Social Media - 12 Q's answered by Michelle Carvill
I was recently approached by Anwen Gardner, in her final year at Harper Adams University College in Shropshire, studying BSc (Hons) Business Management with Marketing. Her final year dissertation is the study into the feasibility of social networking sites for businesses. Having assisted her - I thought this was a useful post to share with others too. Hopefully it will engender debate and comment - so please do join in and share...
Q1. In your opinion what are the main reasons businesses use social networking sites?
The objective of social media is to get people interested and engaged by providing authentic, transparent and relevant information. Hopefully, those that engage with what you are talking about – will tell others – and so they will ‘follow’ your musings, subscribe to your blog etc – ultimately, growing brand awareness, positive word of mouth and share of mind.
For a business social media platforms can also be useful to -
- Increase awareness of a new service / brand
- Share authority / expert opinion
- Raise general brand / service awareness
- Pull people to your site / blog / landing page
- Is useful for running research / polls
- Can be used to rally support eg: a client of ours ran a ‘Movember’ campaign via Twitter.
- Can be used as an inexpensive support device eg: @dellsupport
- Find relevant conversations / influencers
Q2. Why do you think social networking sites have become so important to people, and what are the main reasons people use these sites?
From a non commercial perspective, social networking sites have become important to people because they provide a space for people to share insight and connect. Users share their views, news, life info, photos, ideas and advice about something they are passionate about. It’s a way to communicate what’s happening, how you feel about things, provide advice and share – and a quick way for people to keep in touch with friends, family and peers.
People are using social platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Linked-In, Bebo, Ning, Buzz (and a plethora of others) – as effectively ‘online social spaces’ to converse, share their profiles, news, photos, ideas, work projects etc.
From a commercial perspective, the key attraction for businesses and marketers is the immediacy and reach that these platforms enable. What other marketing mediums enable businesses to ‘listen in’ to relevant conversations is such a cost effective way? Enabling businesses to target individual marketing messages.
If you think of marketing activity from a ‘push and pull’ perspective – push being where businesses literally push messages on users eg: advertisements, direct mail, direct email, radio and even TV – then conversely ‘social media’ activity enables ‘pull’ activity – where users are literally attracted to you because of the conversations you are having via these channels. Social media platforms enable ‘conversation marketing’ – whereby users don’t feel the ‘hard sell’ – it enables the all important getting to understand the customer, engaging with the customer without necessarily pushing advertising at them.
Q3. Do you think social networking sites help to increase business and consumer engagement?
Social networking sites can certainly help to increase business and consumer engagement - provided they are used properly.
A recent study reported that in the B2B and B2C sectors 38% of businesses stated that their biggest challenge to getting started with social media was ‘building a sufficient business case’.
The challenge in building that business case is the all important ‘return on investment’ factor – it’s not enough for many businesses to be out there in conversations merely as part of brand building – it’s expected that such an immediate and consuming channel should provide a more immediate and direct response.
Social media platforms enable a ‘conversation’ with people you may not have been able to reach before. It has an amazing power to enable communications to go viral – and engage audiences in conversations about services, products, issues, the company and brand – connecting a vast amount of likeminded people in an often targeted and purposeful way.
They’re also a great resource for seeing not only what’s happening with your own brand or business – but also for engaging in relevant and hopefully productive conversations. And keeping an eye on what competitors are doing.
However, the etiquette is different from traditional marketing – users don’t want to be inundated with sales messages, they simply switch off and see those types of conversations as ‘spam’. Used wisely, customer engagement can certainly be increased. Not only by nurturing and sharing relevant and useful information – but also via supporting customers and potential customers.
Q4. Do you think social networking sites help businesses increase sales or are they only beneficial for publicity reasons and providing consumers with new information?
In my view, whether you are using forums, blogs or social media sites – they are not a place to directly ‘sell’ – it’s a place to build your reputation and share opinion. Whether setting out to achieve a position of authority or ‘expert’ in what you do – or to learn, share and generally participate – social media platforms are now firmly cemented into savvy marketing strategies.
Of course, people do try to use these platforms for direct sales purposes – but as mentioned above, that tends to ‘turn off’ the ‘social audience’. So whilst it’s part of the end game, direct selling should never be your main objective for engaging.
Having said that, from my own experience of working with these platforms for both my own businesses and for clients that we manage social media activity for – there have been times where we’re tracking keywords and we see open requests from users to connect with someone who provides a service. For example – we work with an Accountancy practice that has a specific expertise in working with ‘the Arts’ sector. A thread on Twitter came about from an Artist looking to find an accountancy practice that particularly helped Artists. Within seconds we were able to connect the two – resulting in a new client for the practice – and a happy Artist! And that’s just one example of many. So yes, it can increase sales and generate new clients.
