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“Social media has a positive impact on marketing. It democratizes it. It’s not just about who’s got the biggest budget, but who really understands their consumer.”

I’m talking to Victoria Ransom (pictured above) about one of my least favorite things in the world, social media marketing. But there’s no one better equipped to talk about this ever-so-timely topic, and Ransom breaks it down handily on the eve of her company’s big product launch for its social marketing suite.

Ransom runs Wildfire, a rather large social media marketing company that develops software for brands to connect their marketing efforts across most of the big social sites currently in existence. Today, the company is unveiling Wildfire Suite 2.0, a social media marketing maven’s über-tool that allows marketers to get much more specific, much more personal, with their followers and fans all over the social Internet.

The suite will let brands tweak their online marketing to appeal to very specific groups of consumers based on those consumers’ activities and interests. For example, for a sporting goods store, Wildfire’s software can tell the difference between snowboarders and skiers, and it can help the store tailor messages and other promotions (as well as analytics, of course) for each group separately.

It fits right in with the so-hot-right-now concept of interest graphing, but the new tools are also very much in line with the M.O. that is embedded in Wildfire’s DNA: Don’t broadcast; interact. Don’t shout; listen. Don’t apologize after the fact; ask for permission now.

Most of all, Ransom emphasizes that brands aren’t in control of the message, and if they want to get their customers’ attention, the only way to do so these days is by giving them a truly valuable online experience. It’s a belief that pervades Wildfire’s own corporate culture of empathy and charm (yes, the word “charm” actually pops up in internal company materials).

Inside Wildfire

This emphasis on honoring the consumer is quite divorced from old-school, spray-and-pray marketing tactics of broadcast, print, email, and direct marketing. And it has a lot to do with the Wildfire team’s makeup: They’re mostly young or young-ish social media users, themselves, and they deeply understand what works online and what doesn’t, if only because they were born and raised with it.

Wildfire’s office is located on a glittering campus in Silicon Valley, where the glass-plated buildings rise up in hues of blue and green against a cloudless summer sky. It’s new and spacious and strangely reminiscent of Oracle’s mega-campus not too far away; as it turns out, the building is the most corporate thing about the company.

Once inside the building, you could be in any college common area. A neon sign proclaims that the shop is open. Gangs of youngsters in flip-flops saunter around the open spaces filled with pirate flags and huge vinyl sunshades in the shape of leaves. Memes and inside jokes pepper the visual paraphernalia; for reasons I can’t fathom, one scruffy salesman is making his over-the-phone pitch while wearing a cartoonish hat in the shape of a wolf’s head. There’s a small bar, staffed only by a cardboard cutout of Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, and within minutes of of stepping into the world of Wildfire, I’m invited to participate in an upcoming game of beer pong.

Ransom, the co-founder and CEO, takes a deep breath and says, “It’s a pretty young team.”

Ransom is fairly young, herself. Her hair is sun-streaked, and her face has a healthy glow one doesn’t usually associate with tech startup CEOs. When she speaks, she is direct and confident, as befits a Harvard MBA.

Right now, she’s particularly confident about the state of social media marketing, despite Facebook’s shaky IPO and GM’s public pull-out of ads on the social network.

“The only indication has been GM,” she said, stating that with most other Facebook advertisers, “we haven’t seen that at all. … I really divorce the IPO from social media marketing. It has little or nothing to do with marketers, and I haven’t seen any other major advertisers make the same announcements. We’ve actually seen the opposite.”

And all that adds up to more social marketing all the time, everywhere we go online. Ransom and her cohorts are convinced they can make such marketing both less annoying for consumers and more profitable for brands by targeting carefully and messaging judiciously.

Early days, even now

Facebook in its relatively early days was the primordial soup for Ransom’s company’s genesis. In an unstructured, Wild-West environment, Ransom and her co-founder came up with a way for brands to play and profit using the social network. They built simple Facebook apps for sweepstakes and contests, then used those apps as a template for their clients to create campaigns.

During those early days, Ransom tells me, she recognized that Facebook interactions were more important than Facebook ads on their own.

As social networks were founded and grew up, Wildfire started building tools for the newer sites, as well. Of course, Twitter is huge for Wildfire, since, as Ransom says, “It’s a great mechanism for having conversations.

“More than Facebook, it’s been a great channel for getting messages out and a customer support channel,” she says. “That may change over time, depending on the directions Twitter heads in. Brands may be able to provide retrospective content.”

Ransom notes that Google+ has similar opportunities for brands, but it doesn’t yet have the same richness of content when compared to Facebook. It also doesn’t yet bring a critical mass of highly engaged, mainstream users or a full suite of APIs for the marketing and analytics crowd.

“Pinterest is a really interesting one,” she continued. “It’s a delicate balance that brands and the social networks are playing.” Ransom notes that while on most networks, brands risk overwhelming users with promotional content, “The funny thing about Pinterest is, there’s not that tension. People come there to look at products, and they don’t care if it came from Joe Schmo or the Gap,” she said.

“So it’s easier for Pinterest to have a good realtionship with brands and to really commercialize it without offending consumers.”

But again, Ransom said, the site isn’t giving out all the APIs that companies like hers would want. “We have some Pinterest tools,” she says, “a way to display a Pinterest gallery on Facebook.” But what Wildfire and other marketers really want are APIs to gather more analytics, develop richer campaigns, and create better-branded pages. “We anticipate that the APIs for that will come,” she says. “But have you been to their office? It’s tiny, there’s like 30 people there. It’s incredible what they’re doing with a really small team.”

With age comes standards

Aside from wishing for more APIs, Ransom dreams of a world in which social marketing is held to some real standards — real metrics around performance and real expectations from networks, brands, and consumer groups.

“In the offline world, [measurement] is still hard,” she says. “It’s hard to prove it … because it’s kind of a lot like TV. How can you prove that TV sells product? Over time, studies and standards have showed what it means to get a view on TV. Social media is still so young, we haven’t got those standards yet.”

The CEO tells me the social web as an industry that lives and dies by brands’ marketing budgets, is slowly moving toward an industry standard for measurement.”What is a relationship worth in social media?” she asks. “There are research agencies that can help us agree on the right metrics there, and frankly, the social media networks should be, too.”

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