Tag Archives: online communities

Online communities help marketers stay in touch and build advocacy

Econsultancy examples of online research communities

Follow this link to a good blog post from Econsultancy on how Mercedes has set up two online communities to get closer to existing and prospective owners.  An increasing number of companies are doing this, recognizing that engaging with consumers in an informal, social online setting encourages spontaneous and open discussion,  yielding a truer picture of people’s thoughts, feelings, opinions and ideas than more “lab-like” techniques like focus groups and surveys.

You can find other examples of marketer-created communities in Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s outstanding book Groundswell, Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies and in Bob Gilbreath’s book, Marketing with Meaning.  I like how Bob describes them, which I think is at the heart of why they allow for richer insights than more traditional research …

“… these communities are inhabited by anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand members; the topics are free-flowing and the discussions self-generated, allowing members to feel as if they own and run the community.”

The result is that you obtain perspectives and insights based on what consumers feel is important rather than merely what the marketer is trying to find out.  Community members also feel recognized and appreciate the fact that the company is really listening, which helps to drive brand advocacy.

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Foursquare and Gowalla enable true “when and where they are receptive” messaging

Foursquare and Gowalla are the most well-known location based social networks.  They’ve been around for some time, but like Twitter before them, have now reached a Tipping Point of online social media conversation and debate.  Both were much discussed at the recent South by Southwest conference in Austin, as were location based services in general.

Are you signed up yet? To find out more about them, check out Crunchbase.  In a nutshell, both services use geo-location technology to pinpoint where you are.  When you log on via your mobile device, a window shows stores, restaurants, museums, cafes, etc. in your immediate area, and when you check in to one of these locations, you can automatically let friends and followers know, write a message or leave a comment, tip or rating.  You can also read other users’ comments about the location.

Foursquare also incorporates gaming elements through a system of badges that you earn when you become, for example, the most frequent visitor to a place, or have visited a certain number of new places.  As odd as it sounds, people really get into this and it obviously provides promotion and merchandising opportunities for businesses and retailers. Foursquare works with businesses to provide stats based on audience check-ins, so a local restaurant might offer a special deal to its “mayor” (the badge awarded to the most frequent visitor) and his followers to drive loyalty, increase frequency of visits, or motivate lapsed visitors to come back.  Businesses can also set up loyalty programs for customers to earn points every time they check in, redeemable against future purchases.  Those are just a couple of examples of how local businesses are using Foursquare to boost traffic and sales.  You can find more information on Foursquare’s information page for businesses.

Indeed, much of the discussion of around location-based services has been about their marketing value to small, local businesses.  But as these services develop and add on new features, they will become just as valuable for major brands and businesses as well.

An age-old tenet of traditional media planning is to reach consumers when and where they will be receptive to the message.  Indeed, one could argue that a major issue with the traditional one-way, one-to-many communications model of the last 150 years — aside from the fact that so much advertising was, and still is, tedious and boring — is that too many messages reached the wrong people, at the wrong place, at the wrong time.   Location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla can change all that.  What’s especially exciting is that these services can deliver those messages precisely at the moment when buying decisions can most likely be influenced and acted upon, at the point of sale.

Imagine you’re a mom, it’s Saturday morning and you’ve checked in at your local Tesco or Safeway using Foursquare.  Among your Foursquare friends and followers are other moms like you.  Let’s pretend Foursquare has an interface that allows you to list the categories and brands from whom you’re happy to receive information, as well as an opt-in function that lets you choose when you receive that information and when you don’t.  (It will happen soon enough!)  You opt in because this is precisely when and where you are receptive to hearing about the latest deal on diapers, the newest flavor variety of your favorite salad dressing brand, or a new recipe suggestion for preparing a quick dinner for your family that evening.

Some other ways Foursquare might help you out:

You point your iPhone at a new item you’re considering, and Foursquare immediately shows you comments and reviews from your friends or the broader Foursquare community.

You check in to Foursquare and you receive a personalized thank you message from Tropicana Orange Juice for buying Tropicana each of the last three times you went shopping at this location,  with a 50% off coupon for your next purchase.

