Growing participation in social media is changing the dynamics of customer relationships. Companies are confronted with two new mandates. One is monitoring the online conversations about their company. The other is learning how to gain online influence with customers—how to build a visible and credible social media presence.
‘When customers check out a company or a person online, they don’t just want product specs and prices.’
Word of mouth is the acknowledge leader in building or breaking a company or brand’s reputation. Blogs put word of mouth on steroids. There are more than 133 million blogs. What’s more, according to Technorati’s 2008 State of the Blogosphere, four of five bloggers post brand and product reviews. But blogs are only one of the many social media conversations. Internet traffic is now dominated by social media. When information hits a social network, it can spread faster than a wild fire.
Online conversations affect real-world business. Customers of all ages vet products, companies and their reputations online before they do business with them. They use search engines, read blogs, gather information with RSS Readers and Google Alerts, connect with their peers through social networks and learn from each other in online communities. This online vetting (demonstrated in When Did We Start Trusting Strangers, a report by U.K. consultancy Universal McCann) affects even groceries stores and utility companies. Customers are bypassing traditional sales and marketing, ignoring companies they can’t vet online, and/or entering stores with their minds made up.
Yet, many companies are ignoring what is happening in social media. Companies without a visible and credible social media presence that stands up to customer vetting are losing out and don’t know it. A web site is not enough!
Consider the following example.
Suppose you own a small chain of retails stores and are fearful that the economy will undermined sales. You need the input of a consultant, and you need it fast. However, the last time you considered hiring one, you felt like the consultant’s web site was full of platitudes and jargon. And every consultant you talked to sounded like a miracle worker.
You have met three different consultants at an industry meeting recently, but which one really fits? The last thing you want is for them to shoe-horn their expertise to your needs.
So you do a Google search on “retail sales consulting consultant name.” One consultant shows up only once on the first page of results. Another consultant makes up 70 percent of Page 1 results, but most of the links are to profiles or his web site—not really very useful. The third consultant dominates first-page results and more. Most of the links are to informative content that defines him. This guy is highly visible; moreover, you can establish his credibility and learn what value he can deliver to you.
All three consultants may actually be experts. But only one has a credible online brand that lets you vet him online. If his perspective is appealing to you, he is likely to become you top candidate. If it is not, you will probably open you search to new candidates, ones that readily provide online insights into them and how they help their clients.
There are three simple steps to increase your online presence.
- Do a Google search on yourself and your company. What will potential customers learn about you online? Are you visible? What will potential customers learn about doing business with you? Most importantly, what will they learn about the experience they will have using or consuming your product?
If you are not especially visible or your findings understate what you can do for clients, you have some work to do. The first thing you need to realize is that search engine optimization (SEO) strategies alone will not win the hearts and minds of customers. Consultant No.2 had material that ranked high in a Google search, but it was about him, not what’s in it for the customer. When customers check out a company or a person online, they don’t just want product specs and prices. They want to know—not the value of the product—but the value they will get by doing business with the company or individual.
- Monitor the online customer conversation about your products and your industry. This can be a fertile source of business intelligence. One simple way to start is by setting up Google Alerts around important keywords. Every day, Google will let you know who is talking about this issue, what other people find to be meaningful, what ticks them off and what idea gaps keep them from understanding your value proposition. Armed with these insights, you can begin talking with customers, not at them. Blogs and online articles are also good, but your message needs to be meaningful to the customer and not a lightly veiled sales pitch.
Blogs and articles alone are not likely to create the buzz and traffic that will result in high page ranking in keyword searches. This is where the “social” aspect of social media can pay dividends. Leveraging social networks and social bookmarking can be extremely effective but requires you to understand how they work. Think of them as a Stage 2 strategy. A more straightforward approach is get people talking about you and to repeat your message to relevant audiences. One way is to make sure the sites you post your blogs on get picked up by Google Alerts. If they do, people with an interest in your keywords will learn about you quickly. How will you know? Set up your own Google Alerts for relevant key words and see if Google picks up your blogs.
- Find ways to get picked up by Google and Yahoo news. Most online news releases are automatically picked up by these news aggregators. People who manage information portals and enewsletters often have automatic filters that alert them to new postings that are potentially relevant to their audience. It is not unusual for some of these to have 50,000 or even 100,000 opt-in subscribers. A site or newsletter manager who thinks you provide relevant information could quote you or even republish your entire piece. Now that is visibility. And once it hits the subscribers’ social networks, it can generate real buzz with the right people.
These strategies, while simple, can dramatically enhance your social media presence. Remember: Customers want to choose whom they do business with and increasingly want to avoid the one-sided agenda of traditional sales. In addition, customers who do online vetting are interested and often ready to buy. An enhanced social media presence will increase the likelihood that those customers will select you.