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Social Media: Why do it? How do I do it? And how do I measure it?

Social Media is no doubt a hot topic overall; and likely in your own company as well. I’m sure a marketing or sales meeting hasn’t occurred in the last six months where terms like “twitter”, “facebook”, “blogging”, “linkedin” or “online communities” hasn’t surfaced – and with good reason:

  • According to statistic by Nielsen, Twitter attracted 7 million unique users in February 2009; up over 1000%+ from just a year ago…and keep in mind, twitter itself is only 2 years old. The growth is rampant; in fact recent “rumors” suggest they’ve already gone over 20 million in recent months; another 300% bump from February.
  • According to analytics company Compete.com, Facebook reached over 122 million monthly U.S. visitors in June.
  • According to their own data, LinkedIn currently has about 42 million members – up over 10 million in just 6 months.
  • Forrester Research recently suggested that by 2014; social media will be a $3 BILLION dollar business for advertisers (see my post here on Forrester Research: )

The growth in usage, adoption, experimentation and exploration is staggering and mind blowing.  To some degree, you could make a strong argument that the economy has pushed the growth of social media to go faster than it might have on its own – it’s free to the end-user and inexpensive for the active participant. You can’t really spend money with Twitter or Facebook today even if you wanted to; or at least the opportunities are very limited. Despite the growth; very few companies have the ability or interest to staff for a phenomenon that is viewed by many as still in its early incubation or exploration phase.

As a result, for many of us with full-time jobs that are increasingly demanding of our time and focus in this challenging marketplace, it’s easy to feel left behind, out of the loop, overwhelmed or uncertain even how to get started. At the same time some of us are unwilling or unable or, for lack of a better term, afraid to get involved; but by doing so we are literally putting our area of influence or expertise online at risk as someone else could easily “out publish” us using inexpensive social media platforms and tools.

I do understand that perhaps there are some of us “tinkering” with the sites that are out there and trying to “figure it out” with the limited slices of our attention and time we (or our employers) can afford; and I would guess there are no more than a handful that are fully engaged with social media for all it’s worth and trying to leverage the platforms for a bigger marketplace advantage. So what are the big reasons why we aren’t more involved in a trend that is not only growing, but growing astronomically, and is relatively inexpensive to participate with?

Based on my experience, it boils down to three main reasons:

  1. Time
  2. ROI
  3. Brand / Reputation Fear

Let’s review each reason in  more detail:

1. Time: People can easily feel overwhelmed with social media and unsure how to best allocate time and how to follow and engage in the community. The web is full of advice on how to get started or how to do things but the bottom line is this – we are all students. Some of us have just been studying a little longer.

Just like a student trying to quickly get as proficient on a topic as their peers – invest the time in your homework and studying. If you are someone with a limited amount of time; go deeper as opposed to wider with your limited time. Find a niche you are comfortable with – and you’ll get out of it what you put into it. What I mean by that is start with only one or two sites and build your expertise, and perhaps even a fledgling community from there. Perhaps your following won’t be as large or your reach as great by doing this – but by focusing your time and your energy on a smaller set; you’ll be ensuring the experience for your “community” will be far greater and you’ll learn a lot quicker and be able to tailor your content in the process.

Keep in mind that the world of social media is not “Field of Dreams” – where you “build” it and they will come – you have to work the room and participate and solicit feedback and participation and readership. The world of social media is full of what are called “lurkers” – people who read, but don’t comment or participate any other way – but they are just as valuable to you as those that comment and likely occur in far larger numbers.

I guess the best analogy I can give is to consider a trade show; we’ve all seen those folks who invested their time and energy to get to the show; but just don’t feel comfortable getting within arms reach of your booth and stand about five feet away and read and stare. So what do we do? For those of us comfortable with it and trying to maximize our show investment – we wave them in, offer treats or approach them more proactively and try to engage them in conversation as opposed to just sitting back and letting the booth and collateral do all the work. Same thing is true of social media; you’ll have to do a fair amount of reaching out to ensure your message or content is read.

A couple of other tips in regards to managing your time:

  • Respect the time people took to comment on your post but at the same time don’t overreact to comments you get or view them personally either – 1 or 2 comments for a posting or a link that gets dozens or hundreds of views isn’t indicative of how all readers / participants feel. Acknowledge and respond just the same the time the specific individual invested to comment.
  • Do a little homework or research on which sites you engage with. This should be no different than how you would decide the rest of your media buys like print or online websites.
  • -Does the site or the platform make sense for your brand/product?
  • -What are the demographics of the folks who are active here?
  • -What are the issues / topics that are already getting a lot of activity? Does mine content or idea “fit”?

