The growing global chatter on web-based social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter has only been matched by the hype surrounding its potential marketing value. A community of analysts, experts, consultants and bloggers has sprung up to encourage and inform businesses about the practical and profitable implications of the social media trend. We ask three such experts for tips and how they see the future of social media marketing.
The Ad Man - Tony Gardner - Saatchi DGS
Tony Gardner heads ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi's digital team and is chairman of the Communication Agencies Association of New Zealand's Digital Leadership Group.
The group recently commissioned Nielsen research into the attitudes of New Zealand businesses towards social media marketing.
Seventy per cent of the survey's respondents believed social media allowed businesses to develop more meaningful one- to-one relationships with customers, but 84 per cent planned to allocate less than 5 per cent of the organisation's marketing budget on social media activities this year.
Gardner says the results are an indication that the business community still sees difficulties in quantifying the platform's costs and benefits.
"The biggest barrier is a lack of understanding in the [social media] space and the second biggest was a lack of internal resources - it's not a lack of awareness, it's just learning about it and putting resources into it."
One social media lesson Gardner has learned first-hand is that if something works, repeat it. "Some things fail dismally, some social initiatives aren't a failure but they could be bigger, but when something seems to be taking off, get in behind it and run with it."
That's why planning for a campaign has to be more flexible than for traditional channels, but that's also the beauty of social media, Gardner says.
Saatchi DGS used this approach with the New Zealand Rugby Union's Scott On Tour campaign during the All Blacks' northern hemisphere tour last year.
Scott McLaren was selected by All Black sponsor Telecom to follow the team around, all the while posting exclusive content for thousands of Facebook fans and Twitter followers.
He played golf with Sean Fitzpatrick and went go-karting with the All Blacks, among other envy-inspiring activities. Gardner says much of what happened wasn't set in stone from the beginning, but the team was able to take advantage of opportunities as they arose.
The campaign was so successful for Telecom that the company enlisted Scott to host another event on home soil - Raglan's black sand, actually - with the All Blacks and a group of contest winners.
Gardner's other tips for budding social media marketers include listening to the target market and figuring out how a brand can provide value to that particular community.
"Social media's very much about giving not taking - so identify what you need to give, " he says.
The Consultant - Hayden Raw - Hamr and The CommonRoom
Hayden Raw also recognises the importance of the "two-way" social media conversation.
With a design studies degree and a postgraduate diploma in consumer and applied sciences, including a research paper on social networking, Raw then spent two years as a lead web and game designer.
"We wanted to get players from just playing the game and turn them into actual customers buying premium versions or extra levels.
"I apply the same thinking to businesses: what gets people so immersed in a brand that they get to a point where they want to make a purchase or start spreading word about a brand?"
In January 2009, aged just 24, he started his own consultancy, Hamr Ltd, and began to put his knowledge of web-based social interaction to work.
Now working as part of a collective of young creative consultants called The CommonRoom, Raw is adept at promoting and furthering his knowledge through blogging and social networking.
He blogs, tweets and networks from his iPhone constantly throughout the day, receiving personal notifications every time his name or company is mentioned online. It gives him a chance to respond immediately or merely monitor a conversation - something businesses need to consider when tracing their own web mentions, he says.
"It's hard to accept the worth of the two-way conversation when it brings a lot of anxiety and pressure for the business. It's making them a lot more transparent and that can be really scary.
"It's about weighing up whether your presence in social media works well and whether you can mitigate what's going on if you should need to, or whether you let these people have their own comments and you take a sideline role."
But Raw is committed to showing businesses the benefits of having a social media presence by relating the intangibles of brand awareness and sentiment back to sales and profits.
To do this he believes in the personal touch: he says a skilled human interpretation is vital to planning and assessing a social media campaign. For instance, deciphering the slang, sarcasm and uniquely Kiwi phrases is a tough job for an algorithm, Raw says.
"If you're trying to measure something like sentiment, you can't do that through a machine - there are programs that do it but they only get it 80 per cent right.
"You really need the human eye to read whether the tweet 'this is cool shit' means it's good or it's bad. If it's an algorithm it's probably going to read 'cool' and 'shit', cancel itself out and just record a neutral."
Small to medium-sized businesses must embrace the worth of branding if they are to fully capitalise on their online spend in a relatively cost-effective way.
"As social media develops, we're finding more ways to relate it back to return on investment and that's starting to entice a few more people because they can see a little bit of value in it.
"If you can get them with that as a hook then you can usually start to educate them on brand and they get the idea that intangibles can relate to profits."
The Social Media Blogger - Richard MacManus - ReadWriteWeb.com
In 2003 Wellingtonian Richard MacManus started blogging about, well, blogging. In 2010, his website is the world's 10th most popular blog, according to the algorithms at Technorati.com. It has over 2.4 million page views per month and 275,000 regular news feed and email subscribers. His early intrusion into the discussion of Web 2.0 (the name for the collaborative and social nature of internet applications) spawned a reputation on which MacManus has recruited an international team of writers and maintained a successful business model.
"That's a big reason why ReadWrite Web took off, because it was one of the earliest blogs discussing the trends and the leading products, so we caught the wave. Probably towards the end of 2005 I really knew that I was on to something because Web 2.0 had become quite popular.
"A site like ReadWriteWeb has built a reputation at this point and people know that when they come to our site the information is high quality. There are a lot of social media cowboys out there but they're pretty easy to spot if you do just a little bit of research."
Now the site is beginning to attract a more mainstream audience as the marketing departments of bigger companies become interested in online and social media tools, he says.
Companies that pitch their web technology to RWW's writers and reviewers put emphasis on demonstrating their compatibility with social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
RWW also began publishing paid-for Premium Reports last year, the first of which delved into the recent phenomenon of online community management - an increasingly popular position within consumer-focused companies.
"Scores of people are being hired to specialise in interfacing with online communities for businesses and other organisations large and small, " says the report.
"Many questions remain unanswered. There is no clear consensus on job descriptions, return on investment, the appropriate balance between marketing and customer service or the best way to deal with troublesome community members.
"The people formerly known as 'customers' now play a different role in almost every business, and so new business roles are emerging in response."
MacManus says it's just one business concern among many which are becoming common in global markets and he's confident RWW's niche will remain a trove for information-seekers and web trendsetters for years to come.
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