Today’s Top Marketers Are Translators, Publishers of Utilities

You can’t control customers anymore. You need to enter the conversation or risk becoming an irrelevant brand. And when you start conversing, you must be transparent and humanize yourself. You need to be monitoring the pulse of your brand image, mapping customers’ social graphs and architecting personas. Sound familiar?

You can’t control customers anymore. You need to enter the conversation or risk becoming an irrelevant brand. And when you start conversing, you must be transparent and humanize yourself. You need to be monitoring the pulse of your brand image, mapping customers’ social graphs and architecting personas. Sound familiar?

But rather than look at these typical Web 2.0 statements as valid, let’s question them at the core. No, you haven’t lost control of your customers. No the conversation they’re having about you isn’t really new … it’s just amplified and expedited by the social Web. Your brand image is “humanized” and you are honest with customers.
The truth is that what social media gurus and content marketing experts are offering as business advice is often outside of the context of a very important question:

“How can I use digital media to create sales, better products and improved experiences for my customers?”

Many social experts are well-intended but selling the wrong answers to the right questions.

If we continue to believe the hype-and-spin—that the rules of business have forever changed—we risk believing that engaging, tweeting and friending is more important than making sales or capturing leads. Or believing that somehow all we need to do is “do social media” and the sales will roll right-on-in.

Creating sales and leads using the social Web demands we see the big lie as a lie: The fundamental rules governing your business have not changed! There is no social media revolution … just a chance at evolution.

Leading social marketers are now translators. They’re discovering customer need, analyzing it, feeding it back into marketing programs and amping up optimization—generating more leads, more often.

The opportunity is to discover hidden customer need, tonurture and capture it by publishing and by creating knowledge-based utilities. That’s how I see it. How about you?

How to Select a Social Media Agency or Consultant

Social media agencies and consultants insist that following your customers into social spaces is a smart idea. Yet it’s actually an incomplete idea, unless you have a clear means to capture demand and convert it to sales. So, it pays to make sure you have a list of specific interview questions in hand when choosing a social media agency or consultant. That’s why I’m giving you some gems that really work.

Social media agencies and consultants insist that following your customers into social spaces is a smart idea. Yet it’s actually an incomplete idea, unless you have a clear means to capture demand and convert it to sales. So, it pays to make sure you have a list of specific interview questions in hand when choosing a social media agency or consultant. That’s why I’m giving you some gems that really work.

Remember, the answer to selling more with social media is this: Starting conversations that are worth having and conversing in ways that generate questions that you have answers to. The rest is occasionally (when relevant) connecting those answers to your products/services. This is how to generate customer inquiries using social media. Your agency, freelance provider (or employee) must grasp and practice this. Let’s find out how to make sure they do.

Question Your Consultants
Overzealous “digital rock star gurus” say the social Web has revolutionized everything. We’re told to listen to and engage with customers. But what do we do with what we hear … and when does engaging connect to sales? Does it at all? As David Ogilvy himself reminded marketers decades ago “we sell or else!”

The nature of your relationship with social media agencies and consultants should be to question. Why? Because so many are questionable in terms of the results (or lack there of) they deliver!

Be Sure They’re Producing Behavior
“You don’t sell someone something by engagement, conversation and relationship. You create engagement, conversation and relationships by selling them something,” says Bob Hoffman, (“The Ad Contrarian”) CEO, Hoffman Lewis.

Read that again and notice how it flies in the face of what we’re being told to do by most social media agencies and consultants. Notice how logical this simple truth is.

Agencies and consultants that are moving the needle are reaching beyond attracting customers for clients. They’re generating leads using three practical success principles. They’re aligning social marketing with sales by:

  • Solving customers problems with social media like Facebook
  • Producing behavior by designing each social interaction to produce it—always, without fail
  • Translating needs of customers and using insights to create more behavior, more leads/sales

It’s important to consider the current social media marketing activities of the agency or freelancer you’ll hire. Everything they’re doing to “join the conversation” (tweeting, blogging, posting updates on Facebook) must be talking with customers, not at them. They must be truly interacting. Making social marketing produce behavior is the first step. Your agency needs to understand what a call to action is and practice this approach.

