Can You Connect With The Ad-Averse Segment Of Your Audience?

Your advertising is invisible to a substantial segment of your audience. Intuitively, you know they’re tuning out, but you need more than intuition to re-establish connections. The solution for reaching an audience that ignores or pays little attention to your advertising is really twofold. First, you need to gain a better understanding of your audience; and second, you must use technology that can determine how best to reach them – where and when they’re most open to your message.

UNDERSTANDING THE AUDIENCE

A 2007 study published by Microsoft in conjunction with MillwardBrown-Greenfield revealed a number of important insights that may shed some light on the way your audience receives – or, more accurately, doesn’t receive – your message. The survey found that 17-to-35-year-olds represented the most advertising-averse group of consumers. Although this age-group has always been among the most difficult to reach, the survey revealed some interesting insights into the perspective of the segment Microsoft refers to as the "ad-averse":

  • Eleven percent of them agree with the statement, "I generally do what I can to avoid advertising."
  • Thirty-three percent of them agree with the statement, "I never really pay attention to advertising."
  • Twenty-seven percent of them agree with the statement, "Advertising is not relevant to me."

MIND-SETS OF THE AD-AVERSE

Participants in the Ad-Averse survey tended to be very active, filling their time with socializing, shopping, music, outdoor pursuits and other personal passions rather than spending time online. Members of this group are likely to be averse to advertising because they tend to be more discriminating about how they spend their free time. Ad-adverse consumers define themselves by what they do outside of work or school, maintaining a large network of friends and "experts" to help them navigate their worlds. Generally, members of this group trust their own opinions first and foremost, and pay less attention to generic "buzz" or hype amongst their peers.

CHANNEL INTERACTION AND BEHAVIOR

In today’s media-driven world, people can choose among hundreds of platforms and content sources. Ad-averse targets tend toward technology-driven choices. When asked whether they’d rather give up their computer or television in their individual free time, respondents almost always chose to give up their televisions and keep their computers.

The portability afforded by laptops and wireless connectivity embeds the online experience much more squarely in the leisure context. Of the ad-averse 17-to-35-year-olds surveyed, 12 percent watch less than one hour of TV a week compared to 3 percent of non-avoiders. This may be due to the subjects’ age, since younger respondents are generally more technology-savvy and active. In general, the ad-averse preferred the control their computer experience provided to the more passive television experience. And they were even less likely to employ ad-avoiding measures such as TiVo, believing that "time shifting" might just encourage them to watch more television.

Similarly, ad-averse TV watchers appear to make that medium occupy more of the companionship territory that radio once dominated – either as a purely visual (muted) or audio backdrop to other activities. These respondents "tune" in and out if a particular news item or segment catches their attention. Increasing levels of multitasking may also make commercial breaks more welcome among this group, since it gives them time to be productive and get other things done.

There appeared to be some concern among ad-averse respondents that both TV and the Internet are "stealing away" their time. Many use unplugged or more self-managed activities – such as reading books, doing crosswords or playing board games, Sudoku or guitar – to help them unwind in a more conscious way.

Music is also a big part of the lives of the ad-averse. Research participants were creative about crafting their own personal music experiences via downloading, compiling personal mixes and sharing with friends. Respondents relied on radio largely when commuting or traveling, but they frequently switched channels and mixed in their own music. There was also a sense that of all media advertising, radio advertising in particular had "gotten out of control." Significantly, more of the ad-averse (24.7 percent) listen to less than an hour of radio per week than those who were not among the ad-averse (14.6 percent).

The time and depth of magazine interaction are limited, but the content is more freely browsed for potential inspiration than other media. The participants in the study noted that the higher level of creativity and quality attributed to magazine advertising sometimes makes it impossible to distinguish from editorial content. Magazines were also recognized as a means to keep ahead in terms of events, fashion and music, despite the less immediate nature of the content when compared to online or daily press. Although in practice almost 84 percent of the ad-averse were able to spare less than two hours a week for magazines, there was less differentiation in this area with the non-ad-averse (74 percent), suggesting that it’s less about the advertising and more about the scarcity of these more open-ended occasions.

MEDIA AS A MEANS TO AN END

The wide array of media choices available today enables ad-averse consumers to select and consume content from several channels in order to meet their particular needs for a given situation or point in time. They know what they’re looking for, what they can expect and exactly where and how to get it. The more discriminating and controlled ways in which they adapt media content to their lifestyles and needs influence the way they assess brands and advertising.

THE CONTINUUM OF AVERSION

The ad-averse group defined advertising in a variety of ways – from being useful and "creative" sources of information about "what is new" to being an "interruption" and (inevitably) a more Machiavellian "ploy" or way to "lure" people into buying something they don’t need, or to influence their behavior (and "always with a catch").

There may be little new in these particular attitudes; however, further differentiation is apparent based on specific motivations and attitudes underpinning the group’s resistance to advertising and brand messages. The study revealed two types of ad-adverse consumers, the "can’t be bothered" group and those with a "be good or be gone" mentality.

Can’t Be Bothered

Having no interest in advertising (and thus a less dynamic relationship with brands and communications), the "can’t be bothered" group avoids or dismisses advertising. It is therefore harder to get this group’s attention or to provoke their excitement unless talking about one of their interests or passions. More likely to be female and/or have children, these people exhibit limited interest in paying attention to advertising – they just want it to "go away." They are wary of being "influenced" and are less focused on the process of shopping, though they will spend money on quality items connected with their passions – for example, road bikes, hiking equipment or musical instruments.

Be Good or Be Gone

At the other end of the aversion scale were respondents who more actively filter and adapt media to suit their needs and interests. Often these were the younger males who were more engaged across various entertainment platforms and technologies, and excelled at working these to their advantage. Although they didn’t consider themselves "consumers," they were interested in new products and services and placed emphasis on finding deals. This latter group used ad-avoiding technologies like TiVo/DVRs, pop-up blockers and satellite radio, and actually spent money to avoid advertising. These measures reflect a higher motivation toward content and therefore less tolerance for interruptions. Hence, it also means a more extreme and activist approach to advertising. These respondents were, however, open to relevant or creative messages but vitriolic in their response to "bad" advertising.

Given these profiles, it’s clear that connecting with the ad-averse is tricky. But there a number of steps you can take as an advertiser that will help you achieve greater success engaging these audience members.

If you believe the audience you’re trying to reach includes the ad-averse, a healthy first step is accepting that no matter what you do, you’ll only connect with some of them some of the time. It’s also clear that just as the ad-averse are spending less time watching television, listening to the radio and reading print publications, they’re spending more time communicating, learning and being entertained through a variety of digital media. This means that you can still reach them by understanding how they like to spend their time and which of the various media they consume – even if their media choices are varied and only utilized to a small degree.

ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY CAN HELP YOU MAKE CONNECTIONS

With this information in hand, you can target your ad-averse audience across their favorite digital media. The number of channels and opportunities is staggering, but if you find that your audience consumes a fair amount of specific digital media, you’re well positioned to reach them. If they visit websites, play video games, use mobile devices, belong to online communities or watch on-demand video programs, you can put just the right message in front of them. And, obviously, you can improve your audience’s receptiveness to that message by carefully tying the message to particular activities they’re involved in or to the medium they’re using.

The ad-averse are a dynamic bunch – which means your advertising needs to be dynamic as well. The "be good or be gone" group is likely to give you the opportunity to entertain, impress and engage them. But to win them over, your ads have to be relevant, creative and captivating. Rich media technologies like Java and Flash (if used to their full potential) are well suited for engaging this audience.

In the past, advertisers found it hard to justify using a broader spectrum of media and more compelling creative formats because they couldn’t measure their effectiveness. The standard model for calculating the return on investments in digital media has historically calculated ROI in a way that didn’t figure in the benefits of dynamic, interactive formats or cross-channel media plans. But these barriers are coming down, and the changes represent a significant opportunity for advertisers.

Today, a new measurement standard is emerging that finally enables advertisers to evaluate each engagement across multiple digital media and through multiple formats such as rich media and video. Called Engagement Mapping, the model enables marketers to learn how consumers interact with advertising wherever, whenever they engage. By evaluating the impact of each touch point, marketers can hone their message delivery tactics and enjoy greater success in reaching audiences that are otherwise more difficult to connect with.

THREE STEPS YOU CAN TAKE TODAY

In light of these significant audience ad-aversion attitudes and behaviors, it’s more important than ever for advertisers to understand their audiences. How do they spend their time? Which channels can be used in what combination to best reach them (since they’re spending less and less time with any single medium)? And will they give you a chance if your ads are more creative and engaging? To help answer these questions, you can get the complete Microsoft study on the attitudes and habits of the ad-averse at www.advertising.microsoft.com/research/ad-avoiders.

The steps you can take today to get the attention of the ad-averse include the following:

1. Investigate the adoption of new media channels for your messages. As you incorporate richer ad formats and additional media channels, take care to accurately calculate your ROI. The extra efforts you make to connect with the ad-averse will likely make a difference, but the precision of your reporting will play a key role in identifying the more specific areas in which you’re making progress. 2. Adopt ad-serving technology that can help you make sense of multiple channels. When you broaden your spectrum of options through a single ad-serving platform, you consolidate your digital advertising efforts. This important step will help you plan and execute campaigns with greater simplicity even as your campaigns grow more complex. And by utilizing a single ad platform, your success can be measured across the spectrum of digital channels. 3. Make sure your measurement tools enable you to evaluate the impact of every touch point across your broad mix of digital channels and formats.

You can connect with the ad-averse – but you may have to rethink your media plan first. If your audience has moved on to new channels, so too should you. Your message should only show up if, when and where it’s something your newly understood audience cares about. To catch their attention, you may also need to rethink your creative, and design engaging, rich-media and video ads that make them want to take a look – without feeling tricked or suspicious.