Gerber Baby Food lets you know that 10 moms in your Foursquare network also buy baby food and if you all buy $5,00 or more of Gerber this week, you’ll all receive a buy 1 get 1 free offer the next time you visit the store.  You message your friends to let them know.

None of these functions are available yet, but it’s only a matter of time until these or others like them are.

Social media purists may find the notion of using Foursquare and Gowalla as a channel for marketing messages anathema.  Many would say that it’s fine for brands to participate in social media, but if they do, it needs to be in a genuine way, with a human voice, through personalized one-on-one conversations.  I agree that the possibility of the social web to enable more human, collaborative exchanges between people and the companies they buy from is one of the most exciting aspects of the new, post-broadcast age.  But it’s not the only way of doing things.  If a social media service empowers consumers to receive promotional messages from companies and brands that are of interest to them, where and when they want to receive those messages, and on top overlays that information with additional opinions and commentary from their peers, I don’t have a problem with that.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, one of the main reasons that people become fans of branded Facebook pages is that they want to learn about special offers, free samples and promotions.  So apparently consumers don’t have a problem with it either.

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Thoughts on a recent German social media debate

Recently a debate emerged among German social media mavens.  The question was whether social media can be successful when companies that use social media channels don’t respond to consumer comments or otherwise enter the conversation.  The debate was ushered in by a post from Mirko Lange on his talkabout blog entitled, Social Media Myth Buster: Successful Social Media Doesn’t Require a “Dialog” (Social Media Myth Buster: Es braucht keinen “Dialog” für erfolgreiche Social Media).

Two aspects of Mirko’s post bugged me.  First, he was fairly unspecific about defining “successful.”  It seemed simply to be the number of fans on Facebook or the number of followers on Twitter.  So one of his successful examples was Lufthansa Germany’s Twitter page.  Lufthansa has 20,000+ followers.  Is that a success?  Perhaps.  Some context would help.  How fast was the growth in followers?  How many of those followers actually engage with Lufthansa via Twitter?  On the face of it, it doesn’t look that good compared to Southwest Airlines, which has over 1 million Twitter followers.

The other point is that as far as I can tell, Lufthansa is indeed “dialoging” with customers via Twitter, much the way Frank Eliason has done with Comcast Cares, by identifying customers with problems and helping out.  One difference is that Frank identifies himself by name to leverage a key strength of social media, the opportunity for companies to behave like people, by having real people with real names engage on behalf of the company. As  Southwest’s Twitter bio aptly notes, ” Airplanes can’t type so @ChristiDay and @Brandy_King are piloting the Twitterverse!”

Nevertheless, I fundamentally agree with Mirko, as well as with Timo Lommatzsch, who, on the current edition of his Social Media PReview Podcast, which discusses Mirko’s post, points to the example of Die Zeit’s Twitter page, with nearly 25,000 followers.  Die Zeit is an erudite German weekly newspaper that covers a broad range of topics including politics, culture, economy and sports.  There’s no dialogue on their Twitter feed, it serves merely to inform followers of the online edition’s latest articles.  But one can imagine that these followers are the type of people who will retweet a post on Die Zeit to all of their followers, which is an effective way to spread the paper’s content across personal networks and potentially bring new readers to the site to the delight of the publication’s online advertisers.

Consider also that consumers aren’t as puritanical about demanding dialogue as social media “experts” assert.  I recall recently a study quoted by Shel Holtz on his For Immediate Release podcast.  It found that the main reason people become fans of brand Facebook pages is to find special deals and price-off promotions.

As long as a social media provides value based on how the community defines it — be it  special deals, product information, help with problems, or the pleasure of sharing one’s passion for the brand with others — the community will grow.

In writing this post, I remembered something I included in the “Who’s on the soapbox?” section when I started this blog in July, 2008.  It said, “I’m Steve Rothman … I have a passion for new media, social media, web 2.0 — whatever your preferred label for the way people are using the web to connect, share and empower each other on the things they care about. And that includes the products and services they buy.”  I didn’t write that those people necessarily had to include the company or the brand.  That’s as true now, as it was then.

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Social media? Let Mikey do it? I don’t think so

Many voices in the blogosphere are saying that 2010 will be the year that social media will move from “nice to have” to “must have” for brands.  Maybe it’s true.  But a conversation I heard this week on episode 85 of The BeanCast makes me think that CEO’s still don’t get what is happening here.

