Earthquake in Haiti. Michael Jackson died. Social media the new buzz for business. Have you heard about these? Or do you currently reside under a rock? Okay, these things don't share the same importance, but there was no avoiding these news items in the past year or so. Given my better known name, Social Steve, I guess it is pretty obvious which one of these headlines I'll be looking at here.
For marketers, content producers, and media professionals, there is a fundamental change that is proving to generate greater Attention, Attraction, Affinity, Awareness, Audience, and Advocates-or what I call the social media "A-Path." This new approach focuses not only on capturing a target market but also on making its members more loyal and converting them to be advocates of your brand. After all, which do you consider more compelling to generate brand interest: advertisements or referrals from friends and colleagues?
To get beyond the buzz and to use social media to crowd source and establish a strong audience, you must focus on two things: engagement and relationships. Engagement and relationships are what ultimately produce advocates, and this is the most powerful aspect of social media. They will lead you to the ultimate goal of traveling the A-Path: advocates. But these advocates don't appear overnight; they come from building strong relationships over time by driving toward your target through the A-Path in a sequential manner.
To start, you must have a deep understanding of your target market-their wants, needs, and desires; the communities and networks where they get their information; and how they are influenced. Use this knowledge to plan a couple of sound "bytes" or message teasers in appropriate social media outlets to spark some target market attention. Just plant a seed here-don't sell.
Once you have sparked a little attention, take it further and attract them. Find their existing communities. Join their communities. Have conversations with them there. Listen and learn what makes them tick. Start to publish content, answer their questions, and give them advice. Don't sell. Rather, be the subject matter experts in your domain area.
It is extremely important to actively produce content. Continue to reinforce your brand position and your subject matter expertise. Condition your market to know that you will be providing ongoing content and value. This will allow your followers to have an affinity for you.
Once you have a group that has an affinity for your brand, convert them to your audience. An audience can be established via RSS, email opt-in, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., but give them some reason to join, connect to, or be part of. Make sure you deliver something "extra" for your audience members who have taken action to join.
Find the vocal and influential members of your audience. The best way to find the real influencers is to make sure to engage with your audience by having two-way conversations, not just broadcasts. Build trust. You'll find these outspoken ones. Establish one-to-one relationships with the most social and vocal individuals. Zero in on their needs. Deliver to their needs. Build and increase trust. This will lead to advocates.
As you travel the A-Path, you have three categories of digital distribution points: owned online assets, owned off-site assets, and other off-site assets. Your owned online asset is your dot-com. The owned off-site assets are your brand Facebook fan page, Twitter account, YouTube channel, Flickr account, etc. They are specific to your brand, but you do not own the asset. Other off-site assets include communities, forums, blogs, and other sites where your target market goes. (You should be active participants in these channels and assess outreach opportunities here as well.)
Plan which distribution points you use for the various stages of the A-Path. Where will you achieve the best results? The early parts of the A-Path (attention, attraction) are best achieved off-site. If you have someone on-site, you already have their attention and, hopefully, attraction. Conversely, it is easier to build advocates on-site (or at least on your owned off-site assets). You need to address these realities and have a plan that uses all assets and strategically considers appropriate crossroads for off-site and on-site content.
The steps of the A-Path are psychological stages that produce deeper customer conviction moving forward. You need to consciously know how you will accomplish each incremental degree of loyalty.
Done right, social media is more than buzz and will produce winning results. Know your position and make sure your communication reinforces it. Focus on engagement and relationships. Plan your execution of the A-Path and make sure to have dialog (be social) at every step. Be real, have fun!