Using Social Media Effectively

The following is a chapter from the book Pursuing Growth

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If your customers are going online for some of their information related to your product or service, you have the responsibility to ask yourself how you can be part of that process. I’m not saying that social media is the right answer. But it is prudent to ask the question.

Using social media effectively is incredibly difficult. A customer will seek out information silently from fellow consumers and also from potential suppliers.

Businesses have many different options to provide information online, but in most situations it is extremely unlikely that a potential customer will find that information. At most, your potential customer may use only one or two social networking sites for the purpose of researching your product, and you may not have access to your potential customer’s personal online network. The odds are stacked against you.

Social media as a tool is evolving and becoming a more important part of how people purchase most products and services. We need to learn as marketers. That does not mean we should be wasteful in our marketing expenditures. Rather, we should be careful about how we spend on social media, learn from what does not work, and build on the successes.

Let the conversation evolve

One challenge we face as marketers is that we do not control social media the same way we control traditional advertising. We’re used to controlling our message, such as when we place an advertisement in a newspaper.

Let’s say our company manufactures specialized software to help engineers design airplanes. It’s probably fair to say that engineers deeply involved in the aircraft design process are a relatively small and tight-knit community. We can assume that many of the people in this community share common interests related to work, and we have the opportunity to provide some useful information to them through social media sites such as LinkedIn or Twitter. One option may be to post an article or a video outlining some aspect of our software and share it through these sites.

In this example, what would we do if a person in that community watches our video and then comments that the software is ineffective? What recourse do we have? Many business owners are scared of interactions they do not control. That’s just part of the medium. Many people choose to ignore the odd negative comment (or reply to it directly, promptly, and respectfully) but are prepared to react to a crisis. There are different opinions on how to handle such situations, but the main point is that they will occur. Social media involves, after all, a discussion rather than a monologue.

Here’s the point. Effective use of social media stems from customers engaging in dialogue. Your promotions need to draw people into a conversation. Whether they simply forward someone else’s content or share their opinions, engagement is the goal.

Developing good content

Deciding how to connect with people through social media is very difficult. But once you understand how, the real magic happens when you create useful information for your potential customers. This is referred to as content.

The content you create must be directly relevant to your customer and be presented in an interesting way. That takes deep knowledge of who your customers are, what information they need, and what will appeal to them. It takes left- and right-brain skills. Developing good content that customers find useful is extremely difficult.

I have found three core questions to be highly valuable. First, what information do customers need? As a potential supplier, consider the questions your customers most often ask. Understand the information they are seeking out.

Second, where do customers get information? Just referring to the Internet is too broad. Consider whether they gravitate to customer-review websites, read articles and white papers on a topic, or seek information from their friends’ posts on Facebook.

Third, what content-based promotions can we create to get customers the information they need? The social media strategy will likely embody general awareness-building as well. But our goal should be to draw them to us in the purchase process. Tailor the promotions in a way that encourages people to interact, whether sharing the content with others or commenting on it.

There are many different types of content, each of which is well suited to a specific industry or company. Video is becoming extremely popular in many situations because it is so entertaining as a rich visual experience. White papers (basically, opinion papers a few pages long) can give valuable background to customers entering a purchase process. Infographics are usually highly visual onepage descriptions of a complex process or a few key pieces of information. There are many options, and they are constantly evolving.

Keep in mind that customers usually do not have a shortage of content. What makes your company’s content useful? Relevance. Embrace the principle that narrow is better and prepare content for a niche market. Don’t just produce a video on the top ten questions people ask when buying a new home. Focus the topic on the top ten questions that newlyweds ask when buying their first home. People are interested in content that is relevant to them.

Distributing content

You essentially have two ways to distribute your content. You can use a push or pull strategy.

A push strategy sends content out to people. In the realm of social media, this generally means you send a message or post content that is presented to a list of people who have chosen to connect with you through a social media site.

Push strategies can be highly effective. Some people have a large number of Twitter followers who are deeply interested in their opinions and the content they post. For example, an industrial robotic equipment manufacturer, Yaskawa Motoman Robotics, based in Ohio (@Yaskawa_Motoman), posts a variety of content on Twitter relating to robotics use. It has thousands of followers who are interested in keeping up to date with this information.

A pull strategy posts useful content that functions as a magnet to draw potential customers into your company’s sales process. This is difficult. The trick is that customers must be aware of the content. It’s a bit like setting up an information booth at the side of the road and hoping potential customers happen to stop by.

The strategy usually requires an exceptionally effective job of search engine optimization (SEO), which is ensuring search engines such as Google can direct people to your content. The process also involves posting the content where your customers can access it. Your own website is an obvious choice, but not all customers seek out useful information from their suppliers’ websites. Many customers search for information on YouTube or on consumer review sites. Or, in some cases, they rely heavily on content distributed by their friends on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Each situation is different. You need to know where your customers go for information and find creative ways for customers to engage with you.

If you own a retail store that sells running gear, your Facebook site likely will have information that builds the brand relating to an active lifestyle. You might post information on new products or recipes for healthy meals. If you offer free information (e.g., a downloadable article on preparing for your first marathon) to people who Like your page, this could be considered a pull tactic because you are creating an opportunity for customers to engage with your company. There are several variations to this qualifying-step tactic of Liking or Following your company on a social media site, such as offering electronic coupons or entering the person’s name in a contest.

Advertising on social media

In addition to posting useful content, companies like yours can pay to advertise on social media websites. But companies often lack clarity on how to advertise on social media. One reason is that advertising options on the social media sites are constantly evolving.