-Microsoft Advertising Research Group Starcom MediaVest Group

The Customer Advisory Board: A How-to Guide for The Internet Age

Good market intelligence is imperative in today’s increasingly competitive environment. Product segments are commoditizing; product life cycles are shortening; and with smart competitors in almost every segment, CMOs and their teams need all the good market intelligence that they can get to develop and implement their marketing strategies.

The question is, how do you get good market intelligence that is relevant, timely and actionable? Ad hoc market research projects, surveys, syndicated research reports, trade shows, feedback from the sales team and field trips to customer sites are some of the ways of learning market requirements, each with its own associated positives and negatives.

But there is another way to collect information about your market, and that is to set up a multisegment, multipanel customer advisory board (CAB). CABs have been around for a long time, and, if done right, they can make a great contribution to a company’s marketing strategy. Today CABs use teleconferencing and the Web in concert with opt-in panels that allow companies to interact with customer communities globally. CABs provide the ultimate resource for understanding customer needs: customers themselves.

This paper will describe the benefits of a CAB and how to implement one. It should be noted up front, however, that CABs can make only a limited contribution to finding new customers and markets, but they are great if you want to sell more to current customers.

CAB Benefits

One of the greatest benefits of a CAB comes from formalizing the process of engaging in customer dialogue. By establishing a defined business process, CMOs create a resource that provides a regular and steady stream of information that is of value to product and marketing managers and those responsible for marcom, PR and competitive strategy. It also reduces the inevitable risk associated with bringing new products and services to market. A CAB also builds customer loyalty, and is more scalable, flexible and cost-effective than alternative market research processes.

Market Intelligence Today

Companies often decide what products to build and what product features to include, and then they develop go-to-market strategies based on the judgment of decision makers with varying levels of experience. A less risky but often expensive source of market intelligence is to conduct ad hoc quantitative or qualitative market research to answer specific questions managers have about product or service feature prioritization and go-to-market or competitive strategies. While there will always be a place for other research methodologies – such as surveys, industry reports and focus groups – a good CAB can often answer many of the same questions with less cost and effort.

Building a CAB

A CAB may be as simple as a single panel of customers that meets once or twice a year, but this barely scratches the surface of a CAB’s potential. You’ll get even better results from multisegment, multipanel CABs. Here’s how to do it:

Establish Goals

The CAB’s goals should be consistent with your company’s strategic marketing plan, as it is the marketing department that will take ownership of managing the CAB. Marketing should establish two or three overarching goals that the CAB initiative should address during its first year. And these goals should be updated every year.

Include Several Market Segments

CAB panels, ideally consisting of eight to 12 customers each, should reflect the market segments important to your company. You can define segments by product or service, by geography, by customer size, by channel or by a combination thereof. For example, a six-panel CAB might have different groups for customers in Europe, North America and Asia Pacific, and, within those, subgroups of customers who use product A or product B. In this case, you’d end up working with a total of 48 to 72 customers. Then you can grow and add more panels as you need more market segments represented. A CAB resource is flexible and scalable.

Recruit Customers

Participating on a CAB should be a win-win proposition. Customers usually value deepening their relationship with a vendor and are, therefore, willing to join a CAB. In turn, CAB panel members representing key market segments contribute to the development of better products and services, thereby allowing the company to deliver more value and shorten its sales cycles.

Clear criteria must be established for determining who from each customer organization will be invited to join the CAB. It may be a top executive or a key decision maker in a specific department. Candidates might be identified according to their years of experience working for a company and using the vendor’s products there. It could be your primary customer contact with whom you deal most directly. Ideally, your CAB will be comprised of customer representatives who are invested in the vendor relationship. Customers with whom you do significant business, and where there is significant growth potential, should be represented on a CAB panel so you can maximize the value of the relationship.

Assign Ownership

Someone in the marketing group should own this initiative. Once the CAB is built, this person will review the research content or topics submitted each quarter by product and marketing managers and work closely with them to determine how their research needs might be best answered by the CAB.

Hold CAB Panel Meetings

Even in this Web 2.0 world, in-person meetings still have real value, and you should consider holding an annual conference at your offices or other location where CAB panelists can meet and greet each other and spend a concentrated time period focused on your company’s issues.

That said, simultaneous teleconference and Web-based sessions work great for quarterly get-togethers. Call too many meetings, and customers will find participation onerous. But if you meet too infrequently, you’ll inhibit the spirit of camaraderie and teamwork and lose the momentum that delivers maximum results from the CAB.

Most customers are comfortable with online meetings, so it should be reasonable to hold, for example, a 90-minute session each quarter with customers who can really address the questions your company needs answered.

The meetings should be run either by an in-house facilitator or an independent professional. Either way, it’s important that customers are given the opportunity to express themselves in the areas that are important both to them and to your company. One of the major failings of CAB programs is companies using them to pitch their products. That kind of self-serving approach can kill a CAB initiative fast. It’s much smarter to listen to customers and gain a true understanding of their needs. A CAB is an ideal venue and process for listening and learning … and being truly customer-driven.

Think Liquid

Regardless of technological change, the future of social media will be dictated by the community’s rapid adoption of new media forms. Change occurs dynamically in online communities as new applications develop. Though behavior changes, relationships must be maintained. That means successful marketers must use flexible strategies as they move forward with their online efforts.

At any given time, there seem to be hot social media networks and new technologies. Whether it’s Facebook or Mahalo or another social network du jour, marketers will be faced with a consistent challenge of finding new ways to use media forms to engage the community. Like water, the marketer must move with the community and learn the newest technology’s impact on communications. And also like water, this type of activity follows the path of least resistance.

It is important to note that as the “webolution” continues, marketers should avoid getting bedazzled by the hippest, newest media forms. We’ve seen them come and go. Excite, Prodigy, AOL, Friendster, MySpace (fading, but still relevant) and, increasingly, Yahoo are all brands of the past. These passing technologies demonstrate that we cannot get too focused on specific technologies. Why? Because they will evolve, change and, in some cases, disappear.

True strategy is independent of social media form. Instead, like all great marketing strategies, it revolves around the organization’s community. If a marketer understands its stakeholders – really understands them by listening to them and understanding what motivates them and how the organization can provide value for them – then an all-consuming strategy is possible.

Thinking Liquid in a Dynamic Environment

“Water adopts the shape of its receptacle, it is sometimes a trickle and sometimes a wild sea.'”

Marketers are better served by liquid fluidity in their thought processes and approaches. If a marketer elects to reach stakeholders with a content-based strategy that can be communicated across a wide variety of media forms, then anything is possible. The marketer can adapt to sudden changes as well as newly emerging technologies as social media continues its march forward.

This liquid approach toward social media strategy makes sense. As the natural and rapid evolution continues to unfold over time and communities evolve, their consumption of media will evolve too. Marketers who use a value-based approach can then take the communication strategy and offer it to the community in whatever form it wants.

Consider the way Dell Inc. handled its own nightmare in the blogosphere. In 2005, the company was dubbed “Dell Hell” by widely read journalist and blogger Jeff Jarvis in response to a horrific customer service experience he had after buying a new laptop. The episode struck a chord with readers and was soon repeated and shared all over the Internet. Jarvis continued to chronicle his frustrating dealings with Dell customer service, at one point commenting, “Public relations must be about a new relationship with the public, with the public in charge.”

With its hand forced, Dell actively began revitalizing its tainted brand image by taking steps to show it was listening to its customers, not providing lip service. The company got its customer service reps active on social networks like Facebook, where users were already exchanging stories and information about Dell products. In addition, Dell created its own communities like IdeaStorm (“Where your ideas reign”) so that customers could offer suggestions for not only improving Dell’s service, but for sharing work advice on a broader range of technology topics. The company also established Direct2Dell blogs as another channel for customers to talk about their issues – and for Dell to listen to them.

Dell’s response to the situation wasn’t about implementing any one form of social media; it was about adapting to whatever media type the community was already engaged in. Dell adapted its efforts to suit the consumption patterns of diverse communities, and, regardless of media form, the strategy and message were always the same: We are listening. The end result was an Oct. 17, 2007, BusinessWeek Online story written by Jeff Jarvis entitled, “Dell Learns to Listen.” Dell went from hell to heaven.

Creating the Strategy

The social media strategist must understand that the execution of a winning strategy requires superior content, continued innovation and ongoing creativity.

Content is written and initiatives are designed to educate or inform readers, listeners or viewers about a particular or general subject matter. Successful strategy revolves around fulfilling a mission and serving the community with the information that it cares about. Unfortunately, too many marketers fail to understand what the community really wants – or they fail even to try. This often leads to failed marketing initiatives and rants from bloggers, like Jeff Jarvis, some of which spread to the larger blogosphere.

Marketing minds have to understand the importance of creating a mission-oriented strategy for their social media efforts, regardless of the media form. This enables execution with individual tools in different media forms to stay on track and creates value for the community by providing regular, prescient content.

Another successful corporate player in the social media realm is Cisco Systems. Cisco’s entire product line is driven by growth in telecommunications networks. The company is using social media to promote the power of collaboration, which, in turn, promotes the growth of the network. Consider the tools Cisco uses for engagement: video, blogs, user-generated/content and podcasts. The medium doesn’t matter; they’re all used to demonstrate the benefits of collaboration. The marketing message remains consistent.

And that’s really the rub – taking the time and effort to create content that’s truly of value to the community so they’ll keep coming back and bring more people with them. This requires 1) knowing what the community wants; 2) understanding the intrinsic value the company can offer to meet those wants; and 3) being creative enough to deliver this value in a way that’s interesting and compelling.

It seems simple. But simple is not easy.

The one major pitfall to avoid in an organizational content mission is trying to overtly promote the company. This error remains one of the most common reasons corporate social media initiatives fail. Companies want to market themselves. Too many regard social media as just another way to promote their wares. This error creates blogs that are never read, community sites that no one joins, videos that are never played and podcasts that buyers don’t download.

