Ignore The Social Web At Your Own Peril

image credit: victoriapeckham via flickr

As someone who works at a firm with a diverse array of clients, I spend a good deal of time reading trade publications across industries. It is always interesting to me when they go into how the specific industry in question is using technology and the web.

The non-tech trade publications actually do a pretty good job of covering things their industry is doing on the web. Never quite as good as the web publications written by web pros, but of course those are written by people who work in this space 24/7.

What is even more interesting are some of the quotes that I read in trade publications from high level executives at big brands in an industry. Let’s look at one in-particular I read today from an article about restaurants using social media marketing in Fast Casual, a restaurant industry trade publication.

This is a quote in the article from Bob Spaulding, director of Media Research at Einstein’s in reference to using social media to build your brand (here’s the article source):

“I think it’s just so new. It’s hard to tell where the value is and how to leverage it. I think most chains are taking a wait-and-see approach,” said Bob Spaulding, director of media and research at Einstein’s. “Most brands have social groups, but it’s very difficult to engage them. There is resistance among these groups to being advertised to. They don’t want to be seen as part of the marketing department.”

Mr. Spaulding unfortunately gets a few things wrong here. It’s worth breaking this down line by line:

“I think it’s just so new”

The social web is not “just so new.” It has been around in its current state for years, and already gone through a few stages of the maturation process. It is only recently, however, that many businesses have caught up with the fact that these services are how the influencers of our world now communicate. Progressive businesses across industries have been leveraging the social parts of the web successfully since the 90’s.

“It’s hard to tell where the value is and how to leverage it. I think most chains are taking a wait-and-see approach.”

Using the “wait and see” approach here is pretty dangerous, especially when your competitors are successfully leveraging these amazing tools to massive effect. It isn’t that hard to tell the value if you are deeply engaged in the web and understand what makes the social web tick. Value is found in different ways to different companies – the tools here are just that flexible, and no two businesses use them exactly the same. That’s just one reason they’re so interesting and useful for marketers.

In fact, I’m going to go off on a brief tangent about this: there shouldn’t even have to be ‘web experts’ anymore at this point. In my opinion we should be far past this by now. All marketers, communications professionals and high level business execs should have taken them time long ago to understand how the social web works and the social tools people are using to interact. It is vital for the future of your business’ success. Do you understand how newspapers work? How the TV works? Great – the web blows them all away in terms of power and scalability for growing your brand, and is clearly how people now interact and share information.

Just one other thought on waiting to get involved: getting value out of any social network takes time. You must painstakingly build the network long before you need to tap it. There is no silver bullet here for instant success.

“Most brands have social groups, but it’s very difficult to engage them. There is resistance among these groups to being advertised to. They don’t want to be seen as part of the marketing department.”

Certainly you can see what’s wrong with this point. I’ll spell it out in case you missed it: you can’t advertise to them in the traditional sense, this is doomed for failure. This is a space you need to be creative in and engage your raving fans with content they want to receive.

You also need a strong understanding of the tools that exist and are available, and a keen grasp on web culture and the undercurrents of how information spreads.

The world has changed, and mass-scale marketing messages broadcast to monolithic audiences are losing effectiveness daily as these audiences shrink and everything is fragmented into niches and micro-niches.

Engaging people through innovative social campaigns that allows you to build real, deep and honest interactions with your brand is far more powerful. And, the ways to do this are seemingly infinite, certainly every company can come up with a strategy that builds their brand positively here.

Sidenote: I am a huge fan of Einstein’s. Nearly every Sunday morning I walk to the location in downtown Fort Lauderdale and enjoy a sandwich. The people working there are friendly, the service is great, and the food is always fresh and delicious. All reasons I’d love to participate if they ever did something to engage the blogosphere/social web. It would give me a great reason to speak positively about their brand on my blog/social network pages. If they did something special.

Let’s look at another quote from someone else in the same article:

“The downside to social networking groups is that you can’t control them,” said Darren Tristano, vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm.

He’s right – you can’t. But, your customers are going to talk about you in this space regardless, whether you’re part of the conversation or not. By not joining the conversation and responding, you are missing out on a huge opportunity to interact with your biggest fans and build your brand in exciting ways never before possible.

If you’re overly concerned with trying to ‘control’ what people say about you, engaging the web’s users will never be for you. That is the antithesis of how social media works. It is not a downside to this space, as suggested by the above quote, but an incredible upside – we’re all part of one giant conversation. You would be surprised with how people interact with the right messages about your brand and “make them personal.” The interactions to potentially inspire with your brand here go far deeper than controlled messages.

For campaigns I’ve created, it has been an incredible pleasure to see people take our ideas and run with them in unexpected and creative ways.

One more, this should ruffle some of your feathers (this one was written by the reporter):

“Unless you’re under the age of 25, navigating social networking sites can be somewhat of a challenge.”

Really? I would disagree with that – plenty of social network and social media power users are over 25. This statement is a generalization, I’d love for some of my readers to respond to that one.

image credit: localstatic via flickr

Just a few thoughts to tie this together

When user-generated reviews on services like Yelp are more effective at bringing your business patrons than a review by a reporter in a newspaper, how can you afford not to engage social media?

While newspapers and TV audiences shrink, social media sites across platforms are gaining users and active participants at staggering rates. Can your business afford not to be a part of the global conversation?

While people Tivo past your ads on TV, listen to their iPods in their car instead of the radio, and use AdBlock plus to skip your banner ads on .coms, if you’re not in the user-generated space of the social web, you are effectively invisible to a growing number of people daily.

Your competitors across industries are engaging people positively and creating conversation and interactions with their brands. They are forging deep interactions with consumers in a personal, direct and relevant way. They are engaging people that are in many cases the influencers of their social groups and people who have their own megaphones like YouTube channels and blogs. These people have the ability to focus the attention of thousands, sometimes millions on something in particular. What if they become raving fans of your competition instead of you?

Missing out here may prove more dangerous than being cautious. With any new revolution, whether physical or digital, you have to be involved to reap the benefits. To sit in the sidelines here may be the most costly move of all, and allow more nimble players to take easy chunks out of your market share.

The RIAA ignored digital, and now the big labels are getting killed by iTunes. Blockbuster ignored digital, and now NetFlix stepped in to create an obvious yet incredibly popular business model. Barnes and Noble and Boarders have lost their most loyal consumers to Amazon. The higher-ups were certainly warned, and probably pleaded with to consider adopting new business models but chose to ignore them – they now are struggling to adapt.

Now, not all big players are going to be dominated by nimble up-and-comers who understand how to play the digital game. But, don’t underestimate the power of the best communications platform humanity has ever seen for your business. Ignore the social web at your own peril.

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