The topic of the conversation was the newly emerged position of community manager, who many companies are now putting in place to “manage” their online relationships with consumers, bloggers, etc.  (There must be a better term than manager.  Managing sounds pretty close to commanding and controlling, which is precisely what social media is not about, but that’s a whole different blog post.) It seems that in many cases these jobs are being assigned to junior people, just out of school, for salaries in the $20K range.  What that says to me is that the CEO is thinking, “Okay — there’s this Facebook, Twitter, blogger thing happening on the internet, I don’t really get what it’s about, but hey, it’s another way to get our message to consumers so let’s put the new kid on it who knows how to use this stuff.”

Mikey, our new online community manager

You’ve got to be kidding me.  The new kid?  The one with this least experience and the least understanding of what the company and the brand is all about?

Social media isn’t some hip new communications channel.  It is a different animal — an amazing, completely new and ever changing way for brands to interact and collaborate with their consumers and stake holders and address their needs.  What happens in social media is exposed to the entire online world and all it takes is one well connected blogger, enraged or enthused, for a company’s words and actions to be seen, discussed, praised or picked apart by everyone.

This person needs to know how to deal with a disgruntled customer, build a constructive relationship with an influential blogger, understand the complexities of how to be transparent without revealing confidential company or client information, work within the organization with all departments to guide them in understanding their role in social media and its benefit to the company.  He or she needs to understand strategy, and think creatively about how to integrate social media strategically with marketing, communications, customer service, internal communications, R&D and sales to achieve business objectives.

Scott Monty of Ford and Richard Binhammer of Dell, two social media evangelists within major corporations whose efforts have become case studies for innovative and effective social media engagement, aren’t kids.  They are seasoned business people who have been around the block a few times.

If you’re a CEO who thinks this social media thing is simply another communications channel, best handled by one of the kids in the organization just because he’s had a Facebook page since high school, you really need to think again.  Put somebody in place who not only gets the space, but has a few years under his or her belt in communications, marketing, branding building, customer relations or sales.  And who has gained some wisdom and experience in dealing with people and building relationships.

By the way, I’m available.  But not for $20,000.

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Pioneer Woman — how marrying a cowboy can turn you into an emerging web 2.0 superstar

The Pioneer Woman is Ree Drummond, a former city girl who met a cowboy, married him and ended up “in the middle of nowhere” with four kids on a cattle ranch.  Her original blog, which she started writing in 2006, has grown into a significant online media property.

As beautiful and polished as it looks — the photography and overall layout of the site are fantastic — and that fact that Ree clearly has a good instinct when it comes to creating a personal brand and public identity, she still manages to maintain her honest, down-home, “I’m just a wife and mother out in the boonies like you” soul.  Perhaps this, as well as her many recipes presented with easy-to-follow photos, is what keeps her estimated 2 million monthly readers (according to the LA Times) coming back to the site.  The photo archives of Charlie, the basset hound who thinks he’s a cattle dog, is just my favorite among many examples of the content on Pioneer Woman that keep it intimate and personal, indeed sometimes just down right corny.  (You can’t say that about Martha Stewart!)  It also helps that Ree has a style and a way with words that I suspect connects perfectly with her audience — like the way she refers to her husband only as Marlboro Man.

Pioneer Woman shows how web 2.0 enables us all to share our personal passions, lifestyle, thoughts and ideas with anyone, anywhere, and that even a mother-of-four, thousands of miles away from a media metropolis, can transform those passions into a commercial media property, while staying true to herself at the same time.

Still, it can’t be easy.  Wife, mother, household, 2000 head of cattle.  How does she do it?  It’s a challenge for me to write this blog at least once a week.  And the only animal (or child) around here is a parrot.  (Uh oh.  I hear him in the bathroom throwing the shower stopper around.  That means he wants to take a bath.  Gotta go!)

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From podcast to publication — the social media success story behind J.C. Hutchins’ The 7th Son

The 7th Son

I just received the first 10 chapters of J.C. Hutchins newly published thriller, The 7th Son: Descent, in a free, down-loadable “special edition” pdf.  It was sent to me courtesy of CC Chapman’s podcast Managing the Gray.  I say newly published, because the novel has been around for awhile.