Principles Before Tactics

In increasingly diverse and changing environments, successful social media marketers should also focus on principles rather than tactics. This recognizes that social media is popular because it embraces freedom of speech. A two-way discussion cannot be controlled, and conversational/ relationship marketing needs core building blocks such as honesty, transparency and other fundamental values. And these values should serve as guidance no matter the environment.

The following principles demonstrate that marketing communications and public relations are about building relationships with the community as a whole as well as with individual members.

Relinquish message control: Social media experts have been touting the need to relinquish message control for years now, but businesses are still struggling with the idea. Yet relationships have always been at the heart of traditional PR. And it’s no different with social media marketing. Controlled relationships are considered dysfunctional at an individual level and dictatorial within a large community. Since social media is inherently two-way, a controlling entity that enters the community will be met with anger, distrust and either rebellion or deaf ears by key stakeholders.

Honesty, ethics and transparencies are musts: This isn’t about baring trade secrets or intellectual property. It’s about basic human interactions that create a strong foundation for long-term, two-way mutually beneficial relationships. Follow the Golden Rule: Treat others as you’d want to be treated.

Participation within the community is marketing: Creating content and posting it online is not enough; that keeps you in a one-way relationship. Get out there into the customer’s realm. Comment and contribute to larger community groups and social networks. Read customer-maintained and other relevant blogs (or vlogs and podcasts) and interact with the writers. In short, your organization cannot become respected by the community unless it is part of the community.

For example, Coca-Cola garnered great respect in the social media marketplace when it launched its Virtual Thirst campaign in Second Life. By letting participants create their own unique Coke machine dispensing experiences, the campaign provided an effective vehicle for the company to engage the denizens of virtual worlds. And, more important, by demonstrating its grasp of the very personal nature of Second Life, Coca-Cola was embraced by the community.

Build value for the community and inspire them with compelling content: This strategic principle dates back to the classic marketing tome Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, by Al Ries and Jack Trout. When looking to “market,” know your community. It is only by listening, reading and understanding them that you can serve them with valuable information. This translates into creating content that fulfills that mission, regardless of the technology or social network.

And that content can’t be a stream of corporate press releases. Often companies recognize the need to build value, but when it comes time to take action, their content is the same old corporate drivel. The community wants information that educates, entertains and solves problems. That is the kind of content that will get them engaged. It will foster the kind of two-way dialogue that provides the company with insights into what customers want and, in turn, will show customers they matter to the company as more than just product consumers.

Parting Thoughts

Social media will continue to change as technologies advance, but that doesn’t mean that marketers need to shift their strategy every time a new online tool is introduced. Rather, marketers need to remain fluid in their approach toward conversations with the community. Readiness to adapt to new media forms and a reliance on social media principles will enable marketers to succeed in their endeavors.

Two Sides of Consumer-Generated Media: Listening and Participating

Social media is providing marketers with an array of tools and opportunities that offer an unusual entrée into understanding the good, bad and ugly of how customers use and perceive brands, your company and even your employees. In today’s world, it is increasingly critical to understand your specific customer needs and to build business relationships both on a local and global basis.

Those strategies become more challenging, however, as the landscape grows more complex. New media strategies present a means of closing the communication gap brought on by time and distance. Valuable global relations are being created through tools that range from text messages to microblogs, podcasts, vlogs (video blogs), social networking communities and traditional blogs. By leveraging these new technologies, people exchange ideas and information, and discover common experiences that transcend cultural differences. Listening and participating in ongoing conversations enables organizations to develop a stronger emotional engagement with customers, prospects and other stakeholders.

LISTENING

These “virtual back fence” conversations, commonly called consumer-generated media or content (CGM/CGC), are found in the comments of blogs, bulletin boards, social networking communities and product reviews. The unfiltered, raw voices of peer-to-peer discussions are frequently rich in passion and emotion, thereby offering a window into a world that previously eluded traditional marketing research methodologies.

Since these virtual chats are Internet-based, they can be tracked, measured and analyzed. Consumer-generated media, therefore, becomes one more source of information that should be scrutinized to mitigate the risk in making business decisions.

Although monitoring social media is gaining acceptance as a complementary piece of marketing research strategy, marketers should keep in mind that there is a difference between data mined from CGM and the information derived from formal surveys or focus groups. Control of the sample is one varying element. CGM seems to have more in common with ethnography than it does with a qualitative study. The information mined from consumer-generated media ranges from product review sites – where customers candidly offer their opinions and often vote on the best product within a category – to positive and negative customer service experiences and trends. A significant benefit of keeping a watchful eye on new media conversations is the ability to tap in to information in real time. The opportunity for rapid response in a crisis situation can be a powerful outcome of consistent listening.

Trend analysis is gaining acceptance as a valuable tool for understanding CGM and dealing with “extreme” content contributed by specific individuals. At least one major automobile manufacturer, for example, began mining data at a high level to measure consumer attitudes toward specific models. This led to a more granular analysis of features and attributes, which then was used to provide insights for product design and development.

Although the customer purchase decision is complex, and social media is but one influencing factor, information gleaned from listening to digital conversations can have an impact on how an organization conducts business and, in turn, can set internal cultural changes in motion:

  • From a C-suite perceptive, the challenge becomes how to integrate this new type of information to support customer-focused business decisions.
  • From an operational perspective, the challenge becomes how to develop internal processes that will quickly pass the right information to the people with authority to take action.
  • From a marketing perspective, the challenge becomes how to leverage the information to develop a better customer experience that supports the brand identity.
  • From an R&D perspective, the challenge becomes how to use this type of customer insight to create new products and services that tie back to the brand.

PARTICIPATING

Consumer-generated media is Web-based and can easily and quickly be passed along to friends and relatives. However, it is not unusual for a comment from a blog post or discussion points in a social media networking community to find their way from the blogosphere to mainstream media. The Internet has made speed and expositional networking the new customer capital. Through sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook, networking has expanded to include friends of friends of friends. Conversations can spread around the world in seconds, influencing sales and the hard-won good will of the brand.

What may appear at first glance to be an innocuous customer service complaint may find its way to a front page story in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal once it spreads around the Internet and becomes an online cause célèbre. In fact, it’s not uncommon anymore for a reporter to base a story on a blog post. Frequently, the article appears both in the hard copy and online editions of the media outlet, thus extending the firestorm’s reach and awareness still further. As more people copy and paste the media link into emails, blogs and product reviews, the buzz continues to build.

Johnson & Johnson provides an interesting example of corporate participation in the new media conversation. In the summer of 2007, J&J leveraged its blog, JNJ BTW, to address a crisis situation that was rapidly escalating in both mainstream media and among bloggers. The company sued the American Red Cross for what it considered to be inappropriate and illegal use of the “Red Cross trademark,” as explained in this public statement:

After more than a century of strong cooperation in the use of the Red Cross trademark, with both organizations respecting the legal boundaries for each others’ unique legal rights, we were very disappointed to find that the American Red Cross [ARC] started a campaign to license the trademark to several businesses for commercial purposes on all types of products being sold in many different retail and other commercial outlets. These products include baby mitts, nail clippers, combs, toothbrushes and humidifiers. This action is in direct violation of a Federal statute protecting the mark as well as in violation of our longstanding trademark rights.

For the past several months, Johnson &
Johnson has attempted to resolve this issue through cooperation and discussion with the ARC, and recently offered mediation, to no avail. The Company was left with no choice but to seek protection of our trademark rights through the courts.

Although Johnson & Johnson did use traditional public relations tactics to air its side of the story, Vice President Ray Jordan elaborated further on the J&J corporate blog in a post entitled, “You’re Doing What?!” In keeping with the writing style of social media, he explained the company’s point of view in a personal voice using casual language. His eff orts produced a significant number of positive posts from other bloggers, which in turn provided support for Johnson & Johnson’s position. Although negative comments were allowed on the J&J corporate blog, they actually served to reinforce the perception that the company was open and transparent about the situation, thus garnering even more respect for the organization. The blog achieved what no other crisis communication strategy could: It allowed Johnson & Johnson to tell its story the way it wanted to, in its own voice, without mainstream media clouding the message with its own interpretations.

For some organizations, this type of unstructured, conversational dialogue with the public might be an intriguing concept, but it is a risk they are unwilling to consider. Some fear that the application of a social media strategy results in the loss of control of their carefully crafted brand message. The truth is that companies could never fully control the way customers talked about their products and services before either. Those conversations have always occurred in one-on-one chats or in small group discussions. Prior to the Internet, informal customer word-of-mouth might have been slower to impact the brand and more difficult to track, but it’s certainly not a new concept. It’s just taken on a new dimension in the online space.

It would be naive not to acknowledge the inherent vulnerability that comes from allowing unfiltered conversations to take place in the public forum of a blog. Will the brand be compromised? Will negative comments impact sales? Will the blogger represent the company fairly? Can the people writing for a corporate blog hold honest discussions without compromising a competitive advantage?

As Johnson & Johnson learned, people are talking about your products, services and employees anyway – whether you’re part of the dialogue or not. So the question becomes: Where would you prefer that those conversations be held – on a competitor’s blog or on YouTube? Creating a corporate blog or a YouTube channel provides an opportunity to participate and listen in on the discussion on your own turf. By allowing constructive criticism on your company blog and responding to it head-on, you may discourage a negative post elsewhere.

In summary, a successful social media strategy is one that involves two elements: listening and participating. Step one is to develop a continuous, action-focused listening strategy that tracks your customers’ conversations. Step two is to engage your customers with simple and genuine “people talk.”

The bottom line is that people want to do business with people they know and like, and consumer-generated media strongly influences the way your brand is perceived and how purchase decisions are made. Whether through Facebook, You- Tube, blogs or another new media entity, your company forfeits a critical competitive advantage if it is not an active participant in the conversation.