Ask Tough Questions
Most importantly, press your marketing consultants, ad agency reps and employees to answer business questions first. Ask them to do it without using words like traffic, engagement or buzz. Make them squirm.
In the end you should be getting answers to the following questions:

  • Is the agency hiring employees based mostly on tactical skills or ability to create tangible results?
  • Does the agency ask the right questions of us? And are they embracing or avoiding our questions?
  • When they discuss successful client cases (in their past) are they interacting with customers intimately—or are the stories more about posting and tweeting into the ether?
  • If they’re interacting with customers/prospects is it organized and purpose-driven? Are their tactics working in harmony or apart from (competing with) each other?
  • What actionable information does each customer interaction produce and where does that information go?
  • What’s done with it (or not)? Do interactions produce actionable information? Do they connect to a lead nurturing or follow-up process?
  • Are their tactics connecting with a strategy that pushes customers down the sales funnel using the collected information?

Social media marketing is a necessary component of being online. But merely “being on Facebook and Twitter” won’t generate leads and convert sales unless you hire people who are focused on purpose-drive social media campaigns. Be sure to ask the tough questions when interviewing them. Good luck!

10 Tips to Help Grow Your Twitter Followers

This past Labor Day weekend saw Republican presidential candidates hit the campaign trail, and Twitter was buzzing with location updates, photos and 140-character sound bites. While many of the candidates boast huge Twitter followings, several have come under criticism for the authenticity of their numbers.

This past Labor Day weekend saw Republican presidential candidates hit the campaign trail, and Twitter was buzzing with location updates, photos and 140-character sound bites. While many of the candidates boast huge Twitter followings, several have come under criticism for the authenticity of their numbers.

In fact, a recent review of Newt Gingrich’s followers by PeekYou, a social search company that matches online identities through publically available information, found that only 106,055 out of 1.1 million of his followers were legitimate. Similar results were found for other candidate’s followers, but at much lower rates. Mitt Romney was found to have 26 percent real followers, Michelle Bachman had 28 percent and Tim Pawlenty had 32 percent. With that in mind, here are some best practices for keeping it real when it comes to growing your number of Twitter followers:

1. Mine the database. As always, the best place to start is with your customers. Leverage the knowledge you have about existing customers and prospects in your database and reach out to them communicating the benefits of following your brand on Twitter. Consider sending an email campaign to acquire new subscribers. Remember to tag all existing promotional campaigns, newsletters and service email communications with your social communities.

2. Listen and follow. Leverage listening and monitoring tools such as Radian6 to find out who’s already talking about your brand. Follow them to keep the dialog going and be sure to recognize and thank those that retweet or @mention you.

3. Leverage social tools. Look for and engage key influencers to help spread the word about your brand. Helpful tools include wefollow.com, which helps you to find key influencers within your industry or topics related to your brand. Use Klout and PeerIndex scores to identify who are the most influential. Also look at Twitter’s “Who to Follow” tab for some contextually relevant suggestions on an ongoing basis.

4. Hashtags, advertising tags and Twitter ads. Include hashtags pertaining to popular topics and conversation threads to ensure users interested in similar topics can easily find you. Tag TV, radio and print advertising with your social communities. Use that opportunity to highlight exclusive content prospective followers may find there.

Twitter has and will continue to develop new opportunities to help marketers call greater attention to their brand. The most recent announcement includes Twitter’s expanded advertising program, which allows brands to display ads to Twitter users who are following a particular type of company within a vertical niche. This program is similar to promoted tweets highlighted in a user’s timeline.

5. Directories. List your Twitter account in directories such as Twibes.com, TweetFind.com and Twellow.com. Consider building lists on key communication streams so potential followers with similar interests can find you easily.

