When the Internet was first created, it was simply a mechanism for researchers to quickly share data between computers. The revolution that brought the Internet to mainstream users was the web browser. This quickly advanced and gave rise to ecommerce, rich media, and many other developments that proved key in cementing the online world into our everyday lives.
Today, social networking websites and web applications are creating a second revolution. These sites and services are rapidly weaving a fabric that puts Internet users from around the globe just a virtual arm's reach from one another.
We now take the web browser for granted. In a matter of years (or perhaps months), we are sure to take social networking sites for granted as well.
Facebook is the clear leader with their ubiquitous “status update.” This feature simply allows people to tell others what they are doing, thinking, feeling, etc. at any given point in time. My contention is that this status update is Facebooks' killer application and serves a basic human need that thus far the Internet has failed to deliver even with the advent of email: keeping in touch.
Twitter is somewhat less personal -- one may follow people, companies, or groups that they are not personal friends. Twitter's tweet feature is similar to the status update, as it allows you to instantly broadcast 140 character messages called "tweets" out to your followers.
In the coming years, we will come to think of Facebook
, and other social networking sites and services the way we think of Internet Explorer and Firefox and other web browsers today – as a layer of fundamental fabric binding the Internet – the online equivalent of the electric company or oil companies binding our communities.
Changing the competitive landscape
Every business should be aware of this trend and prepared to leverage it. There are some clear trends in using social networking services as a way to promote one's business, though I strongly suspect that these will be evolving rapidly in the days and weeks after I write this.
Key online social marketing tactics (as of December, 2009)
1) Create a fan page on a social networking site
Collect fans by setting up a fan page on a social networking site or setting up a microblog. Blast out messages and updates to your fans when you have an event or sale to promote, a new product to launch, etc.
- Create a fan page on Facebook. From here, you can post updates to your fans, invite them to events, etc, keeping your identity and your ideas fresh in the minds of fans (or customers).
- Gather followers via Twitter and post. Your posts, or “tweets,” are broadcast instantly to your followers.
It is vital not to use these fan pages and microblogging services to simply advertise and spam product launches or events at your fans and followers. Your online followers are a savvy bunch, and it's easy for them to click "Ignore" or un-friend you. Make sure you stay on-message with you posts and tweets and support your company's brand with high-quality, well thought-out messages targeted to your followers. A tweet about how great the weather is in Florida will only serve to cheapen your company's brand (unless, of course, you are a weather forecaster in Florida). Not all posts or tweets need to sell your product, of course. Well-placed, targeted messages establishing you as a leader in your marketplace make a lot of sense to win over the hearts and minds of your fans and keep your brand front and center in their minds.
2) Social Advertising
Most social networking sites are still fumbling with their revenue models. I expect that most will eventually attempt to implement an effective advertising model, similar to Google's AdWords
. Social networking sites have a tremendous amount of user profile data – gender, age, education, occupation, etc. and can leverage it to target ads with surgical precision.
3) Event Invitations
For a business, an event can be practically anything: A launch party for a new product. A sale. A new website launch. A drink special at a bar.
4) Syndicate content via a blog
Most businesses have a lot to say to their target audience, but might not have a program for documenting and broadcasting this knowledge. A blog can be a great way of doing this and attracting return visits to your website. Great content aggregators such as Google Reader
now allow your visitors to subscribe to your blog's RSS feed. When you post an update to your blog, this is automatically broadcast out to your subscribers. Measure your subscriber activity by "burning" your feed using Google's FeedBurner
Our client, DiscoveredArtists.com, is extremely knowledgeable in online art sales (buy art online
). They found themselves counseling individual artists in topics such as online marketing, search engine optimization, pricing, and packing artwork. We counseled them to launch a blog and create an internal program to continually document and broadcast this knowledge out to their artists.
Blogging is, by definition, a conversation. While many businesses opt to create one-way blogs (fearing negative comments from their customers), blog comments are a powerful way of soliciting user feedback, learning more about your customers, and allowing users to publish their comments directly to Facebook, Twitter, or DISQUS, to create a viral buzz about your blog.
5) Share your content via Digg, Buzz, Stumble Upon, Delicious, Facebook, etc.
Websites such as Digg, Buzz, Stumble Upon, Delicious, Facebook, and many others rely on their users to contribute content. Link sharing sites such as Digg count the number of recommendations for a given piece of content, with the most popular rising to the top and appearing on their homepages. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Google+ and blogs give individuals a way of broadcasting your content directly to their users. Microblogging service Twitter allows its user to tweet things they find interesting.
An even easier way to get started is to add sharing icons to content on your website using AddThis
Our client, Schubas
, is a music venue in Chicago. They use sharing icons next to each show on their website. Their customers can then easily broadcast these shows out to their friends via Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and more.
6) Integrate a social network directly into your website
The premise of this article is that social networking is akin to a “utility service.” As such, it makes much more sense to “tap” that utility on your website than, say, re-invent a social network on your site. One effective method of doing this is to leverage a single sign-on that allows your site's visitors to log in with their existing Facebook or OpenSocial
login and password.