Q5. How feasible do you think social networking sites are for businesses?
They’re free, easily accessible and if managed correctly, can fit into the daily running of any business.
In my opinion, social media activity should be part of daily activity however, it needs to be managed in a focused way – as it can be all consuming if trying to do too much.
It’s a case of ‘suck it and see’ to gauge what’s right for your business:
- Linked In Groups
It’s useful to schedule all activities into the week. For example:
- Blog posts get posted daily / weekly
- Each morning relevant channels – Twitter thread, Trade press news sites, general news sites are reviewed and tweets scheduled for the day.
- Blogs you are subscribed to – when alerted to new post, review and comment if relevant.
- Forums you are participating in are scanned at least daily.
- Linked In Group participation (as required – but visit at least weekly to review contacts’ contacts and grow).
- Plus ….review all areas organic and active ‘expansion’.
This is where useful management resources such as Hootsuite come into their own. Here you can feed all of your social media platforms into one central dashboard – watch, manage, tweet, post etc – particularly useful when managing a number of accounts.
Q6. Would you say social networking sites are a cost-effective form of advertising and do businesses see a good return on investment?
The wonderful world of digital marketing is attractive for businesses because it’s so measurable – businesses can see exactly how productive their marketing spend is.
Hence why online advertising such as Google Adwords has seen explosion in growth – it enables businesses of all shapes and sizes the opportunity to advertise, but only pay for the advertisement if someone actually interacts with it – clicks it.
Nowadays we expect the people we spend our marketing and advertising budgets with to be able to provide us with some outline stats of what we can expect to receive for our money.
I’ve worked on campaigns whereby we ran ads on Facebook – and whilst it didn’t necessarily generate any direct sales – traffic to sites increased and followers grew significantly – so growing reach. I’ve also tested advertising on Linked In as this medium offers businesses a means of getting their ads in front of a very targeted audience.
That’s the beauty of the channels – the ability to target ads to specific audiences. However, the product / advertisement and call to action still has to be attractive. Just because you’ve put an ad in front of the right audience, the offer still has to be compelling in order for them to interact.
Most social media sites don’t require any ‘advertising spend’ – businesses can do a lot with their Twitter conversations and audiences, blogs and forum activity that offers ‘conversational marketing’ – which can be very powerful. They can get recommended via Linked In – which is far more powerful than merely seeing an ad.
Q7. Do you think social networking sites are the most cost-effective form of direct marketing?
Social networking sites offer a means of direct marketing – but as mentioned above, they’re not the right platforms for ‘direct selling’ – that can be a big switch off for social audiences. Yes, you can run very targeted ads to audiences – and so that’s attractive, as is the immediacy, reach and viral opportunity. And because these channels offer activity at relatively low cost – then if a campaign is successful, from a cost to conversion perspective, they can be very cost effective.
However, whilst I’m a big advocate of a ‘digital future’ - I would never recommend to a business to doing just social media direct marketing – it’s more a case of building social media activities into your general marketing mix initially – and then as all marketing activity, learning what works and what’s the most effective means for your business – and then ploughing more energy into that channel.
I wrote a case study about @themeatwagon – a business that solely used social media channels (Facebook / Twitter) to communicate where their burger wagon was going to be each day. They built up a huge online following, had lots of viral opportunity – and are in the London press pretty much weekly at the moment. Demand has driven them to create a static restaurant site, which is bursting at the seams with interest.
However, they’ve also been doing the festival rounds for a number of years – and their audience is the prime audience for being on Twitter and Facebook. So there are a number of elements all working for them. This isn’t the case for all businesses – however, social media channels should be embraced by all – and as mentioned above – built into the general market mix as other channels to market.
Q8. How important do you think social networking sites are to the development of a business?
Social network sites, blogging and forums can bring a lot to business development. If it is focused on correctly it can help in a number of areas
- Customer support and service
- Brand reputation management
- Polling and product feedback mechanism
- Lead generation
- News distribution
- Brand awareness and establishment
- Product promotion and launch
- Humanising the brand
- Public relations
Audience participation has to be considered – if a business’s audience is ‘online’ and participating with these channels – then it would be a missed opportunity if businesses didn’t explore how they could leverage them to assist in the development of the business. As the example above with @themeatwagon – they had the perfect audience – and that combined with great product and the immediacy of Twitter and the quirkyness of moving their van around and creating a kind of ‘online club’ for burger fans – led to immense success for them.
