In depth: Making social media work for your business

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In depth: Making social media work for your business

Social media is transforming rapidly from a method of private communication to a business tool, writes Paul Clapham

The media world does not change very often, but when it does the change tends to be major. We are in such a situation now, due to the explosion of use of social networking media, and it is apparent that a lot of businesses are off the pace.

Since the fifth anniversary of Facebook earlier this year, there has been a lot of talk about the extent of use of social networking sites, with plenty of it bemoaning they are used too much.
The common belief is that students live their lives on them. But it goes further than students. Use of such sites extends across all social groups, income groups and age ranges. If you think the social networking phenomenon is restricted to the youth market, you are mistaken.

Business tool

Last summer, a study into the impact of social media as a business tool by global marketing services agency McCann Erickson demonstrated that almost two-thirds of marketing specialists (65.6%) were not up to speed with social media or how it works as a marketing tool. It is worth pointing out that the marketing people surveyed were in the larger businesses.

Let us be very clear: this is not a fad. Of those surveyed by McCann Erickson, 86% of respondents realised that social media is here to stay and set to grow.

It is also moving rapidly from a method of private communication to a business tool. I see a lot of e-mails from PR businesses and, whereas a year ago few quoted a Twitter or Facebook site address, now most of them do. These businesses are at the cutting edge of the communications industry, and where they lead, their clients will surely follow.

But there will need to be a change of corporate mindset to gain full advantage. According to the McCann survey, in almost half of the businesses covered, the IT department proactively blocks access to popular sites such as Facebook and Twitter, rendering staff incapable of monitoring what is being said about their brand or discovering what real, live people actually want. Businesses clearly need to accept that, while plenty of use will be personal, social networking has a commercial benefit.

Senior marketing people clearly lack understanding of social media and are consequently reluctant to apply its potential to their brand. 67.5% of those surveyed thought that the sites were used more by the under-25s. However, according to figures from market researchers Nielsen, the age group making the most use of Twitter is 35-49 year olds (42% of traffic),  and almost two-thirds of them only access it at work.

Facebook's figures show that 25-35 year olds use the site as much as 16-25 year olds.
But is it really a business tool? Despite the above, 76% of marketers think social media has a place in the commercial communications mix. Since the figures are contradictory, it appears that a lot of them mean, "yes it has a place, but not here".

A warning: I recall being told by an advertising old-hand that in the 1950s a number of agencies went to the wall because they did not believe the new-fangled idea of TV advertising would work.

Wide-reaching influence

A recent article in the Times Business Life section recommended that businesses should avoid Twitter entirely (they could not be worried about the effect it would have on their advertising revenues, could they?). This is a reflection of what McCann Erickson found in its survey. Approaching a third of those businesses which have an account admit it is inactive and almost half of them post tweets once a week or less.

So what can you actually do with it? Businesses that are already actively using social sites quote a number of benefits. The big one is PR and profile raising, and there is a fairly large use of advertising.

Interestingly, surveys and trends analysis do not feature as a big purpose. That comes as a surprise because the platform presents millions of people actively telling you what they think, describing hopes and fears and wants. Correctly approached, this has to be the best available form of free market research known to man.

More important, this is word-of-mouth advertising (perhaps that should read word of mouse). I have never met a businessman who did not want more of that and there it is available on a plate. We all now have the opportunity to influence millions of people on a global basis at the click of a button.

What are the impacts of this? The first one that is widely agreed is that you can communicate far more often with customers than traditionally thought wise. The 2010 reality is that mobile phone calls, text messages, e-mail and now social network sites have made us into communication junkies. Not only can you communicate more often, you should do.

The second impact relates to other media. The average family now spends more time online than watching TV. This may be because people prefer the virtual friends they have made online to Simon Cowell's version of reality, but it is a growing trend. At the same time there is a rising generation who get their information via the net and never read a newspaper. Equally, there is a perception that using social sites may change the way we do business, resulting in even fewer face-to-face meetings and phone calls.

Thirdly, businesses need to write properly. This might sound like professional snobbery, but so many businesses just cannot do it. Their communication is stilted, self-centred and dull. More than that, it would seem beyond their capabilities to write a fresh, interesting message once a week, never mind daily, but that is the requirement.