The New Pay-to-Play Model in the Blogosphere

The old model of journalism is dying, at least online. Relationships between companies and media writers have been supplanted by a new business model. My European colleagues, particularly those in Germany, clued me in to how public relations “works” in their countries: If you want your material to appear in newspapers or magazines, you must purchase advertising. Of course, there are exceptions, but in these countries, public relations is considered part of advertising and is budgeted for media spends accordingly. Fabricated terms like “branded content,” “infotainment” and “edu-mercials” immediately come to mind.

Do paid placements count as PR “hits”? Technically, yes. Are they credible? Hardly. For those unfamiliar with this concept, imagine if The Wall Street Journal replaced genuine news items with page after page of Paid Advertisement content. Maybe you’d read a story about a breakthrough, pain-free back surgery or replica Rolexes, but would you actually buy it? Me neither.

I understand that the blogosphere isn’t the same game as old-world journalism, and, therefore, a new set of rules has been created and is likely to continue evolving. I co-authored the original Blogger Relations Ethics code for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), so I have a stake and interest in this new development. The ethics code was developed with several objectives in mind, the first and foremost being to preserve the sanctity of the blogosphere and, in the process, to create a concrete set of guidelines for marketers seeking to engage with bloggers.

The landscape of the U.S. blogosphere, if it can be geographically defined, is quickly turning into a pay-to-play arena – and that’s a frightening proposition not only for public relations professionals but also for the bloggers themselves. Here’s why: The rise and popularity of blogs is based on several things – the ease of publishing content; honesty; and, most important, the voice of an authentic author telling personal stories and giving credible advice. Enter paid posts and “Houston, we have a problem.”

The blogosphere is only as strong as the credibility given to it by its readers and, to some extent, the mainstream media. The mainstream media’s legitimizing of the blogosphere is evidenced by their acceptance, and, yes, quoting of bloggers as real news sources. From there, it’s no surprise that advertisers are viewing blogs as legitimate properties too. If advertising can do nothing else, it can certainly slap a logo on something and pay handsomely for it – except for the fact that bloggers aren’t even being paid well for their troubles. This, of course, poses a huge moral and ethical dilemma – should a “Mommy blogger” who directly reaches 20,000 moms accept as little as $20 and taint her credibility in exchange for reviewing a product she’d never like or try? If you look around online, you’ll find the offers are being snatched up faster than tickets for a Bon Jovi concert down at the Jersey Shore.

This new model obviously presents a conundrum for both PR and word-of-mouth professionals, and for the bloggers. Advertising always ranks at the bottom of consumer trust. Decade after decade of false promises, ridiculous premises and over-the-top glitz have resulted in people saying “No, thanks” – which explains why advertising, especially television, banners and print, is the most expensive element in the marketing mix. Consequently, word-of-mouth ranks the highest and public relations second on the ROI charts. Throughout history, advertising has only been successful at attracting eyeballs and gigantic budgets.

In the short run, will buying bloggers kill the word-of-mouth and online PR model? Possibly. However, readers will be the ultimate judge. Will this diminish blog readership? Only time will tell. Some bloggers have gone as far as setting up stand-alone “review blogs” to circumvent the ad contracts they’ve signed, publicly distancing themselves from the Madison Avenue suits queuing up to line their pockets with some Jacksons.

Ultimately, there’s a simple equation that will play out. A loss in consumer trust equals fewer readers divided by X minus trust in the blogosphere times less revenue from advertisers. At the end of the day (or the paid post), is it worth $20?

Engage or Perish: The Choice Is Yours

Like the Industrial Age, the Conversation Age (often referred to as Web 2.0) requires businesses to change and recognize that the status quo is unproductive and unacceptable. If your company is to remain competitive, increase market share and grow its business, the time to reinvent yourself is now. That means it’s time to invest in social media, specifically blogging, and add it to your marketing and branding toolbox.

This new age rejects the traditional ways you’ve reached your markets through push marketing and advertising. Today’s consumers ignore messages about your company. Instead, they seek community, and they want businesses to engage them as equals, notice them and meet their wants and needs, not your brand’s. They don’t want to listen to you; they want you to listen to them. That’s why it’s called the Conversation Age. It’s about building customer relationships in a new way. It is about the “who,” not the “what.” It puts people ahead of products and services and, more than ever, insists that you engage your customers and clients in a dialogue. It calls on you to create a community and give it a voice.

Like the various ages before Web 2.0, business success isn’t about the tools. It is about communications, messages and reaching out to customers. The primary difference is that in this age, the tools are online and we hand control over to the community. We merely provide the venue and facilitate the conversation. For some executives, that is so scary, so intimidating, they’d rather deny that the age even exists. Instead, they argue that like the dot-com bubble, Web 2.0 will burst, and so-called conversational marketing will become another memory. Unfortunately, the naysayers are the ones living in a bubble. This is a different time and space. Consumers will take control of your messages with or without your blessing. If you don’t stop defending the status quo, you’ll be surpassed by competitors who rose to the challenges of the Conversation Age and adapted their businesses to meet its demands. Any company that doesn’t respond to the demands of the Conversation Age today will find itself in a General Custer
situation, where the odds against future success are staggering and overwhelming.

Since you are among those savvy enough to recognize both the challenges and the opportunities presented by Web 2.0, you understand that you have to add social media to your marketing mix. But how and at what cost?

Do Your Homework

Like all marketing efforts, this one should begin with some research. Check out other corporate blogs and social media sites that you admire and create a small blogging team comprised of one or two people from your communications or marketing departments. The team’s first task is to create a strategic plan that melds perfectly into your marketing plan and includes goals tied to the organization’s overall business objectives. Your social media team will spend most of its time ensuring that the site’s content is dynamic, compelling and up-to-date. They’ll also be tasked with guiding the conversation among customers who flock there and responding to comments – both positive and negative – in a timely manner, (i.e., the same day they are posted).

The most successful blogs are continually refreshed with new content that keeps visitors coming back for more. Just as you have created strategies to drive customers to your corporate website, you need a planned approach for driving them to your blog. This includes using online directories, search engine optimization and traditional marketing tools. Again, remember that social media is not a new way of selling products; rather, it’s a vehicle for connecting with customers so you can listen to their ideas and gain from their wisdom. Then, you can apply that feedback to the development of new and better products, services and experiences. This will have the added benefit of creating positive word of mouth, initiated not by you but by your customers who’ve appreciated having their voices heard and their ideas taken seriously. That type of customer evangelism carries much more weight and credibility than in-house messaging and can lead to increased sales. In other words, corporate blogging can have a very real
impact on your bottom line.

As your customer relationships deepen into true partnerships, you will find even more opportunities to engage with them for co-marketing, co-advertising, co-public relations and co-communications (e.g., word-of-mouth marketing) initiatives. By establishing a network of enthusiastic partner-customers, you can find out what they want, need and desire before you launch a marketing campaign, thus cutting your costs and increasing your ROI. Furthermore, user-generated messages, advertising and video together add up to a powerful public relations campaign that no corporation could ever achieve with its own in-house staff . It starts a conversation whereby journalists, bloggers and other pundits can discuss your company without feeling like they’ve been “bought off .” That leads to better and more frequent media coverage.

MEASURE FOR RESULTS

Like any good plan, your new marketing plan needs to feature measurable goals, and there are many outcomes from blog activity that you can track and analyze, such as:

  • Number of page impressions, site visits and unique visitors;
  • Time spent on website/page, number of pages per visitor, emails opened and clickthrough rate;
  • Number of mentions on other blogs, websites, media outlets, etc., and the quality (positive or negative) of these mentions;
  • Position of your blog in search engine results;
  • Usable ideas from customers and readers;
  • Increased sales.
  • To succeed and grow, begin slowly and enter the Conversation Age at a pace that seems right for your company and its resources. Some recommendations:

    1. If you do not have in-house expertise, consider a social media consultant to help you get started.
    2. Talk to your employees; they often know customers best. It’s likely some of your employees are already bloggers themselves or read other people’s blogs. Ask them how they would engage your customers in conversation.
    3. If you do not have an IT person or department that can create your blog, there are a number of inexpensive online tools, such as TypePad and WordPress, that will do the job for you.
    4. Blog content should be refreshed or replaced on a regular basis and include items like customer surveys (to find out what they think of your products/ services); helpful tips for getting the most out of your products and services, feedback shared by current users, real-life stories about your company and its people (to put a human face on your brand), both employee-written and customer-submitted posts, and CEO messages.
    5. Include storytelling videos, photos and links to related websites you think your readers might want to visit; show them you are interested in them as more than mere consumers of your product line.
    6. Host creative contests inviting your customers to come up with marketing messages, brochures, print and video ads, etc. Depending on the nature of your products and brand, you should make your blog informative, useful, fun or a combination of the three to get your readers involved and invested in your business.
    7. Do not censor anything except unacceptable language, topics or images. If you can’t take criticism or hear customer complaints, social media is not for you.

    The Conversation Age need not be viewed with mistrust by corporate marketers. Instead, you should regard Web 2.0 as a way to build solid and loyal relationships with customers, which has always been the cornerstone of a marketer’s job. That means you have to trust your customers, and they have to trust you. You have to create a virtual place for them to gather and talk about you, not just to you. Remember that true conversation requires give-and-take from both sides. You must listen to your customers, for if you don’t respond to their ideas, questions and suggestions in a timely manner, they will see your social media initiative as a self-serving charade. To do this, you’ll have to assign in-house communicators and Web 2.0 practitioners to manage and execute on your social media strategies. These can’t be part-time staffers; they need to be dedicated to building the community and remaining active participants in it. Finally, you have to measure for results. When done right, a corporate blog can drive sales
    growth and enhance your brand image.

