Closing the Community Loop: How Marketers Can Join Customers in Social Networking Conversations

Inplace #2

Way back in 1999, Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger put together (the contents of which were published as The Cluetrain Manifesto in 2001). Their list of 95 theses begins “1. Markets are conversations”. The authors built a convincing argument that the Internet has the potential to fundamentally change the way people select and purchase the products and services created by industrial corporations — by facilitating real communications between individual consumers, and supplanting the artificial communication created by marketing departments and agencies.

While the book was written before the birth of Myspace, or any of the major sites now classified as “social networking”, its central arguments only grow more relevant in a world where an increasing number of individuals spend an increasing amount of time interacting with one another online in ever more socially substantial ways.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of online advertising and marketing activity (including advertising on sites specifically dedicated to facilitating human interaction) is born of an old, one-sided media mindset. While we may be screaming through a bullhorn into the fastest growing online neighborhoods, we’re still largely ignoring the millions of potential customers waiting patiently to talk back.

Why don’t we listen?

There are plenty of cynical answers to this question: marketing executives still living in a product > focus group > advertising world; institutional separations between qualitative consumer research (focus groups), quantitative research (metrics), and marketing departments, etc.

While these are all real concerns, there are some issues specific to social networks that must be addressed.

1. “Myspace is currently adding 230,000 user profiles a day (a few of which presumably belong to real people). There are three people in our research department…”

a) It’s true, we’re not going to be able to converse with massive numbers of users using the tools often associated with one-on-one personal communication (email, phone, etc.), but we can publish blogs, and unless this blog is really popular, reading and responding to comments isn’t that time-consuming or difficult. Plenty has been written on the pros and cons of corporate blogging, but for those that wish to dive in to the organic world of social networking, it’s pretty much a prerequisite.

2. “No one’s commenting on our webisode… people just keep telling us our product is broken. Don’t they know that’s not our department?”

a) If this happens…congratulations! Your customers have actually associated your advertising with your product! Unfortunately, you haven’t. By stepping into the world of social networking, you’re effectively committing to a substantive conversation with your customers.

Just like in the real world, that means answering tough questions. Speaking with customers in “town-hall” settings (both physical and online) is nothing new. Working out the logistics of answering questions on a daily basis… in a timely manner, and without a PR filter, is difficult, but worth it. If you’re willing to speak frankly with your customers, they’ll be more honest with you.

3. “JoeJohn96 says he likes purple, but MsTimeStar likes orange. We have lots of comments, but none of them really tell us anything.”

a) Herein lies the beauty of social networks as a tool for customer communication, and resultant business decision-making. Not only do we have access to the whole gamut of traditional research techniques (surveys, polls, etc.), but we can use them in an environment rife with quantitative data.