6. Search tags, bios and backgrounds. Create a bio with a clear description of your brand and the kind of content you plan on posting. If you have several Twitter accounts serving different purposes, make it easy for users to find those as well by listing them or creating a custom background with the address. Add social links to paid search terms to increase visibility and visitation for your social communities. In addition, be sure to promote your social communities on your website. Include your Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and other communities on each platform. Better yet, use the strengths of each community to create a conversation flow — e.g., break news on Twitter and ask folks to join the conversation on Facebook.

7. Partnerships and sponsorships. Leverage and cross-promote key partnerships and sponsorships. Retweet, @mention and build a dialog with these partners; become a resource for their followers as well.

8. Unique content. Offer followers unique content they can’t find elsewhere. Grant followers “first to know” status, which will keep them tuning in and engaged. Consider building Twitterviews if you have access to individuals that will resonate well with your followers. Challenge users with trivia and reward those who actively engage with recognition. If possible, offer the chance to win prizes.

9. Engaging conversation. As we all know, the best way to grow your followers is to engage your audience with entertaining and valuable content. Ask and answer questions; encourage people to tweet their thoughts and opinions on key issues; address concerns; ask for feedback and input; and be sure to thank those that engage your brand by either direct messaging them or giving a public shout-out for their contribution. Build a communication calendar around engaging content ideas and find a unique voice. By showcasing your most engaged followers, you’ll create an army of advocates for your brand that will help accelerate your growth.

10. Analyze and focus. Leverage social campaign management tools to analyze consumers’ reactions to your content. Create content categories such as news, articles, events and promotions to track responses. Adjust the mix of these categories based on the feedback you receive from your community.

In addition, use your social media campaign management tool or free tools like friendorfollow.com to see who you may be following but isn’t following back. This will help you keep your follow-to-following ratio in check. With a little analytics and creative writing, you can optimize your voice and ultimately your results.

Twitter remains an evolving medium. While most brands have their share of followers who are inactive, there’s much they can do to grow and improve engagement. By paying careful attention to best practices and creating content that’s valued by consumers, you’ll be well on your way to creating a vibrant and engaged community of brand advocates.

Email Marketing is the Sticky Stuff of Digital Conversations

Email marketing is no longer one size fits all. It’s part broadcast, part transaction-driver, and part loyalty and engagement aid. In fact, because of this diversity of roles, email has become the glue by which marketers start and nurture conversations with subscribers and customers.

Email marketing is no longer one size fits all. It’s part broadcast, part transaction-driver, and part loyalty and engagement aid. In fact, because of this diversity of roles, email has become the glue by which marketers start and nurture conversations with subscribers and customers.

Glue? Is that good? I think so. Because email marketing communicates with your eCRM database and connects marketing campaigns with data at the individual subscriber level, it’s become a powerful way for marketers to connect across customer touchpoints, even other channels. It’s become “conversational glue.”

Consider this glue to be a series of messages that nurture and engage consumers over time. Marketers already aim to do this. They create content and messaging that reaches customers and prospects over time, with a purpose that’s meaningful to customers. Most likely, the conversation component (i.e., each individual message) drives an action or interaction with the customer. While not every email needs to drive a click to be effective, if you’re engaging in conversation it must be a two-way dialog. This means the timing of the messaging and the content encourage higher response.

There are many ways that marketers collect data in order to customize experiences. Consider what you have at your disposal: past response data, online forms, surveys, sales teams, competitive analysis, social communities (including comments on your blog) and web analytics. Understanding the key drivers of response will help you focus on the things that matter most. For example:

1. Post-purchase triggered messages, like those from Amazon and Williams-Sonoma, encourage suggested follow-up items. That alone isn’t a conversation, so turn that post-purchase request into a conversation by offering testimonials from others who have purchased the follow-up product. Provide helpful tips from your product experts or merchandisers, or even invite the customer to join a product-owner community.

