Social Networking Needs CMO Lead

Effectively Connecting With Consumers Requires the Long-Term Perspective of Top Marketing Executives

By Published on .

Mark Weiss
Josh Bernoff
Of course you're interested in social technologies right now. One in four online consumers participates in a social network such as Facebook or MySpace. Nearly half are consuming content created in blogs, user-generated video or discussion forums. Especially if your customers are young, you need to be moving forward to connect with them in the social world -- the world we call the groundswell -- because that's where they're spending their time.

But this phenomenon is like no medium you've dealt with before. There are a lot of reasons, but the main one is this: The groundswell resists campaigns. You can't easily succeed by diving in and making a splash, as you might with an advertising or PR campaign. Instead, groundswell thinking means long-term thinking -- building assets and relationships that grow in value over time.

Building this long-term perspective is important now and will become even more important as more people participate in the groundswell. That's why CMOs need to get involved -- because building and growing a groundswell gives you a direct connection to consumers who care about your brand.

Take Fiskars, for example. Fiskars sells scissors, as well as scrapbooking tools and supplies. This is a very high-involvement product category for the women who love it. As one enthusiast put it: "Crafting isn't a matter of life and death. It's much more important than that."

Beige saltines
Although Fiskars products are central to the scrapbooking experience, in 2006 the company found its own image was lackluster. In focus groups, respondents told the company that if Fiskars was a color, it would be beige; if it were a food, it would be saltines.

The exclusive Fiskateers community of crafters has caused mention of Fiskars online to surge by a factor of six.
The exclusive Fiskateers community of crafters has caused mention of Fiskars online to surge by a factor of six.
How could the company align itself with the enthusiasm of its own customers? An ad campaign would cost too much and wouldn't make long-lasting difference. So Suzanne Fanning, Fiskars' head of corporate communications, teamed with a brand consultancy called Brains on Fire to create the Fiskateers.

Fiskateers is an exclusive community of crafters. You have to be invited to get in. Once there, you can connect with one of the lead Fiskateers, four crafting enthusiasts identified by Fiskars in a national search. When you join up, you get a box that includes crafting supplies plus unique two-tone scissors available only to members. But, most important, you get to connect and draw ideas and support from fellow crafters.

Fiskateers is a social application, but it's not a campaign -- it's an ongoing effort. In just over a year, Fiskars has grown the community to include more than 4,000 members, 20 times its original goal. Umbria, a company that monitors online chatter for the company, has seen mentions of Fiskars online surge by a factor of six. The company has begun to certify Fiskateers to do in-store demos of products, an activity that historically has proved to increase sales in those stores.

Collaboration with fans
Fiskars' CMO, Jay Gillespie, is relatively new to the company but sees the Fiskateers as a crucial long-term asset -- and one that must be nurtured, not exploited. "I want to make sure it remains really authentic, really protect it from wanting to commercialize it and package it." Fiskars' relationship with the Fiskateers is more collaborative, and it has expanded to include getting feedback on new-product development. "We are actually listening to them and they are listening to us." And he hints that Fiskars has a major new-product introduction coming, one that's been created in collaboration with the Fiskateers.

This is not campaign thinking. It's building a long-term brand asset that spills over from marketing into sales, research and product development. The CMO has recognized that building the brand and the relationships with the enthusiasts is more important than the week's sales numbers. That's groundswell thinking.

Of course, it's certainly possible to boost brand awareness with a targeted campaign in the groundswell. Chevrolet boosted awareness for its Aveo vehicle on college campuses with its "Livin' Large Campus Challenge," in which teams documented their experience of living inside an Aveo on campus for a week using tools such as Facebook, blogs and YouTube (total impressions generated: 271 million). But a campaign like this is still about pushing brand images out to prospects and customers, just like any other ad campaign.

Contrast this to Constant Contact's efforts with ConnectUp, a community for its customers. Constant Contact sells e-mail-marketing services. Referrals are a key way to get customers, and it's important to attract the right kind of customers: Constant Contact wants small businesses that treat their client lists with care; it does not want spammers.

Josh Bernoff is VP-principal analyst at Forrester Research. He is co-author with Charlene Li of "Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies."
In this environment, Constant Contact's head of customer support, Maureen Royal, launched ConnectUp to turn the power of the groundswell to her advantage. It works because the company's customers -- restaurants, plumbers and other small businesses -- aren't experts in e-mail marketing. They need the support, and when they do succeed, they want to show off. And it's far more effective for customers to persuade each other to respect anti-spamming regulations than for the company to just shut them off for non-compliance.

In this case it's not just the CMO but the CEO who recognizes the value of the community. Despite trepidation about what might happen -- when you turn people loose in a community, anything is possible -- Constant Contact CEO Gail Goodman became a strong backer of it. As she put it, "Our No. 1 objective was turning active customers into passionate advocates for the brand."

As a CMO, you may not be ready to launch full-fledged initiatives such as these. But somebody in your organization is thinking about them. Based on our communications with hundreds of companies involved in social applications, here are some words of advice:


We've seen it time and again: As marketing staffers conceive social applications, they encounter resistance from threatened managers throughout the company in departments such as legal and distribution. We recently ran a workshop for top marketing managers at a large financial-services firm. The CMO's opening address gave them not just permission, but encouragement to create long-term value through social applications, regardless of whether it might overstep traditional boundaries.


You'll learn more about your customers and how groundswell projects work. If you're worried, start with research. Del Monte developed a new pet snack, Snausages Breakfast Bites, in a few weeks, after checking reactions in a community MarketTools runs for it, called "I Love My Dog/Dogs Are People, Too." In this case, the community members provide real reactions, but are visible only to each other and to company staffers.


At Unilever, customer-centric culture is spreading because executives such as Lee Master, U.S. marketing director for skin-care products, and Babs Rangaiah, U.S. media director, keep building on their successes. They support applications including a Communispace community for Axe, which helped refine the company's successful ads for the body spray, and Dove's spectacularly successful "Evolution" video on YouTube. You should be building on your successes too -- it's the best way to spread customer-centric attitudes in your company.

CMOs win when their companies are in touch with consumers, participating in conversations, charging up enthusiasts and gaining insights. Groundswell thinking -- long-term, customer-centric thinking -- takes time to build and CMO backing to accomplish. If you start now, you'll be well down the path before
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