Does it make sense for companies / brands to manage a social media outlet? Will it evolve into a full blown retail channel instead of an aggregate of user feedback and a few weak leads?
This is similar to –
Telemarketing. The current rush to buy Social Media Optimization solutions is similar to the phenomenon of tele-marketing in the 90s. Sellers saw it as an opportunity to scale traditional one on one selling. Acquiring leads from dubious sources enabled the telecaller to (somewhat) narrow down the target based on subscriptions (extrapolated to a broad spectrum of ‘interests’) that the potential buyer might have. Telemarketing ran into rough weather immediately with its complete invasion of privacy and dehumanized approach. What could have been a great relationship management tool was almost lost to short sighted goal oriented marketing.
Of course we know how that turned out – the new avatar in the form of large, professional outsourced tele-callers catered exclusively to a captive database of clients already part of the business database of the client.
The challenges for the newbie’s managing social media campaigns are similar. As Seth Godin put so succinctly- ? “The internet is not about how many, it is about who”. Marketers generally impose the usual metrics (page views, clickthroughs and engagement) for measuring this 21st century phenomenon. But how do you measure impact in a medium where the user’s personal network is also a formidable source of feedback, information and competition analysis. Add to this the fact that the network is sometimes global and mostly comprised of ‘trusted’ sources (read friends). So a simple inquiry about buying a new digital SLR can be referred to a global network. not only can I scan blogs and youtube, which is a bit tiring, but also post a message on my ‘wall’ and invite opinions. The social ‘one-up’ accrued from accepted recommendations or the opportunity to display one’s knowledge ensures that the post will get enough responses.
In this scenario, what can the brand do? Does it sit back and watch as people decide amongst themselves or can it influence the discussion in any way? Is it productive even to engage? Worse, can it be counter-productive? Surely the manufacturer of Digital SLRs is the best source of info on them but does s/he know how to speak the language of the web-verse? Dell has tried this with relatively small success (LINK) and managed to get a trickle of a sale as well. What about CRM? Would consumers be open to adding a brand as a friend? There are hundreds of brand fan pages on social networks today but most are either used to distribute coupons/special offers or simply for the like minded to congregate. Surely this can evolve into a sophisticated, always-on relationship management tool which allows brands to hand hold a customer through the product purchase cycle and service him/her at a very low cost by providing information.
This brings us to the most critical utility of the social media apart from ‘fun’. The social networks of today are vast libraries of collective knowledge and experience. Qualified, trustworthy (at least from the source perspective ) ‘information’ can be sought out and delivered in an instant from practically any corner of the world. What happens to the lonely planets of the world when you can ask friends for advice while planning a vacation? Some of them might recommend buying the book but aren’t you more likely to receive quality info from someone who’s ‘just been there’? This ability to tap into real time networks delivering instantaneous data on random queries empowers the consumer. What does it do to the brand?
The fears –
Most brands worry that the instantaneous scrutiny of the web and its virala-bility pose not just an opportunity but a significant threat. A negative review can spiral out of control and undo years of brand building efforts (can it?)
The Social store
To begin with a nominal social media retail presence could be one where the brand gathers users and brand fans, identifies broad interest streams that it can serve and then serve as a social ‘lubricator’, letting people do all the work. This seems easy enough but requires dedicated teams that understand communication, content, consumer psychology and most important the ethos of the brand/service they represent. The challenge still remains on how exactly one measures this dynamic, fluid medium.