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When Big Brands Discover Social Media Marketing

“What’s our Social Media Strategy?”

Has anyone in your company asked you this lately, or at all? Chances are if you haven’t heard this question from a VP yet, you will soon. It’s what everyone is trying to figure out – not if we should be using social media, but how we should be using it. In this column, I’m going to look at a few ways that Yahoo!, and others, are using social media and how it’s evolving from a big-brand perspective.

But first, a bit of perspective

Why is it that SEOs typically end up being the ones in their respective companies who are responsible for social media? On the surface, the two activities have little in common. SEO can be very technical in nature, both in strategy and in practice, while social media looks a lot more a like a public relations campaign.

But just to reset, when sites like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, even Digg started to become popular, SEOs could readily see the potential for promoting their own sites. Social media in the beginning was a double-whammy: not only could SEOs get bloggers and other authorities to link to their sites, providing link relevance, but they also got the incremental traffic coming from users following those links. The link-building aspect has since been downplayed with the advent of nofollow tags, but the traffic source is very real and very powerful if you can get links put in the right places.

So now that social media is becoming much more mainstream (as has SEO), how does a big brand use social media to its full potential? As well, who in the organization should own social media marketing? When I look around at how we and other big brands are using social media, it’s clear that social media’s role has yet to be fully defined. Let’s look at a few examples and we’ll see.

Survey the landscape

Try this if you haven’t already: go to Facebook and search for your favorite big brand, be it online or offline. Where is the company’s official facebook page? The fan page? Specific product pages? Hard to tell, isn’t it? This is one of the challenges with the social media landscape. As a brand loyalist, do I really want to sift through all those entries so I can find the group that speaks to me? Try the same thing on Twitter – these spaces are already so crowded it’s hard to find the signal through all the noise.

If these networks are going to be viable for commercial use, and one could argue that they will have to be in order to survive, social networks will need to find some way to stratify the landscape, to draw lines between the commercial and the non-commercial, without alienating the user base. But enough of that, let’s look at some of the ways that big brands are trying to use social media to their advantage.

Customer support

Some companies are starting to leverage social media as a form of enhanced customer support. The reason is that it enables brands to have a dialogue with their customers in a new way. I saw a presentation recently about how a company was using Twitter to communicate with its customers in conjunction with their Superbowl ad. Other companies are using similar platforms to field support questions, akin to an 800-number or web chat. This works to a degree, but when you look at the volume of inquiries coming through say, twitter, with incoming emails and phone calls it hardly looks like a relevant channel at this point.

Community marketing

Many companies now have their own Facebook group that customers can join. This method of community marketing shows a great deal of potential (assuming customers can find the right page – see above). The additional challenge here is that companies largely have not figured out how to use this to their advantage.

For example, I joined the Facebook group of one of my favorite wineries in Sonoma, but in fact, there’s very little that happens there. The winery isn’t posting much in the way of notices, promotional or otherwise, and the customers, although you would think they would be posting about their favorite wines and discussing such topics, rarely do anything of the sort. I think the lesson here is that it’s not enough to simply put up a page; as a marketer you need to first generate a critical mass.

Naturally, if you’re a winery in Sonoma, you will need to work much harder at this than if you’re a top Internet site.  Once critical mass is there, brands can offer their social communities first access to promotions, product previews, exclusive content, anything to allow this community to deepen engagement with your brand.

Protecting your brand

One of the things that social media does for big brands is to magnify consumer opinions, both positive and negative. This can be scary for brand owners who have grown accustomed to controlling their brand image and messaging. The notion that one dissatisfied customer can post a bad review on Yelp and dominate the image of the brand online has some marketers and business owners in a cold sweat late at night. Relax. Fight fire with fire. The best thing a brand owner can do is to leverage his own community and ask them to write their own reviews using the same channels. The above mentioned winery did a great job of this, posting a link on their Facebook page, inviting members to go to Yelp and write reviews.

Let’s be careful out there

One thing businesses should be aware of is that social media can be a double-edged sword. I was talking to a friend on the train today who revealed how he used Twitter as a competitive intelligence and sales tool. He was monitoring tweets from and about his competitors and could tell who his competitor was selling to.

From that point, a well-placed sales call is all it takes to get a meeting with the right party to close a deal. Big brands don’t need to fear this particular tactic so much, but the lesson remains: assume that whatever you post in social media will be read by everyone, and use this as a filter when crafting your social media messaging.

What’s ahead?

Despite the staggering numbers associated with the rise of social media, I don’t think we quite know what to do with it yet. Sure, we like it when celebrities tweet, but I think we will all agree that we don’t care if my cousin Vinny just ate a really good steak. We may be interested in Facebook updates from some of our friends, but the sheer volume of posts makes it almost impossible to find anything useful or interesting.

I think the people who are really going to capitalize on the medium will be the ones who find the niches where this medium really excels and build products that live in these niches. I have some friends, for example, who are looking at this space closely, and have figured out a really slick way to create deep and meaningful dialogue among groups of people. The beauty is that this happens in an anonymous mobile environment where people interact freely and in real-time, reducing the inevitable clutter and noise that come with existing social networks. I could go on and on about this – you’ll just have to follow my tweets if you want to know more.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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