2. ROI: Social Media may not be a large dollar investment, but it is a time and resource commitment – so the question of return on investment is inevitable. At the same time, let’s be honest – it’s difficult to measure the immediate success of Social Media. As I said above, we are all students of social media – not all these networks will survive, no one knows absolutely how to use them most effectively or efficiently and there will be another “new thing” someday, and with metrics like we are currently seeing on usage, that “new thing” will be sooner rather than later…so put your goal or expected ROI in perspective.

There’s a saying I recall out of a product strategy book I once read (title and author escape me) that went something like this :

 “There are two approaches to travel; pick a destination and proceed toward it or wander off in any direction at all”

If you are new to social media for your company – your ‘destination” should be the education itself; have your initial goal be the learning process – and what you are learning about is engagement preferences of your target audience. Once you’ve built a foundation of knowledge and a fledgling community; you can then start benchmarking your metrics and shooting for targets, which will vary based on your overall business goals and objectives. Because of the viral features of social networks (e.g. easy to forward, comment or pas along) and that people love to share with their co-workers, peers or friends; if you hit on an idea or topic that resonates – those metrics can spike fast. But…if you don’t hit homeruns right away – try again and keep trying since social media is easy to tweak and optimize. Don’t be afraid to try different things until you get it right.

Eventually you’ll have to measure / monitor something – so consider top line metrics you can quickly establish reports for like:

  • Views
  • Members / Followers
  • Web Traffic / Referrals etc.

Don’t overly invest in expensive analytical software for social media right away; figure out what makes sense to measure for your business – and remember; if social media is brand new to you – the numbers are only going to be going up for the first few months anyways; you don’t need expensive software or consultants telling you that…and charging you money for the obvious.

Keep your planning “lite”  and make quick marketplace refinements – in other words figure out at a high level what you need to do but monitor the marketplace continually and refine and adjust your strategy accordingly (see my post on lite planning here).

3. Brand Reputation Fear:  As I’ve been saying, Social Media may not be a large dollar investment, but it is a time and resource commitment and can have an impact on your online reputation or brand. For many of us, the fear of stumbling and creating a negative vs. positive impact for our company’s brand or reputation has us frozen from doing anything at all.

I guess my best advice is – get over it.

I’m not trying to downplay this at all; online reputation and brand management is critical – but you have to realize that prospects, customers, peers etc. are likely already talking about your company online and worrying about how you’ll be perceived is not going to change that – you have to get involved.

However how you engage with them or start conversations is critical to ensure the brand message and reputation stays positive. Whether you are creating a Facebook page, posting a blog, writing a twitter entry or responding to a review or another comment on a discussion board, the tone in your message needs to reflect that of your brand and more importantly, shows appreciation for individuals willing to share candid feedback, regardless of their tone. If the goal of our initial social media efforts is first about the learning and engagement process, then you have to respect that part of this process is learning more about your customers and how they relate to your company. Don’t approach posts or tweets or comments with an obvious angle to get folks to comment or behave in a way you want – that’s a transactional or traditional media mindset. Social Media is all about the exchange and the bi-directional conversations that result.

When was the last time you picked up a phone to call a friend and used a script?

Don’t over think about scripting your conversations with your customers, either. Of course there is balance to that as well – you can’t knee jerk and fly off the handle either but simply be open to new forms of communication that are more bi-directional in nature vs. broadcast messaging that you might already be more comfortable with. Someone who is properly engaged with you and feels you are having a conversation with them genuinely wants to hear from you and probably wants you to be successful as well.

I hope that by reading this post, you’re already a believer in social media and are now ready to begin to adopt new forms of communicating with your customers. If you are already active in social media, I hope this has helped you in some way get clarity on further thinking on your efforts or perhaps I’ve armed you with justification for your time with others in your company who might not yet be fully embracing of our marketplace realities.

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Understanding the Buying Process Online, Part IV: Consideration & Comparison

In this continuing series of posts, we’ve explored the online buying process from a sales & marketing perspective. In previous posts we’ve reviewed the various phases of the buying process including initial discovery through creating curiosity and awareness as well as how to get in front of those individuals already engaged in specific research and search activities.

In part IV; we’ll talk about the third phase of the buying process – consideration & comparison. This is the phase where your potential customer has completed most of their informational searches and research and is in the process of comparing various options.