Facebook's Connect service allows for bi-directional communication between your website and Facebook. For instance, a Facebook visitor who signs in to your website using Facebook Connect can choose to have content they create on your website automatically broadcast to their Facebook feed, where their friends can see it. Your site can also pull in their profile information, friends, photos, and more.
Our client, MyAdventures.com
, uses Facebook Connect to power their website. Their users can log in with their Facebook login and password. When a user creates a “trip report” of their latest adventure, they can broadcast that out to their Facebook friends.
Not to be outdone, Google has created a competing Google Friend Connect service, which consists of gadgets which may be easily installed on any website.
Videos are a great way of creating buzz about a new product or service, and numerous services exist to let you share and broadcast them on the Internet. With the advent of webcams, low-cost portable video cameras, and the popular new iPhone 3GS with video capability (not to mention other video-capable cell phones), user-contributed videos offer many unique ways to promote your business.
Services to check out include YouTube, Vimeo, and Hey!Watch.
Our client, QuakerState.com, created a “World's Worst Commute” video contest on their website, and encouraged their visitors to contribute a video documenting their own troublesome commute. Users watched and rated the videos to select the winning “worst commute.”
8) Viral Candy
Viral Candy is the name I'm giving to a wide (and rapidly growing) variety of tactics intended to generate widespread buzz about a business. This is an ever-evolving arena, and many of these have been over-used or used inappropriately, thus, largely proving ineffective. None-the-less, one in a million will generate significant buzz, so I'll list some of the techniques here.
- Facebook Gifts: businesses can sponsor “gifts” on Facebook. For instance, Heineken sponsored a Heineken beer bottle gift. Friends can give each other beer bottles as gifts. They serve no real-world purpose (no actual beer changes hands) but have enjoyed considerable popularity.
- Flash Games: the latest and greatest Flash games get passed around, some briefly enjoying considerable notoriety. Some businesses have given away prizes to top scorers in their games, while others simply use them to generate buzz about their brand with a discrete “sponsored by” logo and link or a banner ad.
- Social Networking Quizzes, Polls, and Surveys: quizzes are constantly passed around Facebook. Catchy titles, content, and hilarious results generate interest that prompt users to forward it to their friends, allowing the desired message to reach as many as possible. Quizzes include: “What song are you?,” “Are you smarter than Paris Hilton?,” “Nickname Generator,” and “What does your eye color mean?” Quibblo is one service that lets you create any type of quiz, poll or survey for virtually any social network.
- Facebook Applications: Facebook's open API has enabled numerous social applications. Applications include a birthday calendar to track friends' birthdays, a carpool finder application, a genealogy application to track your relations on Facebook, a movie reviews application, and many more. Most have commercial tie-ins, either as extensions of their other website-based services and applications, or as brand promoters.
- Creating exclusive offers, such as pre-release tickets or special coupons, via Twitter and Facebook, which encourages customers to follow you. This is akin to asking your customers for their email address.
9) Send to a friend (viral)
Send to a friend is a simple, effective, time-honored technique used on many websites. Ecommerce sites include this feature to allow visitors to send a product to friends for a second opinion, while news websites such as the New York Times
allow subscribers to send articles, recipes, or other content to their friends. This is a very simple way to increase the number of people who are exposed to your site. The best systems will include analytics so you can track the most-emailed content, number of click-throughs, and open rates.
Twitter offers a simple viral feature called "retweet." This feature allows you to re-post someone else's tweet, which is instantly broadcast to your friends. You might prompt your customers to "retweet" a product, a blog post, or even a special offer.
- "First 100 to re-tweet a show notice receive free ticket!" This cleverly encourages your followers to broadcast your show announcement out to all of their followers.
10) Online reputation monitoring
Most businesses are aware of the perils of the Internet and the unknown dangers lurking in the form of consumers that businesses are trying to reach in the first place. The complaint of an irritated customer can spread like wildfire through blogs and websites set up for the sole purpose of collecting complaints. Worse, an irate customer might set up a website dedicated to eviscerating your brand: MyBrandSucks.com. This can have dire consequences for search engine optimization as well. Imagine searching for your company's name in Google and being presented with complaints instead of your corporate website!
While the advent of social networks and microblogs amplify the risk the Internet poses to one's brand, most businesses do little or nothing to monitor online complaints or track their online reputation. With as much emphasis businesses put into recognizing how the Internet can help boost their product with consumers, they can sometimes equally ignore the damage unchecked Internet activity can pose to their overall identity.
Companies such as Starbucks are taking this a step further. Rather than merely monitoring online blogging and microblogging activity, Starbucks customer service representatives are constantly monitoring and participating in conversations with their customers, handling queries ranging from ingredients in a yogurt parfait to complaints about lattes.
- CoTweet is a service for businesses to leverage Twitter in communicating with their customers and monitoring their brand.
- Check search engines such as Google on a regular basis is great way to dig out dirt someone may have posted about your business. Simply perform various searches for your company name and products.
- Use automated search tools to locate new entries on a variety of search engines, blogs, photos, and feeds. Checking them regularly may give you an early indication of buzz (positive or negative) about your company. Two free services are KeoTag and monitorThis.
- Monitor blog and microblog activity about your brand with services such as Sentiment Metrics and Chatter Guard.
- Create Google Alerts to have Google automatically email you when your company or product is mentioned.