You can still suggest related products, it’s just not the sole purpose of the communication. A colleague received a “personal” follow-up from a sales associate she met during her purchase at Neiman Marcus. Now that’s a conversation starter!

2. Sign up for a B-to-B event and what do you get? An invitation the following week for the same event — sometimes at a better deal. An order confirmation or download receipt isn’t a conversation. This period of anticipation — post sign-up and pre-event — are actually great times for conversations. Engage participants with experts by sending provocative insights to be shared at the event, and collect feedback in advance that you can use during the event to tailor the experience. While you do that, offer help for hotels, travel, networking, etc. Wrap the conversation around those helpful informational messages.

How do you do this? It starts with data. If you don’t have a campaign management tool integrated with your database, you need to prioritize the data elements that will power the most relevant conversations and import that data to your email marketing tool. That data isn’t as timely or rich, but it will get you on your way. Perhaps it could even help you make a business case for better segmentation and campaign management tools. Create the content up front so that you know the whole conversation. But if subscribers aren’t engaging, don’t keep talking. Allow those who aren’t interested to drop out of the series.

Test everything — content, images, offers, presence of navigation and secondary offers, cadence, timing, and message length. Even subject line testing will help you improve results and guide your segmentation going forward as you learn more about your audience.

Successful conversations require a deep commitment to subscriber interest. Let’s be honest: Self-interest and business pressure often result in low relevancy for subscribers, the very people you’re trying to engage in conversation. Often there’s a disconnect between a marketer’s desire to have conversation and a subscriber’s willingness to converse. Select your opportunities carefully. Marketer must become advocates for their subscribers, and not just for altruistic reasons. Relevancy improves response and revenue.

Don’t forget to include your landing pages in the conversation. Continue to offer ways to respond, interact and provide feedback. Social elements can help here as well. Think of landing pages as a continuation of the conversation.

What are you doing to start and nurture conversations? Let me know how you’ve successfully improved engagement and response by posting a comment below.

Building Your Facebook Community

In July, 2010, Facebook announced that more than 500 million people worldwide were actively using the social media site to connect with family, friends and, yes, increasingly, brands. While Facebook continues to evolve as a marketing platform, a growing number of marketers are looking to leverage this channel to engage consumers and build communities. But what are some of the secrets to success, and how can you leverage these best practices to build a powerful community of brand advocates?

In July, 2010, Facebook announced that more than 500 million people worldwide were actively using the social media site to connect with family, friends and, yes, increasingly, brands. While Facebook continues to evolve as a marketing platform, a growing number of marketers are looking to leverage this channel to engage consumers and build communities. But what are some of the secrets to success, and how can you leverage these best practices to build a powerful community of brand advocates?

Listen. Understand. Then frame the conversation.
Before attempting to develop a full Facebook fan page for your brand, first determine the nature of the conversation between your brand and its customers. When it comes to framing the conversation, the brands that build successful Facebook communities take their cues from their customers and don’t try to dictate or dominate the relationship. They do this by listening. Follow these tips to tap into multiple listening sources to uncover shared passions:

Brand audit. Type your brand name into Facebook’s search bar to take a pulse of the nature of the conversations already taking place about your brand.

Leverage traditional market research. Collect information about how your customers use social media, and what kind of content and conversations are important to them. Survey your customer base through database marketing, website intercept surveys and third-party research panels. Use focus groups to drill down into the attitudes and particular content, features and functionalities that will set you apart.

Listening tools. Use powerful monitoring tools to filter the immense amount of discussions and activity surrounding your brand, and to identify opportunities and key areas of interest.

Acquire and grow: Build your fan base. So you’ve identified a shared passion that will underpin your general community framework. Up next: building your base. The best acquisition strategies leverage existing customer touchpoints as well as opportunities within Facebook’s ecosystem. Take the following steps:

  • secure a vanity URL and make it easy to be found;
  • clearly define the benefits of joining your page;
  • invite existing customers via email;
  • offer something unique or exclusive, giving those who like your brand a reason to visit, engage with and recommend your page;
  • test different placements of the “Like” button across your existing digital touchpoints;
  • include your Facebook page’s link on relevant paid search terms;
  • include Facebook URLs/tags on traditional advertising efforts (e.g., print, TV, radio);
  • “favorite” related brands; and
  • test Facebook advertising.

