Expand Your Brand Community Online

Join the Dialogue: Social Media Provides a New Opportunity for Sparking Excitement About Products and Services

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These days, consumers self-select into a media environment of trusted, on-demand sources. Traditional 30-second TV spots, viral stunts and PR campaigns are subject to rerouting through a milieu of online communities that repackage, edit and mash up intended messages for distribution through social networks, search engines, e-mails and word-of-mouth. It's within that mix that today's real marketing opportunities lie.
Social turn: For its latest annual ice-cream-flavor search, Haagen-Dazs recruited video submissions from ice-cream enthusiasts demonstrating recipes for new flavors. An online video channel encouraged word-of-mouth promotion.
Social turn: For its latest annual ice-cream-flavor search, Haagen-Dazs recruited video submissions from ice-cream enthusiasts demonstrating recipes for new flavors. An online video channel encouraged word-of-mouth promotion.

Rather than spending resources on 30-second spots consumers avoid, savvy marketers develop new strategies and investments to engage consumers in active conversations that invite participation in their brands. Traditional media offer monologues. New social media prompt dialogue. Successfully engaging in this dialogue across the great internet divide becomes the new challenge.

When you build a community of passionate advocates who share your beliefs, the dialogue becomes a natural evolution of your customer-relationship practices, inspiring trust, relevance and renewed energy around your brand.

Bridge building
The opportunity to build an online community is reinforced by making sure you have created the belief system to support it. Then your online community becomes talk among people who believe in the same things, speak your language, and enthusiastically bridge the gap between manufacturer and consumer.

"Stop preaching and start conversing" is the message to marketers. Social media is exactly that: social. A dialogue, which may seem daunting at first, is actually a more positive way to persuade people to become advocates for your products or services. You don't have to be Aristotle to figure out that dialogue offers the opportunity to persuade, something traditional advertising increasingly fails to accomplish.

There are plenty of examples of how marketers have chosen to influence, engage and excite the online communities that surround their brands.

Social-media outlets provide a powerful new opportunity for companies to revisit their origins, their reasons for being, to expand brand communities. One such company is DuPont. It launched a social-media campaign to communicate its heritage of scientific discovery, innovation and progress to a younger, online audience. DuPont enlisted Amanda Congdon of Rocketboom to create a series of videos called "Science Stories." Each video highlighted a compelling product innovation (such as Kevlar bulletproof vests or Nomex fire-resistant clothing).

DuPont made the videos available online at stories.dupont.com and distributed video clips through blogs, science-related sites and video portals. The result: fresh brand buzz and spontaneous in-market awareness for DuPont.

Loosening reins
Successful social-media campaigns often require brand managers to give up some control. Be not afraid. The DuPont video clips, for example, were embedded in blogs and wrapped with commentary posted by blog owners and readers, creating an authentic dialogue and communal understanding of DuPont, prompting future interactions with its growing online community.

Increasing numbers of people in the 13-to-30 age group (a consumer demographic for which marketers grapple) can be found on the internet. These self-made media producers ritually scroll through articles on their RSS readers; chat with friends on instant-messaging services; send and receive SMS messages; download tracks from iTunes; update blogs, MySpace pages and social-network profiles; monitor responses to updates; post notes on friends' Facebook profiles and "walls"; and grab video clips from TV programs.

Blogs and forums are addicting. The opportunity to put your words and ideas online for others to praise and challenge is social media's drug of choice. The instant exchange and reshaping of ideas from random and omniscient onliners can be a powerful intoxicant.

The blog ring of fashion sites is so large it's almost a movement. Head for StyleMob, Iamfashion, FabSugar, Stylehive, Go Fug Yourself or the focused Purse Blog and you'll find primarily women gathering to list their favorite jeans, talk about an upcoming sale, or rant about a new designer.

Peer pressure
Peer opinion is the most powerful recommender for the wired generation. A recent Nielsen survey shows that 78% of consumers trust the opinions of peers over all other information sources and advertising. The hair straightener that receives the best reviews is the next one the consumer buys.

Checking prices and styles online has become a ritual for many savvy shoppers. Some buy online, some pre-shop before heading to stores. But that white space between the idea of buying an item and the purchase itself is fertile territory for marketers -- if they can join the conversation or locate those who drive it.

The site where the conversation happens between consumer and marketer is the iconic hunting ground and presents the most opportunities for marketers in this consumer-generated space. Social-media outlets enable you to steer the dialogue toward your reason for being and offer the opportunity to weave new consumer benefits, new promotions, line extensions and other marketing efforts into your story.

