FEATURE 

Social media - changing the role of the direct marketer

Times are changing. As budgets and marketing resource move online, marketers are finding that the influence they enjoyed in the off-line world is dissipated online. Customers are increasingly calling the shots and marketers are having to adapt quickly and learn new skills. Robin Crumby looks at the fast moving world of social media and its impact on the role of the direct marketer.

By Robin Crumby

Is this the end of marketing as we know it? Is the glorious era of direct marketing finally coming to an end?

The balance of power between marketer and customer has certainly shifted. Whether you like it or not, you, the marketer, are no longer running the show.

New interactive media such as social networks and the explosion of user generated content are changing the rules of the game, and your customers no longer need to consume information on your schedule.

Your customers are tired of being treated like idiots. They don’t want to be sold to or hit over the head by offer after offer. They are tuning you out. In a world of ‘on demand’ services, your carefully crafted marketing is being fast-forwarded, deleted or just filtered out. The rise of social networks like Facebook means that, increasingly, messages only come from people you know. Email has been overtaken by spammers, and let’s face it, the postal service is unreliable even on a good day.

So, how should the direct marketer adapt and evolve to this new marketing landscape?

The Future

Forward-thinking organisations that have already embraced social media into their marketing mix are beginning to see the benefits of increased ‘customer engagement’. By encouraging conversations and feedback from customers throughout the product development cycle, plus regular collaboration with customers at every opportunity, your users can start to feel a strong sense of shared ownership of the brands and products you manage.

So called Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, social networks, wikis, tagging tools, video sharing sites, ratings and reviews, are all examples of media that allow the customer to contribute their own content and to help shape products and services.

Here at Melcrum, we have undertaken a number of research projects into social media strategy at large global corporations and have experimented widely with some of the tools we have written about. So you could say that we have been enthusiastic early-adopters of some of these technologies, but would by no means claim to be social media experts.

So what does this all mean for marketers?

Direct marketing is certainly not going to go away (at least while it’s still working), but the contact point with customers has shifted in recent years from the post in-tray to the email in-box to the search engine results page and now to the social network and beyond.

Marketers need to learn new skills, become users and masters of these new interactive media, get comfortable with not being in control and embrace these new technologies into their marketing mix.

Marketers need to be proficient in a variety of media and act as brand managers rather than channel managers. So, in addition to their core competencies in print, email, search engine and web marketing, there is now a training gap to learn how to make the most of audio, video in a variety of online spaces, and perhaps most importantly, social networks.

There is now a dizzying array of social media tools at your disposal. Whilst costs are often negligible, the time commitments in maintaining them can be considerable. Before you jump in and add video and audio elements to your mix, here are a few things to consider:

* Is your organisation ready for social media? Do you have an entrepreneurial culture that’s fairly democratic and likes to experiment? Chances are your culture is ready for social media. If not, you may not be able to get social media initiatives off the ground. Social media is not for everyone.
* Focus on the people, not the technology. Start simple and experiment before you make the commitment to buy an enterprise-wide blogging platform! Get the right people with the right skills first. Find a champion (Melcrum launched its first podcast for under £50. Blogging software like Typepad costs £7.99 a month).
* Think about the business purpose of the tools. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the tools, but start with the outcome in mind. How will the tools fit with your existing marketing mix.
* Understand the difference between traditional and social media. Social media encourages a way of communicating with customers that is fundamentally different. They are in control and often choose how to use the tools you provide.
* Prepare to relinquish control and share the process. Your customers will become your partners in the exchange of information. Think ‘pull’ not ‘push’.
* Be experimental and involve employees. Because of the low cost of deployment, you can afford to try a few things out without risk of financial failure. Soft launching a blog internally for example is a good way to start. You can even password protect the blog until you’re ready to roll it out to the public.
* Be clear what employees can and can’t do. Social media stimulates often open and frank exchanges, so it’s important that staff have some basic ground rules for what they can and can’t say / do online and that they will be held accountable at all times. There are lots of freely available social media guidelines on the web which you can adapt and use. Stand on the shoulders of giants like IBM.
* Don’t obsess about the numbers. Knowing what you’re trying to achieve from the outset is great, but focus on simple soft measures rather than financial ROI, such as comments on a blog, or podcast listeners or downloads.

Social Media Optimisation

Even if you’re not sold on launching your own blog or podcast just yet, you can still optimise your online content for these tools.

New perhaps to the lexicon of most marketers comes social media optimisation. This can most simply be described as the group term for making your content easy to share and spread. Examples of this would include ‘Forward this to a friend’ options via email, and now Feedburner and Feedblitz have made available a large array of further options to share the content with friends or like-minded users on services like Facebook, Digg, Del.icio.us or Reddit. These simple and free tools can make your content more accessible and viral, increasing readership beyond your core customer groups.

Social Media Marketing

Social media marketing goes one stage further by actively optimising the content itself so that it becomes likely to be shared by word of mouth. Viral content is so called because it is designed to spread an idea, something funny or "cool". There have been countless examples of Budweiser ads or other consumer brands creating video marketing campaigns specifically created to be shared online via Youtube, Facebook, MySpace and other services that facilitate video sharing.