Stir the pot: Engage your fan base. Once you’ve acquired fans, create a compelling experience that keeps them engaged and actively participating. Keep in mind that engaging your fans is a journey, not a destination. Do the following to keep fans engaged:

  • provide them with unique access to special content and/or offers;
  • create and test applications like polls, trivia, simple games and widgets, making sure the underlying subject of those applications syncs with the shared passion of your community;
  • shower your fans with public recognition;
  • encourage user-generated content;
  • rotate and target content (e.g., geo-posts) to keep it relevant;
  • think internationally; and
  • adjust your content strategy accordingly.

Build trust. Being open isn’t always easy. Many brands shy away from social media out of fear that their fans and followers may say something negative or turn on them. Deal with issues and problems in an open, transparent way. In fact, if you’ve done a good job offering value and engaging those who like your page, you may find they’re your biggest defenders. To build trust with your fans, do the following:

  • post a comment policy;
  • remove spam;
  • be transparent and authentic;
  • remain calm and think before you act (i.e., respond/post);
  • train and communicate your goals with those responsible for managing/engaging fans; and
  • build a corporate policy and communicate that policy internally so employees understand how to engage consumers in a transparent manner.

Have fun: Analyze and optimize. So, how do you know if you’re doing a good job? Tracking and analytics will help you get a handle on your page’s performance. Try the following tracking tactics:

  • use unique tracking codes for Facebook posts;
  • leverage Facebook Insights to understand activity and usage;
  • identify brand advocates and tag them in your database — you may even want to consider rewarding them for their support with bonus points; and
  • communicate your learnings and institutionalize them.

Finally — and perhaps most importantly — don’t lose sight of the fact that Facebook is an evolving platform. No one person can keep up with all the developments, so make sure you partner right. Find an agency and/or support system that’s well-versed on Facebook best practices and your brand, and has shown a proven ability to engage consumers.

Michael Della Penna’s Conversations: 5 Essential Technologies to Ignite and Manage Conversations

This month’s blog is all about the tools necessary to support a successful conversation. Over the last decade, I’ve had the privilege to be involved in building solutions that help brands connect and communicate with their customers and prospects. It’s from that experience that I present the five most essential tools in creating and sustaining a successful conversation with customers and prospects.

In my first blog I talked a lot about how you can overcome the fear of social media and embrace the medium so it can become an integral part of your overall marketing mix. My next post shined the spotlight on understanding your customers in order to build ongoing and successful conversations. My most recent effort demonstrated how B-to-B companies, like B-to-C companies, have much to gain by embracing social media. I highlighted specific examples of several social media programs that are making a measureable impact. All of which leads us to this month’s blog.

This month’s blog is all about the tools necessary to support a successful conversation. Over the last decade, I’ve had the privilege to be involved in building solutions that help brands connect and communicate with their customers and prospects. It’s from that experience that I present the five most essential tools in creating and sustaining a successful conversation with customers and prospects.

1. Email. Perhaps the most obvious one of the bunch. While email’s promise of facilitating one-to-one dialogs never really panned out, the effective use of dynamically-generated email communications based on subscribers’ profiles and/or behaviors help build timely and relevant conversations. While automated or triggered communications have been in practice for some time now, they are, in my opinion, not used often enough and are typically isolated to individual programs within the lifecycle communication strategy.

Therefore, although effective, triggered emails can rarely sustain the dialog over long periods of time and across different stages of the lifecycle. But the impact email has on conversations is hardly over. More recently, the emergence of social tools within email is on the rise. These tools encourage individuals to share content with their social networks, which then enables the conversation to be continued with a larger group across the social internet.