    12 Essential Tips For Success in Social Media

    Whether you call it social media or consumer-generated content, there’s no debate over the accelerating popularity of Internet sites and forums where consumers share opinions and experiences about every product and service imaginable. From blogs and podcasts to wikis and social networks, social media allows consumers to rate and review products, advise fellow consumers and even make their own commercials praising or bashing businesses and brands.

    The force that is driving social media is as old as business itself: word of mouth. Buyers have always shared advice on purchasing decisions, and consider word of mouth among the most trustworthy of information sources. But advancing Internet technologies have dramatically amplified word of mouth, making consumer conversations one of the most rapidly expanding sources of content on the Web. Business and retail buyers alike are leveraging social media as a critical step in the process of making purchase decisions, elevating online word of mouth far above advertising and marketing as a trusted source of information. As a result, marketers are rapidly losing control over their own positioning and messaging as consumers begin to control the market conversation.

    So how should marketers respond? The variety of new social media options is growing so rapidly that it’s often overwhelming, but there are a few fundamentals that span all technologies and markets.

    BEFORE YOU START

    1. Establish Clear Business Objectives and Metrics

    You’d be surprised at how many blogs and podcasting programs are started as executive pet projects. That may relieve some pressure to demonstrate ROI, but as a marketer responsible for a social media initiative, you should never move off the starting block without clear and measurable business goals. Measurability doesn’t always mean revenue, but that’s always a good place to begin.

    Many companies are embracing social media tools to reduce customer service costs by enabling peer support through online forums. Others are replacing expensive focus groups and market research with online customer forums and advisory boards. If you’re focusing on building awareness and generating leads, the available metrics are no better or worse than metrics currently available for advertising or public relations programs. You can measure RSS subscriptions and page views, and you can even measure your influence on market conversations by tracking inbound links to your social media site – a measure at least as worthy as brand awareness.

    2. Reframe Your Notion of Marketing Communications

    Many marketers embracing social media are bringing old skills to a new game, and they’re making a critical miscalculation. The social media phenomenon is not just a new set of communications vehicles for broadcasting value propositions to a target market. It’s about customers sharing information to make better decisions, precisely because they’re jaded by the packaging and spin that typify most marketing and advertising campaigns. They want the straight dope, and they want it from people they trust – primarily their peers.

    When customers control content, marketers inevitably lose some control of the message. But that doesn’t diminish the capability of good marketers to communicate effectively with their market – in fact, it can create a significant competitive advantage – but it takes a different approach. Marketers need to see themselves not as owners of market share but as members of a market community, and their communications not so much campaigns as conversations with the market. Whereas the typical marketing program begins wrapping up when a campaign is pushed out the door, that’s where a social media program begins. It’s all about authentic engagement with the market community at every stage of the customer life cycle, not just during lead-gen and loyalty campaigns.

    3. Clarify Your Positioning

    For all the novelty of social media, successful execution invariably hinges on an age-old fundamental: a clear and consistent position across all business touch points. In social communications, your positioning is no longer confined to what’s printed on your website or brochures, and it’s no longer static. Everything you and your team say in blog postings, comments, wikis or forums is part of the positioning fabric, along with everything your company does, from how it promotes its products to how the delivery driver behaves in traffic. If everyone is not crystal clear on what your company stands for, what it believes in and how it behaves, you’re setting the stage for a diffused and ineffective program, at best, and a public relations nightmare, at worst. Some companies have always understood that every employee is a brand ambassador. By amplifying word of mouth, social media makes that lesson important for every company. Before you launch a social media program, you should clarify your company’s current corporate
    and product positioning, as well as any relevant mission or vision statement, and make sure everyone involved in the initiative understands it. You don’t want employees quoting from a script every time they engage with the market, but you do want them to be able to authentically and consistently represent what the company stands for.

    RAMPING UP

    4. Identify the Influencers

    The first meaningful step of engagement is to identify where the conversations are taking place that are relevant to your market community and who is shaping them. This can yield some interesting surprises for marketers who are used to targeting their market based on segmentation and profiling. Instead of beginning with the target and finding out what they have to say, you begin with what’s being said that is relevant to your market and then see who is saying it. The effect of seeing how opinions, attitudes and even rumors are shaped around specific centers of influence is invariably an eye-opening experience for marketers and often challenges entrenched assumptions.

    It’s important to recognize that influencers are not always your customers, but their impact on your revenue stream can be significant. They may be former customers who have become disaffected; they may be champions of a competing product; or they may simply be agnostics with a strong market perspective that challenges your own. Being able to see beyond the scope of your own customer base to understand how your market is influenced is one of the most important advantages of a social media program.

    5. Listen Before You Launch

    In any conversation, a smart communicator spends time listening before joining in. It’s not just about knowing what’s being discussed; it’s about getting the feel for tone and style and getting a sense of the people driving the discussion. Nothing stands out more than someone spouting off opinions and interrupting the flow of the conversation. Your market community will be distributed across numerous social media channels, and while the participants may be the same, the issues and attitudes can take on a very different cast from one blog or forum to the next. Just as a good media relations expert spends time reading the work of a journalist before pitching a story, a good social media approach includes reading the posts on a blog or forum before weighing in – and it requires a sense of timing. If you steamroll through every blog, posting the same content and flogging the issues you think are important, you’ll quickly be marked as an outsider. A better approach is to use the available tools to keep your finger
    on the pulse of conversation and work your way into the natural flow.

    6. Integrate Social Media With SEO

    One of the most powerful capabilities of social media, especially blogging, is the ability to impact search engine positioning. The combination of continually fresh content, extensive page inventory from individual blog posts, content expansion through comments and trackbacks, and incoming links from other blogs far surpasses the optimization potential of almost any static website. The keys to optimizing your blog for search engine optimization are focus, discipline and creative copywriting. You need to focus on a narrow set of relevant topics, with relevant keywords and phrases; you need to maintain the discipline to focus on those topics continuously; and you need to be creative in relentlessly working the keywords and phrases into your blog post titles, links and copy, without sounding as if you’re writing for a search engine. Ultimately, however, your most influential audience is comprised of human beings, not computers, so don’t let your SEO ambitions take the life out of your blog.

    DIVING INTO SOCIAL MEDIA

    7. Engage Your Audience

    Whether you’re launching your own social media application or engaging in others, the key to building influence in your community is getting involved. Simply launching a blog or a forum isn’t enough. You need to participate in the conversation. If you’ve already identified the people influencing market dialogue, comment on their blogs. Put them on your blogroll. Write posts that trackback to their blogs, where possible. Write posts that engage or challenge them on a topic that matters. Bottom line: Go forth and get into the conversation; don’t wait for it to come to you.

    A couple of things to keep in mind about engagement: First, leading practitioners currently estimate that about 1 percent of the total audience of a social media site actively engage in public participation. The rest are either lurkers (people who actively observe but don’t publicly engage) or people who only occasionally get involved. Successful social media programs, whether they rely on consumer-generated content (like wikis or blog comments) or consumer participation (like product ratings or file-sharing sites) are those that can leverage that 1 percent participation to provide value to the whole community.

    Second, it’s important to plan for sustained engagement wherever you get involved. If you simply parachute into a conversation to broadcast your position and don’t return until another conversation appears on your radar, you’ll fail to establish the kind of relationships and reputation that make you a trusted member of the community. People notice who takes the time to engage meaningfully, and that impression becomes a multip for your reputation. In fact, many social media applications have mechanisms to rank your reputation by involvement.

    8. Engage Your Employees

    Social media programs are a valuable opportunity to build cross-functional teams in your organization. Select an initiative that helps you build bridges internally – or “pipes into the organization,” as it’s sometimes phrased. Everyone has a slightly different take on your market issues and a different way of trawling the Web to find things you can link to and leverage. Put together an editorial team of employees, and set a regular schedule to discuss content. Assign people to cover keywords or specific market groups, and keep the team up-to-date on what’s being discussed in the blogosphere and where the opportunities might be today for linking and dialogue. Having a base for your social media team beyond the marketing staff does more to reduce than expand the risks of social communications. It provides a broader resource pool of expertise about all aspects of the company’s operations, and it helps evangelize the company’s market position – and the important role of marketing – within the organization.

    9. Engage Your Customers

    Nothing filters up good ideas and new content like talking directly to customers. Interview a few of your customers or partners and get their takes on the issues. Ask them what they want to know about, what sources they listen to on the Web, what they’d like to see if they could look inside your company for a day. Don’t profile your customers and assume you know what they would say; ask them and let them surprise you. Avoid the temptation to shape your customers’ words into testimonials. If you want a glowing quote, ask for a quote, but use your social media program to have an honest dialogue on open ground. One of the most promising areas of social media is the opportunity to bring your customers into the marketing process by allowing them to provide their own ideas and feedback about your products and programs. Some companies develop private communities where select customers can get an early view of emerging products, while others open public forums where customers can post their own ideas and vote on others.
    Many companies are even getting into the trend of encouraging customers to create their own commercials. Whatever course you take, it’s important to recognize that your customers are a fertile source of new ideas and innovations, and social media makes that source more accessible than ever.

    10. Be Honest and Authentic

    One characteristic of social media is that people are more aggressive about reading between the lines to interpret other people’s intentions on the Web. And they’re remarkably savvy about it. Just as the loss of sight often leads to an enhancement of other sensory input, the inability to read body language and facial expressions online leads readers to attend to the subtlest cues in written language.

    And it’s not just something that happens from post to post. If someone suspects you’re misrepresenting yourself in some way, they’ll use any of the tools available to investigate your past postings across the blogosphere and sniff out what you’re really up to. It happens all the time, and it severely undercuts the credibility of anyone exposed as a shill. Whether you’re launching your own social media site or just participating in discussions around the Web, be conspicuously honest and straightforward about who you are and who you represent. The cost of being exposed or even accused as dishonest is never worth the small gains you may think you’ll get by influencing the conversation as an objective participant. A number of well-known and very savvy public relations firms have been severely burned by trying to mount sophisticated fronts for bloggers with shielded identities. On the flip side, bloggers that openly announce their affiliations often take disproportionate criticism but usually earn at least grudging
    respect for being up front about it. At minimum, that keeps the focus on the story you want to tell, rather than a scandal.

