As social media has reached mainstream consciousness this year, businesses have been inundated with the message that they must immediately get on board or risk doom and calamity. The hyperbole (and the frenzied buzz it creates) is confusing and many businesses could use a practical guide on how to evaluate social media and how to engage – if it’s appropriate.facebook-friendfeed

It’s amusing to think that “Word of Mouth” marketing (which, essentially, is what Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites are) is a new phenomenon. Back in the day of low technology and small town America, the only way to pass information was by word of mouth. Neighbors depended on each other for news, including, one can imagine, new products on sale at the local market.

Social communication by “word of mouth” is a fundamental human characteristic and taking advantage of that is fundamental to all marketing because (let’s face it) consumer to consumer (C2C) communication is free.

So the first benefit of using social media in your marketing efforts (and the first thing to keep in mind) is that social media systems are designed to facilitate person-to-person communication, as opposed to traditional media and most first generation web efforts, which are predominately one-way communication.

Social media marketing enables businesses to hear from their customers, observe interaction between customers, enhance trust and build credibility by expanding beyond traditional marketing messages and participate in “communities” with customers.

Small town inhabitants are similar people. Their word of mouth communication is effective for marketers precisely because they have similar tastes and share those tastes with each other. (Usually.)

In other words, they belong to the same market segment.

Market segments are a widely misunderstood concept, frequently equated with verticals, as in “my market segment is the health care industry;” or shared pain (“I am targeting those companies who suffer from email spam”) or a buyer profile (“I am going after college-age kids.”) These criteria may be necessary for a segment, but do not comprise a segment.

Market segments are comprised of like people, who share a common interest, who look to one another as a trusted reference and who have access to each other. If customer in California is just the same as a customer in New York, but they have no means to communicate, they are in separate segments. Your marketing and sales efforts will be developed to reach both geographies.

From a marketing perspective, one of the primary benefits of technological advances has been simplifying communication between like buyers, thereby expanding the reach of market segments. TV, radio, telephone and the Internet have all provided this benefit.

And so it is with social media. Since dial-up bulletin board systems (BBS) first appeared in the late 1970s, users have been “going online” to share common interests.

While early BBS’s were geography-based, today’s descendants, Internet forums, are typically concentrated around a specific hobby or topic independent of geography. Businesses who sell products within these niche markets have long known about these sites, and where welcome, have helped sustain them through advertising dollars.

With North American Internet usage now at 74 percent of the population and the recent proliferation of super-social sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, social media has gone mainstream. A broad spectrum of users participates in some Internet social networking activity.

So the second primary benefit of social media is that it can provide a captured audience of customers in your particular target segment.

There are myriad ways of participating in the social media marketing phenomenon. So how can you determine if you should participate and if so, how?

Current activity –First, you should be actively monitoring your brand. Are people talking about you online? Software products exist designed specifically to help you track company and product branding and PR firms often offer this as a service. Minimally, set up Google Alerts to track mentions.

Does online behavior influence purchasing? –Some of your customers may participate in social networking, but their activity may have nothing to do with your product. Tread carefully so as to not intrude on their purpose of participation. (For example, you may wish to advertise on Facebook since you know your customers visit the site, but whether or not to invite them to your fan page requires a more nuanced decision.)

Which social media venues? –As with most things marketing, the answers are with your customers. Where will you find them online? Who influences their buying decisions? Would they find company provided social tools such as online feedback, feature request voting or peer supported forums valuable? Would a company blog enhance credibility, increase trust or loyalty?

Rules of Engagement –Since by and large, consumer participants in online communities determine the rules of engagement for businesses, it’s important that you follow the rules. Your social media activities should not be advertising per se, but rather your participation should provide value to the community. In other words, as a business participant, you are there to share knowledge and expertise to the benefit of the consumer. This is true, by the way, even when you have developed the community.

Social media marketing can be a boon to your company, giving you insight into customers and letting you interact with them in a way few other marketing channels do. Just remember it’s a different world with different rules – and it’s best to be crystal clear on those before you jump in.

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