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New media evangelists proudly claimed that 2010 would be the 'Year of Social Media'. The real question for me as an Online Merchandiser is how this technology can be harnessed to turn users into buyers.
Any exploration of the idea needs to come with some essential caveats. Firstly, marketers need to consider their audience carefully. Early adopters of new media networks, particularly younger people, don't tend to respond well to "their" networks being overtaken by people trying to sell them products.
A recent study by Roiworld found that 20% of teenagers now use Facebook less or not at all due to the advertising content. The brand was badly stung by privacy issues relating to advertising in 2008.
Generally speaking, web users don't mind being marketed to, providing that they have agreed to the nature of contact, and the content is relevant to them. Twitter is all too aware of this issue; as Dick Costolo mentioned at a web conference in Paris earlier this year, "Promoted tweets are not ads. They're only tweets."
Secondly, companies need to be very aware of the tone of their content. The rules of party small talk apply: it's generally best to steer well clear of politics, religion and other potentially controversial subjects.
Thirdly, consider the benefits and costs of this fast, direct and mass interaction with your web customers. It's as easy for an irate customer to post an angry tweet as it is for your best customer to sing your praises.
With that in mind, I present a list of key ideas for turning social media from an interesting diversion into a profit-making activity:
Identify key brand advocates by using Google Alerts to spot your brand on blogs, then contact the bloggers and start to build up a relationship with them.
The benefit of having a network of (positive) content writers on tap cannot be underestimated. Also don't be afraid to respond to customer comments on blogs or tweets.
Be helpful, courteous and polite, and write to customers as if you're speaking to them on a shop floor, and you shouldn't go wrong.
Strike a balance
It's important to pitch your content in the right way, not too casual (you should be business-like) but also not too formal (customers like to see the personal touch behind the corporate face).
Blog, blog, then blog again
Blogging is fantastic for SEO (which, by the way, is far from dead). Loyal customers will enjoy looking behind the scenes of your brand, and you can reward them by flagging up new product ranges, or perhaps giving early notice of sale dates.
Don't just mention your products in the text of your blog, link to them, offer a "quick buy" button if possible, and use images and video.
Measuring and testing social media activity is vital
Any web analytics package worth its salt will track social media conversions, as well as identifying referred sales. As with any online marketing, testing is the best way to evaluate the success of your campaigns.
Experiment with different forms of content (viral tweets, Facebook posts, targeted CPC advertising, blogging) and find out which works best for your customers.
Motivate your customers
Give your customers the incentive to engage with your brand. Why not run a competition for customers who comment on your blog?
A common Facebook trick is to offer a discount or promotion in return for "Liking" a brand. Similar promotions can be run on Twitter by asking customers to use a particular hashtag in their post.