    11. Define Metrics According to Business Objectives

    Marketers often dwell on the ROI of social media, and there’s a popular misconception that relevant metrics are lacking. While it’s true that standard metrics are evolving, there are many ways to measure the impact of social media on your marketing performance. You can benchmark and track changes in the amount of conversation on relevant themes. You can track the number of inbound links to your own site and thus track your influence. You can track the growth of engagement in your social media programs. You can track the impact of your social media campaign on traffic to your traditional website. And, of course, you can measure participation in cross-channel marketing programs, simply by establishing tests against a control campaign without social media components.

    Don’t let the pressure for accountability turn ROI into a barrier against innovation. There may not be a ready-made dashboard to generate top-line metrics for your CMO, but that doesn’t mean relevant measurements are unavailable. Get involved in defining what business outcomes are relevant for your social media program, and look for ways to measure progress toward the goal. Chances are, the data is available.

    12. Fail Quickly. Fail Cheaply.

    If you’re launching your first social media program, focus on an initiative with minimal investment in time and money. Success is, more often than not, an iterative process. You’re likely to fail, so do it quickly, do it cheaply and correct your course. Don’t start with a big initiative that consumes a lot of resources or put all the bells and whistles into a flashy launch, unless you’re ready for a flashy failure. Social media lends itself well to this kind of iterative and incremental process.

    CONCLUSION

    Social media is an important trend reshaping many forms of online marketing. While the technology is rapidly evolving – and is often confusing to nontechnical marketers – the fundamental drivers are quite familiar. Social media is simply a broad amplification of word of mouth. While that basic truth is easy to understand, the implications are a direct challenge to many ingrained marketing practices that treat markets as a passive audience to be influenced with a broadcast message.

    As social media engages your customers, it elevates and disseminates information about every aspect of your business. Your customers’ own stories will inevitably compete with the story you have to tell, and influential members of your market community can amplify or nullify your carefully crafted positioning. Therefore, marketers must avoid the temptation to leverage social media as a new technology to manipulate word-of-mouth messages. Such tactics are regularly exposed by consumers and typically cause more damage to a company’s reputation than any short-term gains in positioning. Instead, marketers must develop trusted relationships with their market community by leveraging tools that enhance their ability to focus on critical issues, identify key influencers, track market conversations and engage responsively in market dialogue. Using the technology to enhance the development of meaningful customer relationships provides a competitive advantage by improving market insights, access and acceptance within your
    market community.

    A Firsthand Tale Of Adopting Web 2.0 Technology To Build Brand

    As marketing evolves into a two-way conversation that technology enables, it changes how we interact with customers and the value we offer the marketplace. Traditional marketing – based on interruption, forcing oneself on others and being loud and mostly irrelevant – becomes obsolete.

    I consider this exciting. Some consider it scary. Many consider it a return to what marketing used to be about: people.

    Success calls for authenticity, a longterm personal commitment to the conversation, frequency of interaction, and worthy and meaningful content fueled by true passion. Little of this can be delegated to outside resources, which may offer advice and support but can rarely capture your brand’s authenticity in a convincing fashion.

    Web 2.0 reconnects marketing and branding – assuming your organization hasn’t enacted so many rules and regulations that everyone inside who lives the brand fears sharing passion for the product – with those who matter most: the people who purchase and discuss your brand and promote it to others. People want to buy from people, and Web 2.0 offers companies the means to become real people again.

    Social media is messy. Exploring possibilities, understanding what you’ve created and building meaningful interaction remain at the heart of this medium. If you have rigid corporate communications policies in place, consider running pilot programs around “safe” topics just to get your feet wet. That’s if you yearn to go beyond flat, uninspired, conventional sites disguised as Web 2.0, which everyone sees through and discounts as inauthentic anyway.

    Some Background

    Solutia makes nylon 6,6 carpet fiber, which is then sold to carpet mills that further process it from yarn into carpet, selling finished carpet to retailers who then sell it to consumers.

    In the residential marketplace, Wear- Dated is Solutia’s brand and warranty on products made with our nylon carpet fiber. Although we are an ingredient in the final consumer product, by subjecting the carpet made with our fiber to strict construction requirements and tough performance tests, we can ensure that the product will perform as promised.

    Carpet often gets bundled with durables when it comes to discussing marketing, yet it shares many similarities with furniture and other home accessories: It goes into the customer’s home. As such, it is an integral part of the uniquely individual statement of style that homeowners – especially women – take great pains to create. And yet, unlike furniture, carpet tends to be sold as a commodity product.

    From a retail perspective, you can easily count 25,000 carpet outlets across the country. Although “big box” stores are omnipresent, most consumers prefer to work with independent smaller retailers that can offer the service level required for a quality installation. Those stores, however, don’t offer the optimal retail experience that the discerning, demanding and fashion-focused (female) consumer demands.

    We want to offer resources and advice to this consumer on how to care for carpet, how to better understand the product category and also how to be fashionable with carpet. The typical time-starved female consumer does extensive online research, doesn’t trust retailers, is suspicious of this confusing category and has tons of choices for spending her disposable dollars – not to mention that she’s only in the market for new carpet every seven to 10 years.

    Our brand gives us reason to speak with carpet mill representatives, retailers and retail salespeople about our brand activities – promotions, educational seminars at trade shows and industry events, articles in trade magazines, consumer brochures. What we’re finding is that the tools that used to work (e.g., monthly or quarterly snail-mail newsletters) no longer work.

    So how do we integrate various programs and activities into a consistent message about our brand in the marketplace? How do we reach our target customer? Might social media be the answer?

    Enter ‘Flooring The Consumer’

    I’m fascinated with nontraditional marketing that requires more smarts than big budgets and focuses on meaningful content. Blogs, in particular, appeal as a vehicle to support training and research. Might it also help integrate communications? I thought so, but I needed to experiment in a way that made sense for the brand. In June 2006, I launched Flooring The Consumer, my personal business blog.

    Flooring The Consumer is a marketing blog about improving the retail experience and marketing to women, two topics I am passionate about and that are immensely relevant to Wear-Dated’s campaign to elevate the consumer’s flooring experience. The primary audience consists of retailers, retail salespeople and carpet mill representatives. I publish frequently (two to four times per week) and am creating a credible reference source for our field force whenever they need ammunition to get retailers thinking outside of their comfort zones. The content also supplements training presentations.

    Flooring The Consumer establishes a customer-facing voice for Wear-Dated. Frequent writing requires a perspective and tone that is hard to fake, which is why it’s critically important to be passionate about whatever it is your blog covers.

    Melding Web 2.0 With Corporate Culture

    When I first brought up the subject of blogs, I encountered skepticism from my company’s senior management. Most considered blogs a fad not worth wasting time on. I decided to learn as much as possible about blogging on my own time and evaluate how it might be applied for business purposes. As I experimented, I built a case that made sense – even to IT – when I petitioned to allow access to my blog through our corporate firewall.

    At its most basic level, Flooring The Consumer represents an efficient central repository for information about marketing to women and the retail experience: notices of upcoming presentations, recommended reading, other Web resources, copies of published articles and so on. Anyone attending our seminars and events can easily find more information via the blog.

    By sharing lessons learned from retailers or others in the industry who elevate the consumer experience, we build relationships with the most forward-looking thinkers in the marketplace. Plus, we direct readers – including potential consumers – directly to their website and physical location. Think, for example, what an Apple store, Starbucks or Target can teach retailers.

    By telling the Wear-Dated story and linking that story to real people, we bring the brand to life. We can show how successful retailers leverage our brand to drive business and use that to build stronger relationships with all our resellers. For example, we have described how a particular retailer has effectively used advertising, branded with the Wear-Dated name, to promote the flooring category to diverse constituencies such as Anaheim Angels fans or discerning Chicago shoppers.

    By creating conversation about the flooring experience and positioning it against the best retailing examples around, we also generate thought leadership that can lead to a better consumer experience. The happier the consumer, the more we can all benefit.

    Blog posts supplement the information conveyed in company press releases, which focus on basic facts. Through the blog, we’re able to offer more detail and texture, bring attention to the human element and reinforcing the company’s credibility. It’s a forum where we can help integrate the marketing pieces and tell a unified story.

    Finally, through this medium, we can focus on regional or national stories, easily add contextual information and link to related news to present readers with a comprehensive view into market issues, challenges and solutions. To do the equivalent through traditional marketing approaches would be cost-prohibitive. And don’t forget that, because we’re operating online, we can constantly experiment!

    Bridging the Old With the New

    It’s important to remember that Web 2.0 is not about the technology, but rather the relationships, the conversation and the personal interaction that technology enables. For many, though, blogs and RSS remain a mystery, making it critical to get senior executives acquainted with the richness of the medium before you can expect them to actively promote and contribute to blogging efforts. Marketers must be prepared, then, to explain social media to their customers and management and let them experience it firsthand, especially in industries that aren’t at the cutting edge of technology adoption.

    Getting Up to Speed

    It won’t happen overnight. Not that it’s difficult, but it requires concentration and commitment. Many excellent books, articles, webinars and websites offer overviews of successful corporate blogging. The best training, however, comes from blogging itself, once you build up enough confidence. First, you’ll need to consider carefully the goals of the blog and give it a name, which held me up for three weeks. Once you dive in and find your voice and your rhythm, you will learn quickly.

    From a technical perspective, blogging platforms (e.g., Blogger, WordPress, Type-Pad) are intuitive; most are free; and they’re getting easier and easier to use with each new version released. Link-building is critical, as are tags, setting up tracking systems, site meters and subscription mechanisms. The platform you choose probably offers explanations and support. Other aspects, such as keywords, make more sense with practice.