Look for email to remain a force for years to come as brands use targeted emails and Twitter to ignite discussions that are then continued and discussed in-depth on Facebook.

Top providers with both capabilities: ExactTarget, StrongMail (full disclosure: I sit on the board of directors at StongMail) and Yesmail.

2. Inbound reply handling. Who among us hasn’t used email to contact customer service? Who among us has been delighted by the experience? Truth be told, few, if any, of us have been delighted. Lackluster email response times continue to plague many brands, and often contribute to decreased customer satisfaction ratings.

While real-time social tools such as Twitter and CoTweet have emerged as critical tools for handling customer service inquires, sophisticated inbound reply handling for incoming inquiries via email is still essential to building and maintaining great conversations and satisfaction with customers.

Top providers: KANA, eGain.

3. Listening/monitoring tools. I’m a huge fan of listening tools. For many brands, it’s a natural starting point as they continue to search for the content that will best resonate with their customers and prospects. Listening to what consumers are saying about your brand and/or products often yields important insights. It may even provide you the context you need to spark a conversation around a shared passion or related topic that’s of great interest to the community. Listen carefully and use learnings from this listening to build conversations with critical customer segments and prospects.

Top providers: BuzzMetrics, Cymfony and Radian6.

4. Social media platforms.
The emergence of social media networks such as Facebook and microblogging networks such as Twitter opens up a whole new opportunity to connect and communicate with customers and prospects. According to a report from Nielsen, the average Facebook user now spends more than seven hours a month on the social network, which is more than three times the average time spent on Yahoo.

As social networks become more popular, so will the use of social media platforms. Like email, social media platforms enable brands to create, execute and manage real-time interactions and communications with fans and followers. In many respects, the emergence of social media platforms picks up where email left off — enabling communications with both individuals and groups who like your brand.

Top providers: Hootsuite, Objective Marketer, Spredfast and StrongMail.

5. Social communities and networks. Aside from the emergence of leading social networks like Facebook, brands are increasingly recognizing the power and benefit of building their own communities. These collaborative environments help brands capture customer ideas and feedback, allowing them to glean critical information from conversations between customers. Often the wisdom from these conversations results in new products and a culture of innovation. Look to see the continued growth of these proprietary communities as social and software combine to help build critical conversations that drive business success.

Top providers: Communispace, Jive Software.

There you have it: five essential technologies to help every brand create, execute and manage real-time, relevant conversations.

‘Til next time!

Craig Greenfield’s Redefining Performance Marketing: 3 Ways to Turn Earned Media Insights Into Paid and Owned/Organic Gold

It’s quickly becoming common knowledge that earned media outlets, if properly mined, can provide unique insights into what resonates most with marketers’ audiences. With the proper tools and techniques, marketers can begin to answer questions such as the following:

It’s quickly becoming common knowledge that earned media outlets, if properly mined, can provide unique insights into what resonates most with marketers’ audiences. With the proper tools and techniques, marketers can begin to answer questions such as the following:

  • Who’s talking about your brand?
  • How’s your audience discussing your brand?
  • What themes, topics and links permeate the conversation?
  • What are users querying about your brand or the vertical in general?
  • What’s the phraseology they’re using?

Simple collection methods include using social listening tools to understand customer conversations on social sites; managing profile pages on Facebook and/or Twitter to gain customer feedback; and mining query data to get a better idea of customer intent. However, to turn earned media insights into paid and owned/organic gold, brands need practical tactics for leveraging and applying the information.

Moving from insights to action

Earned media can create more effective paid media campaigns through the use of social listening tools to build out keywords for a client’s paid search campaign. Performics has done this for a number of clients, specifically in the apparel vertical. After a retailer’s recent product launch, Performics used its proprietary social listening tool to identify top themes that its client’s customers were discussing on social sites.

Performics focused analysis on brand-related conversations, and then filtered those posts by topic to only view conversations around the new product line. The retailer was able to identify all relevant phrases and terms, such as “military jacket” and “bf blazer,” that customers associated with its new product launch.