The key thing for businesses to consider is the continued growth and popularity of these channels – most people – of all age ranges and status are participating with some form of social media channel, and as they grow in popularity and population – then more businesses will be compelled to interact with their audiences via these channels.
Q9. How beneficial do you feel advertising through social networking sites are compared to traditional methods of advertising?
A recent study (SEMPO June 2010) reported that marketing budgets are shifting – reducing allocation on traditional media (exhibitions, offline advertising) and providing more to the social media pots.
As mentioned above, this is not only due to the rise in popularity for audiences that businesses want to connect with, (making social media channels far more viable from a commercial perspective) but also the attractive element of being able to ‘measure’ return on investment.
Online advertising via social networking sites – adwords and other paid for online advertising, enables clear visibility of what is happening with your marketing budget.
Recently a client of mine ran a radio campaign – the difference was that the spend was much higher – and the effectiveness of the advertising from a ‘direct response’ perspective, was nowhere near as effective as the pay per click online advertising that was running in parallel.
Most traditional methods of marketing just aren’t equipped to offer direct response mechanisms that are accurate – there are too many ‘intangibles’. Social media offers direct response measurement resources – that are very accurate and clear – AND the opportunity to brand build at the same time. From a marketers’ perspective, this is very attractive.
Q10. What is the main advantage and disadvantage you think businesses gain from using social networking sites?
I think the big challenge for businesses small, medium and large is the time management of it all – and getting over the transparency and fear of what to say.
For many, it’s still such fertile territory and people are worried about productivity and how time consuming it can be for everybody involved.
They’re also worried about the ‘wrong messages’ getting out – and how what they say could reflect badly on them, damage the brand reputation etc.
The immediacy and reach – whilst probably one of the most attractive elements of the channels – terrifies many – as there is the scope for a negative element to travel quickly and widely, causing wide scale mayhem. Once it’s out there – you can’t take it back!
Therefore, there needs to be a clear social media strategy woven into the overall strategic marketing plan – to ensure that all communications are on brand and effective.
Transparency is key – and users like to feel that they are engaging in real conversations rather than manufactured ones, humans like to have conversations with humans – and so the challenge for businesses is finding the right people to manage their social media channels. There’s a big trust factor – as the brand is really ‘out there’ and exposed.
Those that write about Social Media Marketing (and there are hundreds of good and often opposing articles out there) all seem to agree on one point. It’s about conversation not direct selling. Selling is secondary.
Social networking produces conversations – useful, interesting collaborations – sharing information, genuinely conversing – and facilitating information – directing people to resources, people, spaces, places – virtually or off line to where they can achieve their main objective.
Q11. What are your predictions for social networking sites and businesses over the next few years?
Social networking sites are certainly not a ‘fad’ – they’re here to say. And I expect that in the near future, we’ll see more of them developing.
I suspect social media platforms will look ‘vertical’ – and really harness their ability to target audiences and bring link minded groups together. Therefore, there’ll be specialist platforms for sectors such as: Legal, Finance, Fashion, Food, Retail, Small Business etc.
Whether vertical or open – then I suspect that there’ll be far savvier developments with the way people are ‘found’ online. Currently, Google dominates. However, Twitter and Facebook are starting to chip away at the heels. I suspect there’ll be developments in Twitter whereby you can pay to be listed in a ‘vertical’ – almost a paid for Twitter Directory – and popularity scores / influence scores will be built into the search algorithm to produce searches.
I believe they’ll offer breakdowns so that you can only converse with people in your own country. This is currently challenging, particularly on Twitter – and so I suspect this ‘vertical’ by country / region / geography – will become more user friendly – enabling users to be more targeted with who they connect with.
Monetised and Enterprise Versions:
I touched on this above with paid search in Twitter etc - but I think we'll see successful platforms either migrating into an Enterprise version. And in all cases - there'll be opportunities to monetise via advertising, ranking etc.
Q12. Any further comments regarding social networking sites and businesses?
Keeping up with social media means that organisations often have to ‘run faster’ than is comfortable – however, just because it’s fast, effective planning, just as you would with any marketing activity, is absolutely necessary.
Businesses shouldn’t ignore social media as ‘irrelevant for their businesses’. Something I hear all the time. In a digital world, where futurists predict that there’ll be no ‘offline’ media in as little as 5 years – then businesses that want to compete in the future, need to embrace the digital way of marketing and conversing with their audiences.
Michelle Carvill is owner and Marketing Director at Carvill Creative - a graphic design and marketing services agency based in Maidenhead, Berkshire. The agency covers all aspects of graphic design and marketing - covering social media marketing and website planning and website design.
For marketing and social media advice – view the Carvill Creative Blog