    From a content perspective, this is where your passion is most critical. What is it that you want to discuss and showcase for your audience? Can you connect your ideas to others’? Can you invite customers to participate? You are sharing content in the spirit of openness and exchange. Do not speak as a commercial for your product. Be yourself.

    From a community perspective, which other blogs will you promote on your blogroll? Which ones match up most closely with the topics of interest to you? Are there projects to participate in with other bloggers? For example, I took part in “the Bathroom Blogfest,” a week-long blog celebration and discussion around the bathroom experience. Twenty-four bloggers, mostly women, all blogged about this same topic during the last week of October 2007, providing perspective on a topic that most people, especially retailers, don’t take as seriously as women do.

    Pressure in My Role

    Web 2.0 remains uncharted territory for many companies, and it’s up to the in-house marketer to figure it out. Time constraints figure prominently: How can you fulfill your regular job responsibilities while also posting fresh blog content on a frequent basis and monitoring the blogosphere for appropriate discussion material? Not to mention, how to keep up with the various community happenings? I’m still figuring that out.

    However, we are in the midst of a democratization of creativity. The most cutting-edge thinking about marketing and public relations is happening on blogs, wikis and Tweets (i.e., twitter postings) from around the world. Failing to stay on top of that wealth of ideas signals both a lack of curiosity and a lack of passion for the field of communications.

    And then what? How can you take these learnings and roll them out to other Web 2.0 platforms for promoting the brand, involve others in blogging and take the conversation beyond where it is today?

    Defining Success

    One aspect of success includes monitoring the measurable milestones. Are subscriptions increasing? Are visitors commenting? What about Technorati rankings, page views and visits? These metrics can all be used to show management your Web 2.0 initiatives are bearing fruit.

    But the less tangible milestones are even more important: They are the ones that indicate whether you are generating conversation. These may take the form of email inquiries from readers, recognition on the websites of other influential bloggers, invitations to speak at industry events, conversations during trade shows, unexpected and insightful user comments, and opportunities to tell the brand story through new channels.

    None of this will happen overnight. Rather, it will result from consistent and passionate nurturing of social media over time.

    However, self-publication means that we get our word out regularly, in a compelling manner that generates conversation. It’s not dismissed as readily as self-promotional messages, such as press releases or traditional advertising. Web 2.0 has allowed us to evangelize Wear- Dated throughout the digital world. That will become increasingly important as more consumer and business conversations take place online. Visibility across the Web will drive sales.

    Finally, here’s another sure sign that the blog is having its intended impact – our field force suggests retailers to showcase on the website, rather than marketing having to chase them down. In fact, retailers are now willingly submitting photos and comments so we can highlight them online.

    It’s clear the community-building engendered by Web 2.0 technologies also directly supports our brand-building objectives. Our modest first foray into blogging has inspired us to envision more possibilities for strengthening the brand through Web 2.0.

    Last Thoughts

    Web 2.0 differs from traditional digital Web approaches. By connecting with people and generating conversation around your brand, it gradually builds awareness and relevance over time. Certainly it requires experimentation, exploration and understanding the nuances. And it isn’t static. You are never finished. The conversation changes frequently, and many traditional marketers are not used to interacting directly with consumers. However, in spite of the challenges, it is also the richest, the most exciting and the most rewarding medium ever for your brand. Don’t dismiss it out of hand just because it is new and different. It will change your world – for the better.

    The Power of Corporate Blogging: Some Guidelines for Doing It Right

    On May 31, 2006, The New York Times published an article by columnist Thomas Friedman that featured some pointed criticism of General Motors.

    Friedman charged that GM’s promotion of SUVs was feeding America’s addiction to oil. Comparing GM to a “crack dealer” for oil dependency, he said the corporation is “more dangerous to America’s future” than any other company.

    GM officials were livid. They drafted a letter to the editor, which has typically been the only recourse available to public figures who believe they’ve been wronged by the print media. But they also took their case to the Web.

    The day after the Friedman column appeared, GM’s global communications vice president Steven Harris posted a 1,000- word entry on GM’s Fastlane blog refuting the column in detail. “Either Mr. Friedman is being a propagandist, or he’s woefully misinformed,” Harris wrote. The commentary went on to highlight GM’s achievements in improving fuel economy.

    GM also began discussions with the New York Times’ editorial page editors, hoping to place a letter to the editor. But the discussions broke down after a week, when the sides couldn’t agree on length and terminology. GM’s letter to the editor never appeared in the Times. What it did online, though, was much more powerful.

    A week after the Harris comments appeared on GM’s blog, GM publicist Brian Akre, who had been charged with placing a letter in the Times, wrote with a voice mixing passion and disgust:

    The Times suggested [the word] “rubbish” [in our letter] be changed first to, “We beg to differ.” We objected. The Times then suggested it be changed to, “Not so.” We stood our ground. In the end, The Times refused to let us call the column “rubbish.”

    Why? “It’s not the tone we use in Letters,” wrote Mary Drohan, a letters editor.

    What rubbish.

    How arrogant.

    In June 2006, bloggers posted more than 100 articles about the spat. Mainstream media picked up on the story. Readers flooded the GM Fastlane blog, posting hundreds of comments, most complimentary to GM. A month after the original column appeared, newspapers, magazines and websites were still writing about the dustup. GM had generated far more positive publicity by blogging than it would have created with a letter in print.

    CORPORATE SOAPBOXES

    As the GM episode illustrates, blogs offer an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to speak directly to the public. Scores of major corporations are now blogging, but adoption has been cautious. Big business’s hesitation to blog is more likely a by-product of cultural conservatism and paranoia than a thoughtful strategy of avoidance. And there’s evidence that attitudes are changing quickly. Since mid- 2006, for example, corporations like Toyota, Miller Brewing, GlaxoSmithKline and Eastman Kodak have also been wading in to the blogging pool.

    Early successes are drawing attention. A mid-2006 survey by market intelligence firm Cymfony and public relations firm Porter Novelli found that 76 percent of corporate blog owners said that their blogs increased media attention and/or website traffic.

    For large businesses, the appeal is to create new communication channels for reaching constituents. Companies embracing the principles of openness and honesty that the community demands find blogs are an inexpensive way to extend their brands. Those that insist on secrecy and control are probably better off staying silent.

    And if you think a corporate blog will make your customers love you or the media go easy on you, forget it. Public forums can be used for executions just as easily as celebrations. You’re going to get some criticism, but you’ll also find out who your friends are.

    Blogging doesn’t make you cool either. General Motors, Microsoft, Wal-Mart and the Air Conditioning Contractors of America aren’t hip, but they have blogs. Apple Computer is hipness personified but doesn’t blog at all. Nike’s the hippest shoe company in the world, but it’s silent in the blogosphere. There is no Harley Hog Blog.

    Corporations shouldn’t blog unless they know why they’re doing it. A boring blog will do more harm than good. However, for companies that are interested in taking the plunge, there are compelling benefits.

    CUSTOMER RELATIONS

    The best reason to blog is to engage in a conversation with people who care about your company and products. For example, GM revived the Chevrolet Camaro in August 2006 driven, in part, by more than 900 requests posted on the Fastlane blog. Many successful business bloggers regularly log hundreds of comments on their postings. This unvarnished feedback can be enormously helpful in shaping strategy and product development.

    However, there have been plenty of failures. One of my clients complained that his company had lost interest in blogging after an early experience failed to ignite interest. Looking at the remnants of the blog (online content never dies), it was easy to see why: Entries were vacuous, jargon-filled marketing promotions. There were no links, and readers couldn’t comment.

    If you’re going to launch a company blog, take a little extra time to learn how to do it right. Following are some reasons why.

    MEDIA RELATIONS

    Your corporate blog will automatically go on the reading list of every journalist who covers your company. If you do it right, they will want to read your content.

    When GoDaddy.com tussled with ABC over the network’s objections to its Super Bowl ads in 2006, CEO Bob Parsons blogged frequently to tell his company’s side of the story. “I was constantly posting new entries,” he said. “We made that our central point of updates for employees, customers and the media.”Adds publicist and blogger Eric Schwartzman, “You are no longer dependent on a third-party outlet to get the message to the target.”

    TELLING YOUR STORY

    Blogs are a way for executives to speak directly to their constituents. They can also counter negative perceptions. For example, Microsoft launched a behind-the-scenes video series in 2005 to help humanize the company at a time when it was widely regarded as a faceless monopolist.

    But beware of false transparency. Ford Motor Co.’s 2006 online “Bold Moves” campaign was intended to make amends for the company’s past mistakes. Among the website features were interviews with Ford executives acknowledging the company’s past mistakes and videos shot by a camera team that was said to have been given open access to Ford facilities. The effort was criticized for being slick and contrived. Corporate insincerity is quickly sniffed out. On the other hand, GM’s campaign against Friedman was effective because it was so raw and genuine.

    FEEDING A FRENZY

    If you’re fortunate enough to have a rabid customer base, a blog is a cheap, effective way to stoke the fires of passion. For example, Southwest Airlines’ Nuts About Southwest blog is a frothy celebration that mirrors the feel-good culture of its employees. Guinness &Co. uses a blog to tell stout-lovers where they can meet the Guinness marketing crew.

    PROMOTING A PRODUCT

    Overt promotion can’t be too blatant, but product-focused blogs do work. Owens Corning, welding equipment maker Arc-Zone and distiller Diageo North America have all used character bloggers, like Owens’ Pink Panther mascot, to represent their products. While all have inspired criticism for being too contrived, the sponsors’ persistence attests to their success. If you’re going to push a product with a blog, be absolutely transparent about your motives and keep content educational and useful.

    HAVE A REASON

    The worst reason to launch a corporate blog is that it’s the thing to do. You need a mission and a long-term commitment.

