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Most brands these days participate in social networks. But are they social? There’s a huge difference between being online and going social. Some brands say they’re social, but most aren’t.

Most brands participate in many, many social networks. But they use them purely as a messaging tool, which isn’t what social networks are built for. There are six common myths regarding what it means to go social:

  • Myth 1: Social media are all the same. Wrong, wrong, wrong! There are two major types of social media – networks and communities. Social networks maintain established relationships, but those relationships were initially established and strengthened in communities. Facebook is an example of a social network, while brand pages, Wikipedia and Yelp are communities. Knowing the differences between the two types of social media and what motivates customers to participate in them is important;  it can help you build new campaigns that play to customers’ most durable interests and desires rather than forcing them to think or behave outside of their normal mode.
  • Myth 2: If we go social, we have to be on every channel. No you don’t. One high-quality social network or community will do far more for you than a hundred half-hearted cameos. So concentrate your energies on a few social networks or communities that are relevant to your most influential customers.
  • Myth 3: Being there is enough. Joining a social network or community isn’t enough. While marketing was once product-based and driven by outbound campaigns, online is based on customer relationships. Since repeat purchases, rather than the initial point-of-sale generate most revenues, the point-of-sale is the beginning of a very long relationship. Strengthening those relationships is what communities are for. Without an integrated social strategy, a haphazard presence can backfire. Lots of fan sites can devolve into forums of rants and spam that end up costing brands tremendous opportunities.
  • Myth 4: Social channels are an opportunity to broadcast direct, outbound marketing campaigns to a massive audience. Social networks and communities – brace yourself – are designed for socializing. In a forum designed for dialogue, one-way messages come off as spam. That’s why direct ad campaigns broadcast on Facebook tend to annoy more than persuade people. A community’s success depends on interaction, so think of your brand as a party host. A good host brings something amazing to the table, facilitates interesting and ongoing conversations, and listens more than talks.
  • Myth 5: OMG, going social means I have to make every customer my BFF. Contacting all of your customers is insanity, plain and simple. Instead, you need to discover the small number of “superfans” who want deeper engagement and then harness their enthusiasm to manage and strengthen other customer relationships on behalf of the brand. That’s the real power of community – you tend to the 1% who tend the other 99%.
  • Myth 6: I am the authority on my company, products, and services. Maybe. On the other hand, a customer who uses your products daily often knows them better and differently than you do. The other issue is a bit more abstract: Whose recommendation do you trust more: that of a sales rep or that of a long-time customer with honest expertise and enthusiasm for a product? Our data says people trust long-time customers much more. It’s a crucial trend to recognize because you can use social networks and communities to privilege the voices of customers who are the most trusted and respected authorities.

Overwhelmed yet? I don’t blame you. Thinking about making an investment in social can look overwhelming from the outside. You’re not just considering price and return on investment. You’re also thinking about how much up-front time and attention it’s going to take for you to launch and integrate; how you’re going to scale; and how you’re going to staff it. While it seems like a big pill to swallow now, going social for real and cultivating “superfans” and relationships is a business strategy that can save brands a huge amount of time, effort, and money.

Many principles behind the science of social aren’t really that new, because people and the way we interact and do business haven’t change all that much for the past millennia. Yet, for the first time, we have the capacity to capture, store and analyze human behavioral data at a planetary scale. This enables us to really discover new principles and rediscover old ones that govern how customers behave. And this is just the beginning.

Dr. Michael Wu is author of “Science of Social,” a recently published book about the science behind customer behavior, social influence, relationship and community. He is principal scientist for Social Customer Experience provider Lithium Technologies. You can follow him on Twitter at @mich8elwu

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