(Editor’s note: Serial entrepreneur Scott Olson is president of MindLink Marketing. He contributed this column to VentureBeat.)

Quick marketing poll: Who has bought an industry contact list and used that to send out direct mail, email or some other marketing promotion?

Guiltily holding your hand up? You’re not alone, but it’s pretty well established that this approach no longer works. Playing the numbers game of a less than 1 percent response on marketing outreach to unknown contacts doesn’t have a future.

Social media and the decline of traditional media have changed the marketing discipline forever. Broadcasting marketing messages to a vast population who may or may not care is a formula for failure – so it’s more important than ever to tailor your outreach and messages to connect to people who do care.

Tailoring your marketing to be interesting and relevant to the people who receive it both increases its effectiveness and builds relationships with customers, prospects and contacts. It’s not an easy task, but it can be made easier by utilizing social media to identify, listen to and connect with the true fans of your company, your peers or competitors – and even your industry as a whole.

Seth Godin, one of today’s most recognizable marketing visionaries, wrote about this on his blog, saying “one true fan is worth perhaps 10,000 times as much as a stranger.”

If this is true, how do you know who your true fans are? How do you effectively market to them? What do they care about? Here are some suggestions on how to use social media to guide a true fan marketing strategy.

Identify the right fans – The first step is simply understanding and knowing who your true fans are. True fans aren’t necessarily people who are evangelists of your company. They could be proponents of the broader category of technology that you sell or could even be fans of your competitors.

Use social media to identify people online who have something to say about you, your competitors or your industry and follow them. Twitter is an ideal medium for identifying fans, but you can also identify relevant blogs, Facebook fans and LinkedIn group participants who will add to your list. If you could create a list of the 1,000 people who cared most about your industry and who influenced others, what would it be worth to you?

Listen to your fans – Once you have identified and followed the fans of your company and your industry, listen to them. Establish a process for regularly watching the trending topics of the people who care about your space.

Fish your pond, not the ocean – If all you are fishing for is fresh water trout, why look for them in the ocean? Search is an extremely important component of your marketing strategy, but it isn’t precise. Google and other search engines require you to be highly specific in your search terms. Otherwise you are flooded with irrelevant data. Similarly, wouldn’t it be nice to refine search to the output from your true fans?

Create a data feed from your fans outputs and then use search more effectively on broader terms. An example: I’ve worked in the security industry, but looking at a Twitter feed of anyone who mentions “security” isn’t that useful. There is simply too much data. By searching on that same term from the 1,000 people who care about my space, everything changes.

Engage with your fans – Once you know who your fans are and what they’re talking about, you can more effectively interact with them. Reply to their tweets, comment on their blogs, or generate original content that addresses an emerging topic your fan base is talking about. All of this will strengthen the connections to your closer community.

Market to your fans – Your true fan list should be one of your most valuable marketing assets. As you establish these contacts, your marketing promotions can become that much more effective and viral. Keep your fans top of mind when you do any of the following things:

  • Solicit product feedback
  • Launch a product
  • Promote an event
  • Publish a whitepaper
  • Host a webinar or online forum

Give your fans the tools to market for you – The whole point of marketing to your fans is that they have reach and influence that you simply won’t be able to achieve. Generate promotional items and marketing content that your fan list can get behind, promote to their own network and evangelize on your behalf.

Your pipeline growth from these efforts will be of a much higher quality and allow your sales team to be much more productive with their interactions.

Many companies spend an enormous amount of time and energy focusing on how to grow their contact database and marketing to that list. That time can be better spent, though, by understanding who your fans are and using them to increase the quality of that list and the effective use of your limited resources.

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