    GM’s Fastlane Blog, for example, introduced the world to innovative people within the company as a way to combat a stodgy image. Microsoft launched Port 25, a blog aimed at developers of open-source software, in the spring of 2006, to soften the hostile relationship it’s had with these people for years. The audience initially reacted with derision, but Microsoft responded constructively, and within a few weeks, the discussion turned constructive.

    Previously it was unthinkable for a corporation to invite critics into a forum of its own making. But Port 25 was a success in smoothing what had been a contentious situation. Conversation works.

    Before starting a corporate blog, have a mission. Maybe it’s to advocate for a cause, fix a customer service problem or comment on public policy. That goal will give you the incentive to keep at it.

    TYPES OF CORPORATE BLOGS

    Don’t rush into corporate blogging with an undifferentiated strategy or under-prepared employees. Don’t try to be someone you aren’t. Critics will sniff that out quickly and skewer your efforts. Launch internally a few weeks before you go public and give your people a chance to work out the kinks. Ask trusted outsiders for feedback. There are several approaches you can take:

    Company Blogs

    The safest route for most corporations is a company blog. Some good examples are Nuts About Southwest (www.blogsouthwest.com), the official Google Blog (googleblog.blogspot.com) and Dell Computer’s One2One (www.direct2dell.com). These are blogs where the topic is the company. They permit you a fair amount of showboating because readers understand that the purpose is mainly to advance a company’s agenda. Company blogs are a great way to tell existing customers about new initiatives and to celebrate successes. They’re less effective as a way to recruit new customers.

    Developing a distinctive voice for a company blog is difficult. Contributors must be coached to make sure they use consistent language. It’s also tougher to engage in conversations with customers when the lineup of contributors changes frequently.

    On the other hand, company blogs are easy to maintain and update. It’s a good place to float ideas, seek feedback and take a public stand on important issues.

    Executive Blogs

    A somewhat more controversial option is to create a lineup of executive blogs. These are written by senior managers and tend to be heavy on strategy and vision. Hewlett- Packard and the Edelman public relations firm do this, as do individual managers at IBM, O’Reilly Media and Thomas Nelson Publishers, among others.

    It’s hard to make this strategy work. Executives are busy people, and effective blogging takes time. These people also tend to be excessively cautious, which can make them boring. And they tend not to have the intense customer relationships that people on the front lines enjoy. But if executives are committed and willing to blog, they can share their thoughts and strategies with a larger audience than they could reach through any other means.

    Companywide Blog Platform

    A third approach is a companywide blog platform. This gives employees a company-sanctioned sandbox for personal blogs. Tech companies have done this with great success; Microsoft alone has more than 4,000 employee bloggers. However, this strategy involves the greatest overall time commitment because of the sheer number of man-hours that employees must commit.

    A company blog platform is a good tool for businesses that have difficulty getting feedback from customers or that have layers of partners between themselves and their customers. Everyone gets to speak, and customers like having the chance to engage with the people who build the products they use.

    On the downside, you need to give up control. It’s impossible to regulate what hundreds or thousands of people are going to say, and you shouldn’t even try. Create and publish behavior guidelines. Make sure readers know that employees are speaking for themselves and not the company.

    PARAMETERS

    If you have good policies in place, you’ll probably have few problems. Microsoft’s blogging policy consists of two words – “Be smart” – and it has never encountered a legal or regulatory problem as a result of its employee blogging. Surveys have documented a measurable improvement in customer satisfaction.

    The culture of the blogosphere is freewheeling, opinionated and fast. If you can’t adapt to it, don’t bother with a company blog. As we’ve seen, a blog is a great way to address problems, influence opinion and lasso customer enthusiasm. Do it because you want to do it. With enough passion and commitment, it’s hard to go wrong.

    The Rise of Social Sales and Marketing

    The jury is in. Evolution hasn’t really caught up with humanity’s highfalutin attitudes about our species’ uniqueness. Less than 100 years ago, human existence was purely about survival in most cultures. Our survival depended on our ability to work as a group. Like it or not, we are still essentially animals grouped in packs. We hunt in packs; we farm in packs; and, indeed, we buy in packs. It turns out that even our longevity is affected by the extent to which we engage with other groups of people.

    So why should you spend another 10 minutes reading this article? Like most business writing, this paper starts with a bit of “uncommon common sense” (see above) and proceeds to link it to a reason you should care. In this case, the reason you should keep reading is your sales and marketing processes will be completely uncompetitive within five years unless you embrace Web 2.0 now. Web 2.0 is electronically leveraging our natural animal behavior to dramatically increase the speed and productivity of business. Enjoy first-mover advantage: Get ahead of your competition, or sit back and watch your lead slip away.

    Some years ago, in the dark days of Web 1.0, a few of us were at lunch when one of the guys proudly showed us his Palm Pilot, chock full of contacts. He said if someone offered the right price, he’d sell his contacts so others could sell their stock offerings, mortgages and cars to his tightly collated list of largely well-paid MBAs. Most of us were shocked and never quite looked at the guy the same way again.

    FAST-FORWARD TO 2007

    Web 2.0 has not only made the exchange of contacts possible, it has made it profitable and even socially acceptable. Take Jigsaw.com, for example. For every contact you upload, you get a contact – one tribe helping another tribe electronically. A simple and effective tool for the hunt.

    Now, with your target’s phone number loaded into your smartphone, do you just lob a cold call from your car during the commute? Absolutely not. You find out who knows him or her and see who can help establish your credibility. Business and social networking tools that started out as seemingly intrusive requests for personal details in 2001 have become de rigueur. There are almost too many to name – LinkedIn, Xing, Spoke, Visible Path, ZoomInfo, Leverage Software and so on. These sites have become successful not because they require new behaviors but because they power very old ones “wired” into our DNA.

    The actual process of preparing for a sale is social too. It always has been. How do you land another million-dollar deal in the pharmaceuticals industry? You find the guy who closed that huge deal last year, and you pick his brain. You get the regional manager to approve flying her sales engineer out so you can leverage the same value-based demo. Now you can harness the power of the pack … electronically.

    Well, at least that’s how it used to work, until the powers that be realized that it wasn’t particularly scalable. Companies like OutStart are creating ways for sales professionals to share knowledge efficiently and with low overhead. Post a question, and it is routed to people whose knowledge profile matches what you are trying to achieve. See who is currently online in your area of interest and chat live. Build a reputation for your own expertise. Share winning tools and techniques. The wisest members of your pack can now be available 24/7, and, best of all, pack behavior is enhanced by a response rating system that encourages participation.

    VIRTUAL PACK POWER

    Web 2.0 also has the power to leverage the real-time assistance of the pack virtually in customer situations. Instead of paying for that in-demand, highly paid sales engineer to fly to your office, why not connect online to a pool of highly skilled professionals who can help you make the value of your complex solution simple? WebEx and others now offer tools to do just that from your laptop in the customer’s office.

    But before you sell to a customer, you have to market. Web 2.0 is helping marketers and buyers alike. According to Marketing-Sherpa’s Business Technology Marketing Benchmark Guide 2007-08, the coalition of people required to buy enterprise software, for example, has risen to 21 people for a technology purchase of $25,000 or more in a company of more than 1,000 employees. As one of my former bosses put it, in the post-no one-ever-got-fired-for-buying-IBM era, “everyone is looking for more fingerprints on the gun so it is harder to determine who goes down for the crime.”

    In addition, products and services of all kinds, but especially technology products, aren’t used in only one department any more, especially when people figure out how useful they are. CRM software, for example, stores your customer, order, sales, marketing and service information. And, as it turns out, it is highly useful data for many other departments too. You can easily make a case for why the CFO needs to see marketing spend or why the warehouse needs to see the overall value of a given customer. Therefore, companies clearly need tools to help them efficiently engage with the “entire buying pack” at the prospect and customer companies with which they work.

    At Oracle, we are experimenting with techniques to better engage with our customers and prospects through microsites that allow those gathering information about our solutions to connect with us and each other, kick the tires of the solution we are proposing and champion our joint cause within their companies. The old adage that “people buy from people” has never been more true, but today there are many, many more connections to make and get right. Oracle’s approach includes ways for customers and prospects to ask a question in a threaded discussion, connect to thought leaders through our blogs and quickly route them to answers with custom 800 numbers for groups that represent the specific solution they are weighing. We are also using technology like iHance to marry our Email traffic to our customers’ Web behavior in order to measure what buyers find interesting within an account, who the champions are and where our content ends up. And we are building technologies for mining sales and prospect behavior to
    form customer segments on the fly as well as the tools that better allow salespeople to share techniques that are resonating with customers – all of which are pack-enabling technologies.

    WHY IT REALLY MATTERS

    So what are the real drivers making this switch to Web 2.0-enabled technologies necessary? Regardless of what vocation you find yourself in – from transportation, to banking, to communications – pretty much everyone can agree that the world is looking a lot flatter these days. Smart companies are defying physical and international boundaries to field the best possible teams. The breaking down of these boundaries is making every industry much more competitive.

    WHAT YOU SHOULD DO NOW

    The companies and techniques mentioned in this paper were used to make a point and were not explicit recommendations. They are, however, a starting point for you to learn what’s out there, pick a direction and get going. As you will soon appreciate, most of these companies thrive because they are easy to do business with, as they are often enabled by simple integration and a software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery model. Through fast experimentation, you can determine what will work best for your organization and get a jump on your competitors. Build failure into the plan too, as not everything you try is going to work, and quickly move on to address techniques that will improve and speed your game.

    If I’ve accomplished anything in this article I hope I’ve impressed upon you that Web 2.0 isn’t just for geeky shut-ins. It’s ready for business. It’s also particularly relevant to how we sell and how we market, helping us embrace our inner animal to leverage our innate instincts for more social and more productive interactions. One day soon, we’ll laugh at the early days of the Web, as we begin to truly benefit from the interconnectedness that this medium can deliver and which we actually require at a genetic level to thrive.