews of products apply the same technique. They are commonplace on the Internet now and actively used by many consumers.
A lot of businesses have set up forums on their company website to provide customer support and update consumers on new products and product developments. However, independent third-party forums can offer companies the same benefits.
Forums not only provide a wealth of information on how some customers use and appreciate a product, they can also be used to offer pro-active customer support and careful marketing. Many problems and misperceptions can be addressed before they become a crisis, when relevant forums are monitored and used to engage with customers.
When using social media in general it is important to be aware that the Internet community is notoriously suspicious when faced with professional communicators, who have a business agenda. Therefore, whether in a blog, a forum or a social network, authenticity and honesty together with a personal approach are key, when engaging with users of social media.
A major benefit of social media use for businesses is that it balances the use of traditional media. “We still do radio and press advertisements and try to do advertorials”, says Mr Mansfield, “but advertisement in the Cayman Islands is relatively expensive and social media like Facebook balance this from a cost perspective because they are still free.”