Tough Times Call for Social Measures: Marketing With Social Computing Tools

Article ImageIt’s no big news that social computing is mainstream—I recently learned that my grandmother is on Facebook—but just as Grandma is unsure how to make the most of her experience, most companies entering the fray are there out of some vague notion that it’s what they are "supposed" to do. A few, though, are using wikis, blogs, forums, and other tools to creatively market to potential and existing clients—particularly useful as traditional marketing costs are steep and the recession may extend into 2010.

Peter Kim, a former Forrester Research analyst who runs the Being Peter Kim blog and is working on an enterprise social technology startup, has been tracking social media marketing ventures for quite some time. One of Kim’s favorite applications is Starbucks’ "My Starbucks Idea." In addition to traditional post-and-comment blog features, the site highlights user-generated ideas that are "under review" (e.g., vegan options), "reviewed" (coffee ice cubes), "coming soon" (Starbucks[RED] program), and "launched" (free coffee on Election Day). The site also clearly lays out what happens to community members’ ideas—they are read, and often responded to on the site, by Starbucks employees dubbed Idea Partners, who collect the most exciting and appropriate suggestions and pitch them within the company. Community members help move the process along by voting within a Popular Ideas section.

"There’s no hard playbook for this," says George Dearing, corporate evangelist for social network software provider Telligent; the company recently released the white paper "Increase the Impact of Your Digital Marketing Spend in a Down Economy: How to Use Social Computing to Succeed in 2009 and Beyond." Dearing advocates getting a cross-section of people together based on both their departments and their personal understanding of social computing. Then, begin with small pilot projects—this ensures that both your customer base and employees are comfortable. Soon, you can introduce a product or an idea to clients from the nascent stage and get their input throughout the development process.

Mercedes-Benz USA launched the Generation Benz community on May 15, with on-demand customer collaboration partner Passenger. "Our Generation Benz community is a natural extension of our desire to broaden the Mercedes-Benz family, and establish a dialogue with future buyers to guide us with the design of our vehicles and direction of our brand," Stephen Cannon, vice president of marketing for Mercedes-Benz USA, explained in a launch announcement. Generation Benz, which specifically targets Gen Y, now boasts 1,064 registered members, with 543 recently active, according to Arvin Dang, Generation Benz moderator.
In addition to sharing stories and watching previews, members of the community are asked, for example, to help choose the name for the launch color of the E-Class Coupe, set to debut next year, or to place calls to the Customer Assistance Center and report back (they advised reducing the number of automated prompts).

What makes social computing ventures work are the customer analytics, according to Dearing. Visitors can be tracked based on their interactions with the site: Have they downloaded content, commented, or spent a long time on certain pages? The same monitoring capabilities allow companies to watch for negative feedback and respond appropriately.

Companies must determine the business value of a social computing venture—not just create a forum because their competitors have one. This is especially important during a recession, when companies may incorrectly assume that social media marketing is the cheap and easy way to go.

"Social media may seem inexpensive when compared to traditional media, thinking about purely incremental spending. However, traditional media operates with well-accepted processes of creation, placement, and measurement, while these standards haven’t been set for social media," explains Kim. "Marketers who think social media is a better option because it’s cheaper will be in for a tough time when they are held accountable for their spending."

The Telligent white paper notes, however, that social computing can actually reduce costs in some instances as clients, for example, visit a forum to learn how to fix a product glitch instead of calling a customer support line. Companies such as Dell and JetBlue have even used free microblogging tools such as Twitter to spread the word about sales, to monitor customer sentiment, and to bring in new revenue.

"It’s being able to effectively reach consumers, on their terms, in their environment," says Dearing. "‘Build it and they will come’ is still a myth. You have to show how it will work for people and how they can get things done more efficiently. No one cares about the tools or technology if you can’t show how it positively impacts them."