Buy-Cycle Phase 3. Consideration & Comparison

At this stage, your potential customers have completed most of their informational searches and research and are now considering specific options, including your company. This is the prime opportunity for your company to differentiate themselves from the perceived comparable alternatives also under consideration. The customer is likely considering specific information from each alternative supplier related to specifications, cost, brands, and how the products or services make them feel in general. The reality is; most individuals online are trying to narrow and compare similar features first before they look for what makes one product different (better or worse) than the other. Websites that make this “comparison” easier like industrial directories, specialized search engines and online buyers guide play an increasing role for potential customers at this stage. Publishers of these resources recognize that end-users are looking for easier ways to compare suppliers and offerings side-by-side. Since a potential customer is starting to compare finer details and information; the information you subsequently make available via your website or information published on these resources becomes increasingly important. It’s also important at this stage for you to build trust that you should be the vendor they ultimately select. Hopefully as the potential customer first discovered you, you’ve captured the prospects’ contact information (or an email address at a minimum). Now it’s time to put it to use as part of a nurture campaign; which is essentially the continuation of the education process by providing value to your prospective clients, typically via email. Your goal is to keep the lines of communications open and one of the most effective ways to continue communicating with your prospects is with an email follow-up campaign. There are several “best demonstrated practice” resources available online for setting up a lead nurturing program; but they all have in common a desire to continue to reinforce that you know how to provide value to your customers and should be the vendor they ultimate decide to purchase from. Once they are considering and comparing you as a potential vendor; you want to make sure the information you are providing give them the specific detail that helps them fill in the gaps. You can do that by providing access to the technical information that may not have been relevant until now. You are basically seizing the opportunity to politely nudge and nurture them towards ultimately becoming a customer of yours. For example; as they go deeper into website; provide plenty of ancillary links to even more detail about not only your product line or solutions, but value-add services and client case studies.

Marketing Tactic Considerations:

Participation in directory products and programs that make it easier for end-users to compare similar suppliers should be a no-brainer if you are interested in reaching potential customers at this phase. Continued visibility in the search engines should also continue to be considered as well contextually-placed banner ads; provided these ads are placed alongside or with keyword or category search results to give your company a little extra visibility and differentiation among similar or related alternatives. As stated above; if you’ve been fortunate enough to gain earlier stage leads with contact information; using direct email nurture campaigns will increase your chances of ultimately securing a customer as well.

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Understanding the Buying Process Online, Part III: Specific Interest & Search

In part II of Understanding the Buying Process Online;  we reviewed from a sales & marketing perspective, the importance of being discovered as early in the buying process as possible. In that post we covered creating overall awarness, interest and even curiosity through push marketing online.

In part III; we’ll talk about the second phase of the buying process – specific interest and search. This is the phase where your potential customer is getting more proactive in their information research. We’ll also introduce more “pull” marketing tactics in addition to maintaining the “push” initiatives.

Buy-Cycle Phase 2: Specific Interest & Search

As potential customers “get serious” about their interest in a topic; they begin to become more proactive and specific in their research online and potentially more urgent in their need for relevant information or solutions. Various research studies, surveys and opinions indicate that b2b professionals go online first anywhere from 85-95% of the time they have a specific interest or need.

In most cases, their activity begins on a search engine (either a general search engine such as Google or Yahoo!, or a B2B search engine such as Globalspec, Business.com, Knowledgestorm etc.). The exact percent of individuals who use a search engine at this phase varies greatly from study to study; with ranges from 65 – 85%; however no study pegs this number at “100%”; meaning resources like industry portals, community sites, B2B sites and vendor websites are still the first choice option for some professionals; but search engines remain the choice of the majority.

As a result, at this stage most marketers put the emphasis of their online budgets against search engines. However, too often the “last click” from a search engine gets all the credit for ultimately creating a sale, even though the conversion was the outcome of multiple influences over time. A study by the Atlas Institute titled “How Overlap Impacts Reach, Frequency and Conversions,” asserts that 90 percent of the clients that converted were reached by placements other than the last ad seen, and that far too often the proper credit for the sale is inappropriately given to search. The study found that two out of three clients who eventually took a responsive action were reached by ads across multiple portal sites before actually going on to ultimately make a purchase. To understand how the credit for the sale is “unfairly” being attributed to Google; consider this “offline” analogy:

You’re headed to the supermarket to buy some food and on your way in you see the big sign in the window advertising Hamburger for $3.99 a pound. You need some anyway and it was on your “list” so you buy it. In the online world, which measures the last ad seen, that sign alone would be given credit for your purchases in the store. But it’s quite likely that you were going shopping in the first place because you saw something in the weekend circular that you wanted to buy or maybe you heard a radio ad or your spouse asked you etc. Under the last-ad-seen model, the circular ad is worth nothing and everything else far less than the ad for hamburger hanging in the storefront window. Using this analogy; you can see the danger of relying on the last ad seen as not all advertising is intended to be immediate direct response; and the same can be said for online advertising.

Marketing Tactic Considerations:

Based on the overwhelming use of search engines by potential customers in this phase; search engine campaigns (both paid and unpaid) should be considered to ensure you are visible when individuals are searching by keywords. You should also continue to consider

e-newsletter campaigns to targeted prospects and customers and targeted banner advertising on industry portals and b2b sites to ensure your message is getting in front of individuals using these resources to find solutions to their problems and answers to their research questions. These types of tactics are more often associated with the term “pull marketing”; as you are attempting to pull and attract “web surfers” to your website when they have a need vs. “pushing” your message to them and trying to stimulate a need.

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