Toy Story 2.0

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What company isn’t experimenting with the vast playground of social media platforms to cultivate word-of-mouth? The truth is that we all are trying out these new toys. And, it’s natural to have concerns about how social media can most productively work for engaging your best customers.

That’s what makes six of the initiatives announced in the last 60 days so notable. These aren’t fleeting, experimental promotions. Instead, they seem to have staying power. Let’s review them based on COLLOQUY readers’ most frequently cited worries about social media efforts:

1. “Communicating via social media is beneath the status of my brand.” When companies like The Ritz-Carlton and American Express are fully in the social media game, it’s time to rethink this misgiving. For example, in late June, The Ritz-Carlton became the first luxury hotel chain to use a social media platform to deliver exclusive concierge services to their repeat guests. Using Foursquare as their platform, The Ritz-Carlton gives guests access to tips and local information from their worldwide concierge staff members.

Last month, American Express completed a national rollout of their partnership with Foursquare. This service allows their customers to load and seamlessly redeem exclusive offers from retailers like H&M and Sports Authority. In addition, American Express has added benefits for their small business customers via Facebook. Now business owners can redeem Membership Rewards points to pay for Facebook ads promoting their products and services.

In each case, brands known for their exclusivity and prestige have made sure that the execution of benefits and communications via social media channels reflects the standards that their customers have grown to expect.

2. “Aren’t ‘badges’ and ‘likes’ pass? by now?” A fair concern. But, why not build upon the foundation of social media status and existing platforms to make it distinctly yours—like CVS has by extending their ExtraCare Beauty Club benefits via Facebook? Access to exclusive content, tips and conversations with their celebrity “Beauty Board” is just one of the ways they are engaging their 8 million ExtraCare Beauty Club members in a dialogue about their style and makeup concerns. Rather than a generic deployment of Facebook promotions, CVS has ensured that Facebook fans enjoy unique membership privileges via that platform.

3. “Which social media platform is the ‘right’ one to engage existing customers?” Here’s a hint: There is no one platform that will be a magical answer to cultivating advocacy with your best customers. One look at the holistic approach that InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) and Starbucks are rolling out will show you what I mean.

COLLOQUY has been a fan of IHG’s well-rounded approach to social media for some time. Blending gamification tactics, Foursquare benefits and private communities, IHG strives to be on whatever platform their best customers prefer. Because they have seen a 1,000% increase in room bookings via mobile devices, they’ve continued their development of options with the launch of a new iPhone app to find, book, view and cancel hotel rooms in all of their seven hotel chains.

Starbucks also leverages a blend of private communities like the My Starbucks Idea website and well-known social media platforms. Because one out of every five purchases involves a Starbucks card, their latest development is an iPhone and Android app to allow customers to manage and reload their Starbucks card account. Additionally, Starbucks Card Mobile users can pay with their phone in nearly 7,800 Starbucks locations and check their My Starbucks Rewards status.

In both cases, the shifts these companies are seeing in how and where customers engage with their brands reflect the investment they’ve made in understanding the full realm of social media.

In addition to being built for the long run, it is no surprise to me that these are integrated efforts with each company’s existing loyalty programs. After all, where better to find advocates and encourage positive word-of-mouth (WOM) than in your loyalty program? In the 2011 COLLOQUY Word-of-Mouth Study, we found that WOM Champions—those who are both willing and able to recommend companies they like—are three times more likely to already be a member of your rewards program. And they’re likely to be online—Facebook alone has more than 750 million users. Social media isn’t an experimental playground any longer, and smart marketers are turning these former toys into serious tools.

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