Front and center
Stop & Shop Supermarket Co. recently launched a consumer media campaign with a new slogan, "Stop & Shop works for me." The campaign centered on videos with stories from real customers. Stop & Shop also used an internet TV microsite to solicit additional customer video submissions that will be programmed into the marketing mix.
Stop and share: Stop & Shop used an internet TV microsite to solicit customer video submissions.
Stop and share: Stop & Shop used an internet TV microsite to solicit customer video submissions.

As a result, the retail chain was able to place core consumers front and center -- real-world stories told by real people about how and why the brand is relevant in their lives.

Judi Palmer, senior director of marketing and communications for the company, was recently quoted in the Waltham, Mass., Daily News Tribune as saying, "For the first time, we're actually letting real customers talk about us rather than us constructing a message."

A common frustration for marketing executives is that it's nearly impossible to control what people write about a brand online. Innovators see social media as a new avenue of communication. After all, the benefit of having a brand community is that you can talk with one another. It's daunting, but what better way to engage people in your message and the language surrounding your brand than to engage them in a dialogue about it?

Public follow through
The Consumerist is a corporate-watchdog site with more than 620,000 visitors per month that solicits stories from consumers -- with preference given to negative experiences. And that's OK. The opportunity for companies on sites such as the Consumerist is to directly address issues of customer dissatisfaction. The Consumerist tends to post follow-up stories, so what begins as a warning against a certain company can reveal the care and concern by that same company reaching out to invest itself in customer concerns.

Opportunities to reach out even to those who don't like your brand can have powerful positive consequences. Reaching out conveys confidence, accessibility, respect and authenticity to people both inside and outside of the brand community. Steve Jobs' prescient rebate to iPhone owners earlier this year gained huge credibility and empathy in response to one of the simplest of merchandising techniques: a price cut.

The news of the price cut set the blogosphere on fire with commentary. Regardless of where consumers landed on the issue, the result was a general perception that Apple was responsive and engaged with their community.

Even if you can't always control the conversation, you can join it. That lets you project an image of authenticity and transparency.

Pick a flavor
The annual Häagen-Dazs ice-cream-flavor search, Scoop, has taken a decidedly social turn in an attempt to grow the brand's community. Häagen-Dazs recruited video submissions from ice-cream enthusiasts demonstrating recipes for new flavors. An online video channel encouraged word-of-mouth promotion by online foodies through e-mail features, link sharing and RSS feeds for consumer videos.
From thousands of submissions, the online community voted to select finalists. The winning flavor, caramelized pear and toasted pecan, just hit grocery stores.
From thousands of submissions, the online community voted to select finalists. The winning flavor, caramelized pear and toasted pecan, just hit grocery stores.

From thousands of submissions, the online community voted to select finalists. The winning flavor, caramelized pear and toasted pecan, just hit grocery stores.

Leaders and senior management can relate with their brand communities by writing about their companies' culture, plans and concerns -- and field comments from the customer side.

Corporate blogs often have direct C-level involvement with high-level industry perspectives, PR announcements and thought leadership. Sometimes these sites have PR or legal oversight. Other times, blog mavericks such as GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, who writes on GM's FastLane blog, have a slightly more direct flow of communication. (Social personal finance site Wesabe lets customers call their CEO four hours a day, seven days a week in their "Talk To Jason" program.) A corporate blog can provide a useful platform to quickly address issues and respond to consumer concerns.

Lasting conversations
Social media, whether it is executed in the form of blogs or the mobile web, treats marketers with a new opportunity to engage and excite the communities that surround their brands with people who care. In today's commoditized world, where apathy and skepticism run wild, social media are one more opportunity to become a part of the conversation and keep consumer loyalists talking about you through product iterations and company life cycles and link them with others who feel just as passionate about you.

The brands that leapfrog into the future will be those enabled with a community that feverishly praises them and pummels their competition. Embrace this brave new dialogue, and your brand zealots (sometimes even your detractors) will reward you for it.
Patrick Hanlon is founder-CEO of Thinktopia, a branding consultancy with clients including Samsung and Best Buy, and author of 'Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company and Your Future.'
Josh Hawkins is director-corporate communications at internet TV firm Brightcove. Previously he worked at Ciceron, an interactive marketing agency based in Minneapolis. He blogs at splinteredchannels.com.
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