To assess the value of these newly identified phrases/terms, the retailer took into account the sentiment, frequency and reach of each. Performics’ listening tool assigns sentiment — positive, negative and/or neutral — to every customer post collected. Any customer post or tweet, for example, that included the term “military jacket” was assigned a sentiment value. The posts referring to “military jacket” were generally positive; therefore, that term was assigned positive sentiment.

The social listening tool also helps evaluate the influence of those selected phrases/terms. The retailer was able to assess the value of “military jacket” compared to other terms by understanding the number of customers using this term (frequency) and the number of followers exposed to the term (reach). The tool helped to quickly identify the most valuable phrases/terms relevant to the brand and product that were appearing within customer conversations. The phrases/terms then became the baseline for building out additional keywords for the new product launch.

Varied application of insights

How can marketers apply information gained from earned media? Three suggestions to get started include the following:

  • keyword buildout for search campaigns (paid and organic);
  • content campaign development; and
  • creative development.

As more consumers take to social sites to converse, performance marketers should continually be mindful of ways to make insight from these conversations actionable.

Michael Della Penna’s Conversations: How to Spark a Conversation Revolution!

Creating conversations is hard, despite all the knowledge and tools at our disposal today. it should be easier than ever, right? Not quite. As is all too often the case, fear can get in the way. More specifically, fear of the social media unknown.

Creating conversations is hard, despite all the knowledge and tools at our disposal today. It should be easier than ever, right? Not quite. As is all too often the case, fear can get in the way. More specifically, fear of the social media unknown.

For many marketers, that includes the biggest “what if” of all: What if someone talks badly about your brand? The simple fact is consumers are already talking. Therefore, learning how to spark and manage conversations isn’t only essential on today’s social internet, but it might just save your job or, better yet, get you promoted.

To do it right, marketers must abandon their comfort zone of hiding behind their marketing efforts, including crafting and delivering messages, measuring sales, and then hitting the rinse and repeat button. Instead, they must be open, transparent, adventurous and unafraid. So what’s the formula for sparking and facilitating a great conversation? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Focus on relationships, not technologies. Take the time to understand what your customers want and do online, then determine the kind of relationship you want to have with them.

2. Start with a clear and simple goal. Is your goal about improving customer service (like @comcastcares) or sharing a passion for a topic or issue (e.g., sports, fashion or music)? Have a specific goal in mind at the beginning and add to it over time as you learn.

3. Monitor and survey. Use social monitoring tools to understand what kinds of conversations are already taking place. Investigate your customers’ interests. You may find vastly different interests and engagement levels across certain demographics and customer segments — this often gives you some direction on where to start and who to target first.

4. Start small and experiment.
Most of us have limited resources, so start small. Go narrow, but deep. Then take some chances and do something unique to create value. For example, one of my clients hired a photographer to take exclusive photos at sporting events in order to share those photos with its fans and followers. Needless to say, it generated huge interest and continues to spark conversations around the communities’ shared passion for sports.

5. Try focusing on an industry development or event rather than your product or brand. Leverage big events and share your unique perspective. People will likely jump in as you build trust and establish credibility.

6. Feed the conversation with integrated marketing efforts.
Don’t forget to support your community efforts by using existing tools and resources. Socialize traditional channels such as email to grow awareness, interest and engagement.

7. Don’t forget the “social” in social media. Listen and respond quickly; be conversational, authentic and transparent. Recognize and support contributors by sharing their content with others and thanking them.

8. Measure everything.
What kinds of communications are resonating? Measure each effort’s impact against your objective. Look at quantitative and qualitative metrics. For @comcastcares, that might mean looking at how much customer service has improved and how it’s impacted the perceptions of consumers and the media.