Banner ads were the popular form of advertising online in the early days, but now they are generally perceived to be less effective and several other options now exist. Each of these can be tailored to your marketing objectives, and many times the cost is directly related to measurable results. Twitter, for example, allows you to choose an objective for a specific advertising campaign. Your objective may be to engage with more people (e.g., you pay for your ad when people re-tweet information you sent out), to direct people to your website (e.g., you pay when people click on your tweet to be directed to your website), or to generate leads (e.g., you pay when a customer sends you their email address to get information on a product).

Although the cost of advertising on social media is generally based on results, it can be frustrating and confusing to price these advertising campaigns. Most social media sites use a bidding system to price their ads. You can set parameters such as the maximum you’ll pay for someone to click through to your website, or the maximum per day you’ll spend on the campaign. But the process is different than traditional advertising and takes some practical use to understand how to use it effectively for your own business.

Like all other forms of advertising, clarity improves results. Know what you want to achieve from your social media advertising campaign. Then you can choose your budget and tailor your message accordingly.

Building a Strong Brand

The following is a chapter from the book Pursuing Growth

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Branding is a term that all business owners come across but few truly understand. Branding in business is similar to branding on a ranch. You leave your mark on your customer’s mind.

What is a brand?

A brand is a reputation. This reputation is often represented by a name, term, symbol, or special design (or some combination of these elements) that is intended to identify a company or its product. The most effective way to accurately describe the strength of a brand is by the feeling you get when you see or hear all components of the company’s image truly represented within the brand. For example, McDonald’s has established a strong brand identity by evoking feelings representative of a fun and cost-effective family dining experience. The phrases, “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun” and “I’m loving it!” have staying power because they invoke similar feelings of what McDonald’s represents.

The company’s personality can also be considered a brand. It is shaped by corporate culture and defines what a company stands for. This is essentially the company’s internal brand. Often, the branding effort starts internally because employee contact with customers greatly defines a company’s external reputation.

When developing marketing strategy, external and internal brands are inseparable and we must view them as two sides of the same coin.

Purpose of branding

A strong brand identity is an effective way to stand out from competitors. If you do your job right, potential customers will know what you have to offer and think of you when the time comes to make a purchase. Your product’s name may even become universally used. Take Kleenex as an example. The actual term for the product category is facial tissue, but nearly everyone refers to facial tissue by the most popular brand name on the market.

A successful brand can provide benefits such as enhanced brand loyalty or an ability to charge a price premium. Owner-managed companies often find that they have built a strong following of customers who receive tremendous value from a company they have come to trust.

Defining your brand

Branding is the action of portraying the image you believe will attract your target market. When defining what your brand should be, consider why your customers purchase from you. Doing so is much more complex than it first appears. The trick is to clearly define what is important to your customers and then build your competitive advantage around meeting those needs more effectively than the competition does.

Once you have defined and established your competitive advantage, it should then be communicated through an appropriate message and tone and reinforced in all contact with the target market. For example, McDonald’s communicates its fun family atmosphere and fast, affordable food in everything from advertisements and layout of the store to the company’s pricing strategy.

How do I build a strong brand? 

When branding a company, product, or service, consider all elements that will influence the customer’s buying experience. Strategic marketing decisions such as the prices you set, your product attributes, and even where you choose to sell your products can have a direct impact on a customer’s opinion.

Brands are built largely through personal experience rather than promotions, because customers tend to trust their own experiences more than advertising.

Therefore, a significant component of your marketing strategy should relate to customer experience. You may be justified spending your marketing budget within your own company to help “live the brand.”

There is no doubt that advertising often influences the formation of a brand, but it can also play a role in sustaining the brand over time. This type of advertising is usually broad, image-based advertising. Walmart, for example, advertises everyday low prices instead of weekly specials.

When making advertising decisions, carefully consider how people will view your company. Imagine if BMW were to show a 16-year-old driver with green hair and a nose ring in a TV ad. This would not fit with the image of a typical BMW owner and could cause current BMW owners some concern that their status symbol is in jeopardy. BMW targets high-income adults and must reinforce this with every experience their customers have with the company.

Although it can take years to successfully build a brand, it can be easily destroyed. If Walmart suddenly started to sell high-end premium-priced furniture, its loyal customers would become confused and perhaps think that everyday low prices may not apply to everything in the store. Strategic marketing decisions such as price and advertising message are almost always interconnected.

Know your customer

The more you know about your customers, the more effective you will be at making marketing decisions. Who are you trying to attract as a customer, and what is important to that person? These questions are fundamental to your marketing effort whether you are selling industrial equipment to Brazil or cutlery in a mall retail store.

Why do these people buy? What is motivating them to purchase? Once you know the few key factors that influence purchase decisions, you can build those traits into your brand.

Knowing why customers buy has implications for companies planning to target new segments. If you plan to attract a new type of customer, should you adjust your brand image to include traits that are important to the new market segment? Ideally, yes. But practically this may not be possible. Honda faced this problem when launching a line of luxury vehicles in North America.

The Honda name was well respected as an economy car and likely would not be suitable in the luxury segment. The solution was to launch an entirely new brand under the name Acura. Most Acura owners realize they are driving a Honda product, but the fact it’s an Acura adds some credibility to the vehicle as a luxury car.

Know what is important

Define what your brand should mean to the customer. Again, it seems like a simple step but few business owners have a clear understanding of what they want their customers to know about their company. A company or product’s brand should emphasize a few key traits. Sure, you can emphasize many traits that might be valuable over time (e.g., quick delivery, competitive price, or great service) but a select few will truly differentiate you from the competition and will also be valuable to the customer.

Remember, different people view brands in different ways. Too often, marketers speak about their brand as if all customers in one market segment are clones. Every person walking down the street has been influenced in different ways. Some people have had good experiences with your company, and others have not. Some have seen your advertising and others have heard of your business only through word of mouth. Keep an open mind when trying to understand how the market views your brand.