Speaking from personal experience, there are some people in the marketing communications business who are not much better. Time and again I read press releases, brochures, adverts - you name it - which talk at people, which are all about 'us', not about the potential customer, and which I doubt would sell the end of a rope to a drowning man.

Attracting attention

On a positive note, the potential to reach a massive audience at zero cost is definitely there. It is not easy because you are asking people to make an active choice to look at your posting - a very different proposition to seeing an advert in traditional media.

As a guide to what is possible, have a look at Lauren Luke's postings which teach young women about make-up skills. It is the most visited in the UK and she does it from her bedroom with an ordinary computer and a cheap camera. The message from Lauren Luke is that you have to engage people's interest with news, information, advice and, yes, entertainment. You cannot expect success from banging your advertising message home.

The experience of Simon Turner at online printwear specialist clothes2order.com is instructive. For a business-to-business audience it believes Twitter is the right social site. At the time of writing it is running a campaign called TweeShirt Friday, a weekly competition where anyone wanting their choice of tweet on a t-shirt e-mails it to clothes2order. If theirs is chosen, the company prints it.

Turner says that developing the process fully by following your audience can be time-consuming, but the process of putting out two or three daily tweets takes about ten minutes per day. He stresses that if you are going to develop this market you will need to do it that often. Less than once a week is a waste of effort.

Twitter is essentially conversation, but it is perceived as having a business edge to it - it is not just about what Stephen Fry had for breakfast.

Berkeley PR, which organises Twitter campaigns for clients, recommends  the following steps. First you have to find people to follow (Twitter term for staying in touch with) who you hope will also follow you. The issue is who do you follow? Local IT groups, large employers in your catchment area, local PR and other agencies and local journalists would be a good start.

Any of these might say 'anybody know an expert in computer security?' (if only!). More likely would be people moaning about an existing supplier or bemoaning their own lack of understanding of a particular process. Bingo! Sales opportunity. Similarly, local journalists may use Twitter to source stories. Some will ask on a dead news day if anyone has a story - surely you have.

There is a marvellous free service which you are recommended to use - Twilerts. It sends you e-mails detailing any reference to your chosen keywords. You can have as many as you like, but make them specific - 'computer' would inundate you. Note that this is going to demand time if you have a lot of keywords.

One recommendation from Berkeley is to have your local town as a keyword. This might generate a lot of dead information, but it would also give you a stack of contacts and, with intelligent use, opportunities. The immediacy of Twitter means that you are more likely to be in pole position on those opportunities.

Aim to draft tweets which mix company information with news and conversation. The content should engage with the audience, be authentic and credible, it should answer questions and give out interesting industry news. Above all keep it fresh, new and varied.

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Social media in marketing

Social media community - percentage of marketers with a presence  

Facebook       72.8%  
Twitter       42.4%  
LinkedIn       40.2%  
YouTube       28.3%  
Flickr       14.1%  
Google Groups       12.0%  
My Space       10.9%  
Bebo       3.3%  
Plaxo       1.1% 

Source: McCann Erickson UK Social Media in Marketing Survey 2009

Opinion was split on how social media impacts on traditional forms of communication (e.g. telephone and face-to-face), with 48.2% agreeing versus 51.8% disagreeing that this new form of keeping in touch has a negative impact on traditional communication methods.

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Primary functions for social media marketing by UK business

1.   Profile raising/PR       51.2%  
2.   Networking       48.8%  
3.   Advertising       30.5%  
4.   Surveys/studies       24.4%  
5.   Recruitment       19.5%  
6.   Trends analysis       11.0%  
7.   Issues management/crisis handling       4.9% 

Source: McCann Erickson UK Social Media in Marketing Survey 2009

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Twitter usage by marketing professionals (no. of tweets posted)

Occasionally (once a week or less)       43.2%  
One per day       5.4%  
2 - 5 per day       13.5%  
6 - 10 per day       8.1%  
10 - 20 per day       0.0%  
I have a Twitter account but it is not active       29.7%

Source: McCann Erickson UK Social Media in Marketing Survey 2009

This was first published in May 2010

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