“Social is not just a bolt-on marketing channel. It will have true business-wide impact,” says Accenture’s Tech Vision Report for 2012.
The impact is already there to see: in the United States, Facebook has become the dominant tool for communication to such an extent that universities have stopped issuing e-mail addresses to their students, and marketers are using sentiment analysis conducted in online forums and Twitter feeds to inform product development, writes Eric Edelstein, CEO of evly.com.
In South Africa, although most enterprises have Facebook pages and Facebook fans, only a few are gaining any measurable business value from them.
“It’s time that we apply the same rigour to social media that we use in monitoring Web sites,” says Edelstein. Hits or page impressions may stroke egos, but unless they’re contributing to the bottom line they serve no purpose.
Too many companies with a “social media strategy” are all social and no strategy. If users are going to commit time and scarce resources to using a platform like Facebook, clear goals are essential. These goals are likely to fall into one of three areas where social media can benefit the business: virality; engagement or entertainment; and business value.
“Going viral” is what most business owners are primarily interested in. Hitting the mysterious sweet spot that prompts thousands of people to start sharing content with their friends can have an incredible impact on brand awareness.
But it’s important to capitalise on the awareness. If the goal is going viral, users should do everything in their power to grow “likes”, fans or hits to a Web site or forum. Games, competitions, photo sharing and other forms of interaction are the easiest way of ensuring that fans draw more fans to a page.
Even social media veterans battle with the question of how to keep social media audiences engaged in the long term. True engagement means that an audience has formed an attachment to a brand through consistent interaction– a key objective for any brand marketing effort.
Simply posting inane questions – “what did you have for breakfast this morning, Facebook fan?” – or endless graphics from the ad department will only irritate followers. If users hope to succeed, they need to find out what interests the audience and start a conversation, actually listening to current and potential customers.
Business value
Social media presents an additional opportunity that only a few have learned to exploit: harnessing communities to create products and services tailor-made for themselves.
As a wine maker, hoping to launch a new wine, users could start by asking the community whether  they should cultivate Chenin Blanc or Viognier, Cabernet or Pinot Noir. Then offer a vote on bottle shape and colour; then hold competitions to name the wine and design the label.
Why not go a step further? Ask them where the wine should be sold, and for how much. In the end, users will have drawn the community into the creation process to such an extent that they feel as though they are part-owners of the final product. They become part of the brand story – and a business can’t buy better engagement than that.
This kind of deep engagement with the target community requires some level of technical development. Simply putting something on a Facebook wall has no viral value – but Facebook’s rules will not allow users to upload a feature such as a competition without using a third party app.
Adding external functionality allows tremendous flexibility to create campaigns and projects that will draw the audience in, and also give users the analysis and management tools they need to make the system work.
One popular tactic is to ask users to post pictures of themselves doing something remarkable with a product, then ask the rest of the community to choose a winner. This is a great way to get something to go viral. But doing this properly requires a much more sophisticated voting and management system than Facebook on its own can provide.
Another successful approach is to ask for ideas and input: how can the business improve the customer experience, where should the next branch go, what is the biggest gap in the product line?
The trick here is not to stop at the question – users need to assess the answers, find a way to choose winners, actually implement the ideas and provide constant feedback to fans along the way.
Think twice before building bespoke apps, though. Development is always more complex and expensive in reality that it appears at the planning stage. There are existing third-party apps that can do practically anything users could imagine, are already bug-tested and can be implemented in weeks. Users will need a strong business case indeed to justify going it alone.
Here’s the takeaway: a stagnant social media presence is a brand liability. But once users implement a strategy with clear goals, and assemble the correct tools to engage, entertain and research their market, they are far more likely to draw a tangible business benefit from their fans.