Social Marketing: Right Idea for the Times
You might be tempted to consider social marketing just another idea in an endless stream of things dreamed up by the software industry -- and pundits like me -- to generate more business. Well, you'd be right about some of that, but I'd like to argue that the idea is more than hype and is, in fact, in sync with the times.
Conceptually, marketing and sales have not changed for a very long time. It's all about finding someone with a problem to solve and budget for the purpose. It doesn't matter if the situation is business to business or business to an end consumer, it's all about finding a need and filling it. I can agree with that, but at the same time I know that if this is as far as you take it, you'll starve.
Look at what's going on in the marketplace.
Things are getting incrementally better nearly four years after the bottom fell out of the economy, but CFOs still watch budgets like hawks. Demand is still squishy everywhere and the gross domestic product of the U.S. -- and the whole planet for that matter -- hasn't grown in five years.
Moreover, new product category introduction is low, and this is very important. When a category is new, everyone -- at least in theory -- needs it and sales people do great business. Marketers' jobs are streamlined, too. They need to focus on building brands and communicating the basic features and benefits of what they have. Products are also relatively simple. They typically come in one flavor and function as general purpose cousins of what they will eventually become as the market grows and differentiation sets in.
If you take an objective look at most of the marketplace today that's about where we are. Established markets are already crammed with products that may not be the latest and greatest, but they work, and customers need compelling reasons for buying what's newest.
You might say, "what about products like the iPhone or the iPad?" Every time Apple comes out with a new version, the market goes wild and buys the new product even though the old ones still do their jobs. That's all true, but the phone industry has a different cadence run by the planned obsolescence embedded in the service contract.
After two years, you get a new phone and a new contract. If you don't, you stay on your old plan paying the same rate. Effectively, you pay the same rate to use a new phone or to stay with the old one, so it's no surprise that iPhones sell briskly and no surprise that the company sells an increasing record number of new phones with each introduction. Every two years there are more old iPhones than ever and more people ready to change. But this is a digression.
In today's markets, where there is no forced obsolescence, we need other reasons to buy new, and there are smaller numbers of new buyers entering the markets for the first time. Smart vendors have realized that this means taking a different approach to sales and marketing. Rather than the selling-to-anyone strategy of early markets, smart vendors today recognize that they have to model who their customers are as well as model the sales cycle. For many this means using social tools, but it also requires a different set of techniques with the tools themselves.
The Old Way
In one approach, marketers simply substitute outbound social media for things like email and direct mail. This gets them into social -- but not very effectively, since their technique is still decidedly old-school but with new technology. In my research, more vendors find themselves right here at a transition point somewhere between conventional marketing and social marketing.
The other approach, which I think is closer to real social marketing, marketers make great efforts to capture customer data so that they can filter it for telltale signs of interest. The same approach also works for service organizations seeking signs of customer dissatisfaction. That's all good, but it is also limited. If a vendor relies on keyword filtering or hashtags, it will miss many instances that need a little nuance in the filtering.
The nuance takes a lot of forms. I once did a small project in which I searched for sentiment. My criteria were simple. In repeated Google searches I looked for two-word combinations, a company name and the word 'sucks'. Now, I will admit this was crude but it was also extremely effective.
"Sucks" may be the generic summation and judgment in our society for all that is wrong in any situation. My searches always came up with hits -- hundreds of thousands of them.
So, the experiment proved a point but it also proved to be a rather blunt instrument. The search approach did nothing for a legitimate cry for help like Company + Product + Problem, unless I made an explicit search -- but you can see where this is going.
If you had a way to do all kinds of searches at once, you could turn up signs of people interested in a solution or a product category, people looking for help and people upset with something related to your business and much more.
To get there, you need analytics -- and not just one kind, but several. Humans can determine the difference between someone with a real problem and somebody just being sarcastic. Computers need to do multiple scans of the data using different software tuned to each to arrive at the same conclusion more or less.
In social marketing today there is a proliferation of software packages that help marketers to get close to understanding customers and markets in multiple dimensions. There are tools for emotion analysis, natural language processing, predictive and trending analytics, affinity and segmentation and influence.
Last week at Cloudforce, New York, Salesforce.com announced the Social Insights Partner Ecosystem, a partnership between third-party analytics suppliers and its Radian6 division. The announcement's significance is that Radian6 users can now process their social data through as many filters as make sense for their situations. This was an important introduction because it addresses the way we market (and sell) today and it's different from the way it was several years ago.
Now let's go back to our original discussion. In a marketplace as constrained as today's, it's critical for vendors to understand at a very fine-grained level what customers are thinking. Are the installed customers generally happy? What are their simmering issues? Might we want to proactively address those issues before we introduce the new version of the product that won't be successful unless we have significant buy-in from the base?
What about the possibility of gaining net new customers from the competition? How satisfied are our competitors' customers? What openings might there be? How can we exploit them?
Don't for get brand-new customers. What ideas are trending in the market that relate to our business? Finally, are there new product ideas lurking in the data stream?
To me, answering these questions is the key to successful social marketing because they are crucial to success in business today. Salesforce's announcement suggests to me that they continue searching out Blue Ocean opportunities -- markets and niches that have either not been penetrated at all or that have only been lightly touched. I expect that our dependence on social marketing will increase and that the approaches now being proposed through announcements like this will be critical to future success.