Hutchins originally released it as a serialized podcast, also for free.  From those humble beginnings the story’s fan base spread through online word-of-mouth until it eventually caught the attention of a “real” publisher, St. Martin’s Press.  It is “now in bookstores everywhere,” as they say.

Hutchins’ web site, J.C. Hutchins Thriller Novelist, is highly interactive, providing links and downloads, updating fans on the novel’s progress —  e.g.  Amazon ratings, recent reviews and the like — and even has a section called “evangelize,” where fans will soon find tools for spreading further world of mouth.

It’s a wonderful case study in how online social connections can build a groundswell of support for an aspiring novelist’s work that eventually leads to publication by a recognized institution of the trade with access to an even wider audience. Interesting that despite everyone talking about the democratization of content and the wisdom of the crowd, the ultimate “legitimization” of a work of fiction, or for that matter non-fiction, still seems to be if it is picked up by an “old media” publisher and gets reviewed by the likes of  The New York Times and Publishers Weekly.  Why is that?  Deep down inside, do we still rely on the official arbiters of literature to tell us if something is good or not?

Despite the fact that Hutchins can now earn money on his work in book form, he continues to offer it for free as a podcast or pdf.  I admire his generosity and idealism, and I hope, for the sake of his bank account, that there will be enough readers who are willing to spend $14,99 to read the novel in what for many is still the most enjoyable format of all, words on a printed page between two covers of a book.

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General Mills goes social

Here’s the killer chart…


Picture 1

During the launch of the Fiber One Bar, General Mills could see a nearly exact correlation between weekly online postings and volume.  As Mark Roddicks, General Mills’ CMO, points out in his inspiring presentation General Mills Goes Social, it’s the kind of chart you can take to management to prove the value of consumer participation in the development and launch of products through social media tools.

General Mills has a stable of well-known, iconic food brands, including such favorites as Pillsbury, Cheerios, Green Giant and that venerable but ageless queen of the kitchen, Betty Crocker.  Back in the 40’s, the Betty Crocker brand received up to 3,000 letters a day from passionate homemakers.  Social communities built around brands have existed for decades.  Only now, thanks to today’s online social tools, General Mills can leverage the power and passion of those communities in unprecedented ways.

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Here’s just a few examples of how General Mills is “going social,” because, as Addicks says, the company has only recently started on this journey and continues to learn as they go.

General Mills regularly gets new products into the hands, and kitchens, of engaged consumers before they launch.  The company uses social media tools to encourage those consumers to talk about the product, share experiences and feed back opinions and suggestions.  Not all the feedback is positive, but that’s how the company learns.

Two tools they use for this are My Block Spark and Pssst…, which invite connected consumers and bloggers to participate and provide them with platforms to share and provide feedback.

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By leveraging communities in this way, General Mills builds early awareness and involvement among influencers, which facilitates fast word of mouth when the product actually launches.  Progresso Broth was launched through the Pssst… community with almost no support from traditional media.

One way General Mills gets the conversation going is by saying to consumers, here’s why we created this product, here’s how we think it works, tell us what you think.  Feedback can be in different forms, including video, and the ensuing dialogue provides rich insights for the product developers and food experts.

General Mills brands also support a number of causes.  The effectiveness of these programs has been enhanced through web 2.0 tools put in consumers’ hands.  The Yoplait “Save Lids to Save Lives” initiative in support of  Susan G. Komen for the cure saw participation increase by nearly 50% when women were provided with online tools to set up their own teams behind the program.

Addicks understands that going social with consumers with this degree of transparency can seem pretty radical to C-suite members who are used to a traditional tell and sell approach.  One way he suggests to get started is within the company itself.  One of the first things General Mills did was to create a common portal inside the organization, which enabled employees to form communities, discussion groups and interactive best practices.  This helped senior management understand the power of becoming social by demonstrating the power of the organization to help itself through these kind of tools.

Inspiring stuff.  You can see the presentation deck, as well as a video of Addicks presenting it, at the Business Building Blog.

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