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As e-mail filters get more intelligent and computer users routinely ignore the flashy banner ads plastered across the bottom of their Web page – companies need to find new ways to attract consumers online.
To this end, a growing number of firms are regularly harnessing social networking Web sites such as Facebook or MySpace, and tools such as blogs or Twitter as part of their overall marketing strategy.
For instance, at PR Web, a company that distributes press releases online, Facebook has been a useful tool for tapping into a well-educated and well-connected niche market.
Jiyan Wei, product manager at PRWeb, has become the company’s social media evangelist, creating a Facebook group and interacting with potential clients who join the group or post questions.
“It’s very casual, I’ll just post a message every once in a while to say: hey we’re going to be at this location with our booth – come check us out,” he said.
The challenge before marketers, said Wei, is how to appropriately and diplomatically engage users in conversations, without ticking them off.
For instance, members of the PRWeb Facebook group joined of their own accord and do not want to be spammed to their Inbox.
According to Wei, the key to marketing success on Facebook is to keep it casual and not send unsolicited messages. Facebook is all about individual interactions, not official corporate messages, he said.
However, the PRWeb executive admits this is just a small part of his firm’s overall marketing strategy. The company continues to use other tools and channels for 90 per cent of its initiatives, including direct marketing and e-mail campaigns.
While use of social networking in marketing initiatives is certainly gaining ground, there’s still much resistance to these tools even among senior corporate executives.
Fifty-five per cent of chief marketing officers at leading brands surveyed by Dallas-based marketing firm, Epsilon Data Management LLC, said they aren’t interested in incorporating social networking sites into their marketing strategies.
Only 10 per cent said they already use Facebook or MySpace as part of their overall strategy. Epsilon reports companies prefer to use other types of social media, such as Internet forums, e-mail or blogs – rather than Facebook or MySpace.
One social forum gaining in popularity is Twitter, an online tool similar to a blog, but that only allows updates of 140 characters or less.
According to HubSpot’s State of the Twittersphere report for Q4 2008, the number of Twitter users has grown 400 times in the year gone by, and 5,000 to 10,000 new users join each day.
Seventy per cent of Twitter users joined in 2008 alone.
Wei uses Twitter to discover what’s being said about his company and to research new trends in his field.
He said marketing, PR and tech professionals are all very active on Twitter so there is more business activity related to those verticals. “However I have a feeling it will grow horizontally into other verticals very soon.”
One big driver of social media growth could be the shaky economy.
Ninety-three per cent of marketing executives surveyed by Epsilon report the economy will have an impact on their marketing budget. Twenty-seven per cent identified social networking or word of mouth as potential tools they want to try in 2009 – ahead of traditional digital marketing campaigns.
All businesses should be searching social media Web sites and “listening” to what’s being said about them, according to Nathan Gilliat, principal at Social Target LLC – a Apex, N.C.-based research and consulting firm that focuses on social media strategies.
The first step, he said, is conducting a search of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn – any sites that could be talking about you. The second step is reacting by improving your online presence and responding directly to blogs.
“Inbound” marketing initiatives, such as search engine optimization, blogging and participating in social media, are more effective than outbound techniques, such as buying commercials, according to Mike Volpe, vice-president, marketing at HubSpot Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.
HubSpot offers inbound marketing tools and services.
Companies can learn a lot about public perception of their brand free of charge by searching social media sites, Volpe said.
Adding to discussions and directly responding to customer queries or complaints could generate positive word-of-mouth publicity about your business, he said. And many well-connected, tech-savvy people will blog about your services voluntarily.
HubSpot was able to attract 600,000 users to its site by creating TwitterGrader, a device that grades Twitter profiles.
The company was able to spread word about its product by writing a few Tweets and then relaxing – due to the vast contact list that got virally created.
The main incentive for using Twitter is it acts very quickly, Volpe said.
Most Twitter users are very active and check updates a few times a day, helping marketing messages be distributed efficiently, he said. “It’s really an effective PR tool for new brands and products, and a great way to get started in social media.”
Using TwitterGrader, HubSpot gained access to data on all its customers and this enabled the firm to publish the State of the Twittersphere report for Q4 2008 – outlining trends and traits of average Twitter users.
Social media sites, such as Twitter, probably have a smaller audience than Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn would, which is why it is important to try a couple venues, Volpe said.
“Be very active in a bunch of places where potential customers are. We like to say it’s not the size of your wallet but the size of your brain. Social media is not about spending money – it’s about being creative.”