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.