The internet has done a lot of good things for brand communications. Talking to and hearing from your customers has never been easier. But faster, easier communication isn't a one way street. You get to reach customers faster and easier, and customers get the same. Sounds great, right? But there's a threshold after which this trade off can no longer be maintained at a one-to-one exchange. The good news is, despite what many social media gurus will tell you, one-to-one dialog is not the holy grail of marketing communications.
Social media is a powerful tool for one-to-one communication, but it really only works that way for small businesses. Brands like Saddleback Leather who intentionally limit their audience and establish a premium position are primed to take advantage of using social media as a conversation mechanism. Larger businesses can't keep up with the size of the conversation, and so they really have two options: pretend to be one-to-one, or stop worrying about trying to talk to everybody.
Brands like Apple, Delta, Google, or Coke have no need to use social media to have conversations with all of their customers or potential customers; they're much too busy building better products, increasing awareness, and making sure their companies are ready for the future. These companies use social media to provoke conversations amongst their customers (customer-to-customer, not customer-to-company) in order to increase awareness. They also use social media to listen to the market, finding problems and opportunities in their marketing strategy and in their products. What they don't do is try to respond to every brand mention.
In between the small business and the mega-brands are a slew of mid-sized businesses who are also trying to figure out how to use social media. If you're not Saddleback Leather and you're not Coke, then there are still opportunities to use one-to-one conversations (customer support, rewards programs, expanding into new markets), but there is also significant value in letting your customers do the talking for you; whether you unleash a creative engagement to stir something up or simply monitor the pre-existing social media landscape, there are plenty of opportunities to benefit from the one-to-one conversations your customers are having without being a chatterbox yourself.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” But a better product is only half the story. History is littered with products that were superior to their competition, but never made a dent in the market place.
Take for example the Dvorak keyboard. In the 1930's, Dr. August Dvorak designed the Dvorak keyboard with the sole goal of building a better keyboard. The dominant keyboard at the time was the purposefully awkward QWERTY keyboard (the reason the QWERTY keyboard has such a strange arrangement of keys is because it was designed specifically to slow the typing speeds of early users in order to prevent early typewriters from jamming).
But, Dvorak was fed up with this non-sensical arrangement of keys. He wanted to make a keyboard that embodied the popular idea of efficiency. He re-invented the keyboard by placing frequently used vowels on the left side and frequently used consonants on the right side; this commonsense arrangement dramatically decreases hand movements.
This makes the Dvorak keyboard not only more efficient, but also decreases hand stress and lowers the likelihood of carpel tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injury. Three quarters of a century later, modern professionals could still benefit greatly from using a Dvorak. Unfortunately, the Dvorak keyboard never replaced QWERTY as the standard, and to this day we're still stuck with a keyboard that was designed to be inefficient and hard to use.
The reasons the Dvorak never spread are simple. Most people are comfortable with the QWERTY keyboard. There's no pain point to cure. People are perfectly content using a less efficient keyboard, because they already know the QWERTY layout. The relative advantage of switching isn't worth the pain you'd go through as you relearned how to type. Even if it would only take a few weeks to learn, people are generally reluctant to switch to another product if it requires significant work.
Furthermore, the Dvorak keyboard isn't a highly visible product and has little social status attached to it. Visibility is directly correlated to how quickly a product/innovation spreads. Typing is largely a personal activity and keyboards are therefore a low visibility product. This means that there is little social motivation to buy a Dvorak. Even if one person is committed enough to use the product for its practical benefits, they are unlikely to spread the product to anyone else because no one will see them using it in a noticeable manner.
In order to succeed, it's not enough to just have a product that performs better than the competition. Consumers don't care about performance if the product is hard to adopt and use. If the product isn't easy to adopt and highly visible (along with being a better), chances are it won't spread.
As more and more people and brands take to producing digital content, a group of individuals has arisen with the goal of filtering the wheat from the chaff. I had the pleasure of interviewing the curator of the popular site Brain Pickings, Maria Popova, and picking her brain on this topic. The role of people like Maria will only become more important in the future, and her insights are well-worth consideration. If you have questions for Maria, feel free to leave them in the comments or send her a tweet. Enjoy.
Like a room packed with strangers, a crowded industry can be daunting. It's intimidating wondering how you can possibly get all these people to notice you.
The truth is, you won't. At least not at first.
If you want to get to know people at a party full of strangers, your best bet isn't to stand up on the table and announce your entry -- it's to find one of the circles of three or four people and start a conversation. That's your chance to give them a reason to remember you, to relate to them through mutual relationships or interests. By the end of the night you won't have the attention of the whole community, but you'll have a few new friends who can introduce you to others.
Unfortunately, many brands are impatient; they want everyone's attention, and they want it now. In the classic marketing book Positioning, the authors call this folly The Everybody Trap.
The Everybody Trap is deceptive because of its apparent logic. More people means more sales. Niche marketing means niche sales. Go big or go home.
But this line of logic leads to failure for everyone besides the already established leaders. Companies like Google, IBM, or Coke can afford to pander to everyone, and they often do. The rest of us are challengers, and the only way to succeed is to build our business one niche at a time.
Here's my take.
A social media strategy is a designed experience that utilizes the technological and cultural shifts towards sharing online. This implies several important characteristics of social media strategies.
Emphasis on Design
To say that something is designed implies two important things: it's something that you build or create, and it's something that you plan. To say that something is poorly designed is essentially to say that it was either poorly planned or poorly built.
While participating in social media may involve conversations, "talk to your customers" is not a social media strategy. While it may create an experience, it is not a designed one -- it lacks the planning necessary to be compelling.
Likewise, "listen to your customers" is not a social media strategy either. It is not an experience at all, but rather the research phase which precedes the design.
But the defining mark of these social media experiences, that unfortunately often overshadows the role of design-oriented thinking, is that they have something to do with social networks. Having a fan page, Twitter account, or YouTube channel are all too often substituted for a well-thought out approach to creating an experience.
Sure, people can interact with fan pages, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels, but just because they can doesn't mean they will.
With that in mind, let's look at some social media strategies that successfully create experiences that users want to interact with.
- Burger King: Whopper Sacrifice
- IKEA: Facebook Photo Tagging Competition
- The Dark Knight: Why So Serious Campaign
- Comcast: Comcast Cares Twitter Account
- Vodafone: Madame Tresesti
While none of these are perfect, they are all examples of well-designed experiences. Whether it's the engrossing fictional narrative of The Dark Knight or the humorous approach of Whopper Sacrifice, each of these campaigns succeeded because they were carefully designed. From the big ideas down to the tiniest details, they were carefully crafted with the goals of the brand and the attitudes of the audience in mind.