Corporate America has a bad reputation, but getting into the social networking game could help boost its popularity and trustworthiness. Here are some guidelines to get started
Truth or dare.
We dare you (CMO, brand manager, PR-communications specialist, CRM manager, or whoever you are) to have your company authentically enter into the innovative realm of online social media, the world of Facebook and other networking sites (or as it is known in shorthand, Web 2.0).
Not ready yet? Afraid you won't have control of what happens? C'mon, we double dare you.
Still, not that daring? O.K. If you won't take the dare, you have to tell the truth. Is your company customer-focused?
"Yes, of course" (you answer without thinking). Seriously now, be honest. Does your institution really care about its customers or only about itself? "Our customers," you reply.
We believe you. But what we believe doesn't matter. And the fact is, survey after survey says your customers don't believe you. Ever.
The reason is obvious. Your organization is seen as a corporation, and corporations in the eyes of most people are evil. Large companies—with a 13% approval rating—rank just above Congress and law firms when people are asked to list the most admired institutions in America, according to Harris Interactive.
In fact, if people were to anthropomorphize your organization, your firm would be seen as highly antisocial at best and psychopathic at worst.
Reverse the Anticorporate Slant
The impassioned polemic, otherwise known as the movie The Corporation, asked people to describe big business.
Among their answers:
"Callous and deceitful"
"It breaches social and legal standards to get its way."
"It does not suffer from guilt."
Sure, the movie has an anticorporate slant. But Harris Interactive chose its people at random—companies would not have scored at the bottom of the pack if those surveyed thought of workplaces in the same light as Mother Teresa.
So this is what you are up against. People think companies are inherently bad. It's no wonder they don't believe you when you say you are customer-centric, no matter how many times you profess you are.
21st Century Responsibility
But you can change that. The 21st century, with wikis, blogs, and the millions of niche online communities, etc., allows us to create a more level playing field when it comes to customer relationships. It's now possible for us to share with consumers what we as companies are really all about and what we believe, face-to-face, so to speak.
That's a big responsibility. Is your company up to it?
The bad news is you can't hide from these innovations. They are now part of the daily fabric of most of your customers' lives. Even more bad news: If you're opting out, by default your absence will brand you as antisocial and insincere when it comes to being customer-centric.
The good news is that the innovative technology you need to use is the easy part. The better news is if your intentions are authentic, your marketing budget is certain to experience exponential efficiency with infinite potential. And the best news, thanks to breakthrough software such as Shoutlet.com, is that it's all measurable and trackable with real-time flexibility and control. (Full disclosure: we think Shoutlet is so wonderful we have invested in the company—nothing like putting your money where your mouth is.)
Mastering Social Networking
What are the fundamentals you need to master in this new world? There are three.
Phase 1: Architect a Proper Presence
First, you need to identify where your target is and which communities are important to them. You want to be where your customers, and potential customers, hang out. Having identified those places, you need to understand the conventions and etiquette of those environments. Every site is different, but if you keep the following in mind, you won't go too far astray. Do figure out ways to foster, nurture, and support the community you are interacting with. Don't even think about a hard sell.
Phase 2: Gain Credibility Based on Your Target's World View
The content you enter in the social media arenas must be carefully selected and composed with that environment in mind. Your message and content need to be all about them and what you can do to make their lives better. This means: "Help Them, Don't Sell Them." Be unconditionally generous. Visit Nike, one example of a company that does this well, to see what it's done for runners.
If we are adequately entertaining and educating customers, they will seize the opportunity to fully engage. They will share this content and perhaps even build on it—whether you invite them to or not—because that's what social beings do.
When engagement reaches this level of co-creation, we move into the third phase:
Phase 3: Co-Creating Dialogue Where Your Company Reaps the Benefit of Exchange
Once we have defined and built the right presence, along with crafting the appropriate, engaging content, we can begin fostering true exchange of ideas and emotions.
We can build promotions, campaigns, and dialogue based on user-generated content, and empower our customers to not just be a part of our story, but to erase the line between "us" and "them."
It's important for your company to build a presence in social media. These new communities are irrevocably changing the landscape for marketers and how we communicate. Increasingly we are being charged with delivering ideas that engage and influence the people in these living, breathing, and highly responsive human communities. For advertisers, this presents both a unique challenge and opportunity: We need to integrate our message and presence effectively, profitably, and appropriately into social media communities.
The presence you build within social media will be analyzed, scrutinized, and perhaps criticized. However, entering this territory—which is controlled by the digital swarms of consumers and their communities—with the right voice and then nurturing that conversation in a manner authentic to your brand, your products, and your customer will ultimately have a far greater positive impact on your level of opportunity over the existing risks. In fact, the greatest risk is being absent from that conversation in the first place while your competition gains a powerful foothold.