9. Be flexible and willing to change direction. Go with the flow. If an approach isn’t resonating, try something new. Let your customers guide the conversation. In fact, the most successful communities are the ones in which the hosting brands eventually get to a place where they post the least. Over time these brands have been able to earn the trust of the community. They simply spark and facilitate the conversation rather than dominate it. Remember, trust = money.

10. Stick to it. Engaging visitors and customers in conversation doesn’t happen overnight. Stick to it. With a little practice and patience — and lots of listening and flexibility — you’ll find your way.

Building successful conversations is really about listening, relinquishing control and being willing to fail. While this is new thinking for many marketers, it can and is being done well among brands that focus on their relationships, not campaigns.

Finally, success also requires practice. This was best said in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”: “Practice isn’t something you do until you’re good. It is something that makes you good.”

‘Til next time.

Wunderman’s Morel on Social Media, Online Video and Mobile

I recently spoke with Daniel Morel, chairman and CEO of Wunderman, a New York City-based marketing services firm that’s part of Young & Rubicam Brands and a member of WPP. Among other topics, we talked about the difference between social media and social networking, online video, and mobile marketing.

I recently spoke with Daniel Morel, chairman and CEO of Wunderman, a New York City-based marketing services firm that’s part of Young & Rubicam Brands and a member of WPP. Among other topics, we talked about the difference between social media and social networking, online video, and mobile marketing.

In 2005, Morel launched an aggressive strategy to expand the agency’s influence on digital direct marketing and was instrumental in Wunderman’s acquisition of interactive and web analytics agencies — Blast Radius and ZAAZ among them. Digital programs now account for 60 percent of Wunderman’s revenues.

Here are highlights from the discussion:

Melissa Campanelli, eM+C: How would you describe social media?
Daniel Morel: A while ago, when I used the term you’re using — social media — I was corrected by some folks from Forrester Research. They told me that social media is a euphemism. It’s not media, per se; it’s not something you buy but something you measure. Now, when describing what I think you’re talking about, I use the terms social networking, social interaction and social conversation — but not social media. If you look at the largest examples of what I’m describing — Twitter, Facebook, blogs — you’d see little advertising, little paid media.

MC: Do you think social networking is important?
DM: As for social networking, we monitor Twitter, but in my opinion, Twitter doesn’t really have many capabilities these days. We monitor all of the blogs and online communities, of course. We then harvest that information using a variety of tools in combination with vendors, such as Visible Technologies [a provider of online brand management solutions for new media environments that’s formed a strategic partnership with WPP] and Radian6 [a tool for real-time social media monitoring and analysis designed for advertising agencies].

When it comes to social conversations and social networking, the important thing for us is accumulating data and organizing it into knowledge and information. Social networking offers real-time data as opposed to secondary research, where you have to wait six months before getting the results. You have immediate access to what’s on the minds of consumers. Social networking is important for us, but only as much as we can convert the commodity we call data into valuable insight.

Once a client told me that one of his colleagues was doing “the Facebook thing.” He asked me, “Can you give me one of those?” Our job is not to just give our clients a Facebook page. Our job is to ask why. “Why do you want to do it?” “What’s your objective?” “What are you trying to achieve?” You shouldn’t do it just because someone else is doing it.

MC: Is it true that social networking is changing marketing today?
DM: Whether you’re shopping for a car or insurance, you want to know opinions about the products you’re shopping for from people like you — not the brands. You place more trust into what people of similar backgrounds and interests to you are saying about brands, products and services than discourse from the brand.

Brand speech is necessary, however, because you can’t go to a search toolbar and search for a product if you haven’t been informed about the existence of that product. If I want to type “Ford Mustang 2010” into the search toolbar, I must have heard the term at some point. Public relations does a good job of placing words in people minds.

Social networking will become more present, more sophisticated and more original in the future. Right now, a lot of the content on social networking sites is republished, refurbished or reformulated. But at some point some creative people will make it original and germane to each environment. As a result, social networking will become even more relevant.

Check out the rest of my conversation with Daniel Morel here next week. We’ll discuss online video and mobile marketing.