Wikipedia goes on to say, "Most online communities don’t welcome traditional direct or hard sell techniques so an effective SMM campaign will require more finesse to execute properly. SMM campaigns must be targeted to the community you want to reach with a message that appeals to them. Some common ways of achieving this are with authoritative information, entertainment, humour or controversy."

Using social networks to promote your products

There’s no doubt about it. Social networks represent an exciting opportunity for marketers. At the end of October, Facebook had something like 6.4 million users in the UK alone, with the majority of members logging on twice a day to check messages, upload photos or video, browse groups and discussion forums, or play games. With the launch of targeted advertising on Facebook through their Flyers Pro service, marketers can now begin to promote their products and services to niche audiences. Advertisers are able to use not only demographic information, but also personal data such as relationship status, religion or education. But this is only the beginning.

If you are marketing a business to business product, you may think social networks are the domains of mass marketers, but you’d be wrong.

Marketing Sherpa has a great tutorial for how to market yourself and your company on Facebook. In summary, social networks are designed to foster human interaction, not to promote products, so a special approach is required.

Using thought-leaders

For individuals who can be put forward as thought-leaders (such as editors, researchers, company founders) consider the following:

* Set up an information-rich profile
* Join a regional network
* Join professional and networking groups
* Post relevant content such as articles, links to content you’ve written, video, your favourite books etc
* Create your own group
* Interact with others: remember Facebook is social, so make sure you take the time to respond and contact members of your group and network
* Extend relationships outside of Facebook: organise an off-line meet up
* Aim for long-term relationships: don’t try and be ‘best friends’ on day one, let relationships grow slowly

And if you’re really serious, you might consider developing a Facebook application that is closely aligned with your brand or product, perhaps a simple quiz on a topic related to your product or a data feed or a comparison tool. Specialist developers of Facebook applications include companies like FuzzleMedia.co.uk

If you’re still convinced that Facebook is purely social and has no relevance for business, but you are still interested in marketing your business or product through other social networks, then you might consider starting your own social network, particularly if nothing is available for your community of users.

This is the step Melcrum made in May 2007 to launch the Communicators’ Network to provide a knowledge sharing site for customers to self-organise and form groups around regions, topics and industries, discuss their challenges, and rate and review useful resources. Membership is free and has already attracted nearly 5,000 people with minimal marketing. Through interaction with the company and its staff and by encouraging active Q&A and discussion around topics we cover, the social network serves as a great new product development and topic development think-tank for Melcrum, together with giving our editors and researchers the opportunity to establish themselves as thought-leaders in these topic areas.

There are a number of white label social networking platforms who can get you up and running for a few thousand pounds, including Small World Labs or Snappville.com

But before you jump in, first consider whether your customers participate in social networks or online forums. If they aren’t a talkative group who like to network, don’t waste your time.

Building good relationships with bloggers

Another key skill set a marketer should develop is relationship building with bloggers operating in your space. But, high profile blogs are inundated with press releases, most of them unrelated to the topics they write on, so simply emailing bloggers with an unsolicited attachment is unlikely to get your story written up.

The alternative is to identify influential bloggers in your markets and build good relations with them well in advance of asking for their help. Their Technorati ranking is a good place to start for who’s influential and who’s not. The higher the Technorati number, the more people have linked to their blog in the last six months. So you might want to start by reading their blog and commenting from time to time. Then contact them off-line and send them some free samples, set them up with a free subscription and then start sending them press releases or information they might be inclined to use.

Bloggers make great contributors and advocates for your business, so they’re worth the effort to keep them on side.

Promoting your business through podcasts

Well worth your consideration is launching a podcast to support your product or service. Podcasts are best described as mini radio shows delivered as audio files online, normally via RSS. Melcrum’s twice monthly podcast was launched with a £50 budget and has been a lot of fun for staff to put together, and feedback from customers has been very positive. But before you dive in, here are five golden rules to consider:

* Understand the media. Download and listen to as many as you can from business, comedy, whatever. Determine what you like and don’t like, what works and what doesn’t and incorporate this into your own.
* Create a script. Unless your presenter is a true pro, create a set of bullet points so that the podcast stays on track.
* Use a template. Stick to an agreed format for the podcast with regular sections, musical intros; the simpler the better. Keep it short; 15 minutes is about the limit most people can comfortably listen to without attentions wandering.
* Edit and polish. You can always do a number of "takes" to remove ums and ahs, but don’t make it too polished; people don’t expect BBC standards of quality.
* Publish it. Create a regular frequency for the podcast so customers expect it. Make sure to tell the world and make it easy to download and listen to from a number of access points.

Conclusion

So, whilst social media may not quite mean the end of direct marketing as we know it, the warning signs should not be ignored. Marketers need to think long and hard about how to engage customers in new and different ways. You’ll only know what those ways are by experimentation to find the optimal blend of media. Maybe online video will be the "killer app" for your customer base, or maybe it will fall flat. Hedging your bets and testing a variety of media before making a lasting commitment is likely to prove the best approach.

Start by becoming a user of the media you hope to adopt. Only then will you make an informed decision about how to incorporate these media into your mix.

And maybe, just maybe, your organisation and customers are not ready for social media. In which case, send my regards to the FFT, the C4 window and the long copy. You’re missing out on all the fun.