By Loren Weinberg
The Web is a powerful channel for all types of communication and lies at the center of most marketing strategies today. And, as the Web continues to evolve into a user-centric, user-contributed medium, engaging in social computing and providing frameworks for community and user-generated content have become imperatives for most companies. Customers demand the ability to interact with one another and with product vendors in an ongoing dialogue - via forums, blogs, wikis, commenting and more. Social computing capabilities are thus a key foundation for successfully building brand awareness and driving sales.
However, this new approach to interacting with customers does not come without risks. Approaching the world of social computing without a plan puts companies at risk for brand damage and, at the extreme, customer defection. All businesses must deal with disgruntled customers and pranksters at some point in time. But armed with the Web as their soap box, they can quickly move from inconveniences to serious threats - damaging your brand with rumors, complaints and negative reviews.
Apple is one of the most prolific corporate users of social computing - in fact, it lies at the core of their business model. Apple's iTunes site is focused on user-generated-content. When you buy a song on iTunes, recommendations are provided to you for other songs purchased by buyers of your song. This has become such a critical part of the iTunes experience that a primary source of navigation on the site is the list of top downloaded songs by users - an ever-evolving list of peer recommendations to drive new purchases.
Similarly, Apple's iPhone site allows users to download applications for their iPhone, or upload their own to share with the community. Those apps are chosen and downloaded, in part, because of ratings, reviews and recommendations by other users. But even though Apple has been very successful using social computing for building its brand, they have experienced the negative side of user participation. For example, Apple's user forums received thousands of irate posts regarding iPhone 3G service glitches, including comments like "Apple will lose me as a customer," and "Hello, Apple, AT&T, are you listening?" However, these comments were taken seriously because Apple encourages users to post in forums, encourages consumers to communicate with each other and help solve each other's problems. As a result, the community has become a foundation for their brand, and they are reaping tremendous benefits as a company known for valuing its users.
With so much to gain from embracing these new paradigms, the question becomes: What are the tactics for making the most of social computing to win customers and their loyalty, while minimizing the risks to your brand? Here are a few tips to help you navigate this new world with confidence and to get it right the first time:
The buzz is your business: From various blogs to YouTube to Twitter and beyond, there are a vast number of social computing hubs, and it is critical to know what is happening in all of them. Instead of hiring a service to do this task or, worse yet, trying to do it yourself, take advantage of the growing array of free monitoring tools.
A quick way to start is by setting up a Google Alert - it can search news, blogs, video and more for your company name, then email the results to you. You may also want to try using Serph (www.serph.com), a search engine focused exclusively on social media sites like Digg, Flickr, YouTube, Technorati, and more. It also includes the option of creating and subscribing to custom RSS feeds to keep you in the know.
Commentful (www.commentful.com) offers coverage of blog posts and comment threads and will notify you of additions to online discussions that you are monitoring or those in which you participate. If your products appeal to a young or tech-savvy audience, you may also need to stay up-to-date with Twitter, the microblogging site. Twitter offers several monitoring tools built in, and TweetScan (www.tweetscan.com) offers additional search and notification capabilities for Twitter content.
Getting in the game: Learning what people are saying about your brand is an important first step, but you need to take action. Your company needs to actively participate in the community by contributing helpful content, listening to feedback, and addressing issues. For example, Comcast now has a Twitter ID it uses to respond to customer concerns after a damaging Comcast customer service video hit YouTube. Apple benefited from great publicity late last year from using a user-contributed iPod Touch video as its newest commercial. And there are ountless other examples of the positive results that companies can achieve by interacting with the community at large and embracing social
computing. As a matter of fact, Google's new marketing overview for its open source Chrome browser features a comic strip with "real world" people talking about how this project is contributing to the Internet as a platform and making it better. Google's marketing experts know that having your company viewed as a contributing member of the larger community is an exceptionally positive association for your brand. This is especially true for the early adopter crowd.
To make sure your brand is represented consistently when contributing to online communities, designate a specific person or team in your organization to be responsible for participation. Make sure to clearly identify your company in all communications (posting under a false identity almost always backfires), and pay close attention to context and tone, since the wrong type of message can easily come across as a spam-like sales pitch.
Grow your own: Many companies are also adding social computing features to their own sites today - something that's easier than ever thanks to the availability of ready-made solutions. However, vital communities don't spring up overnight, and companies with low site traffic or poorly thought-out initiatives often receive few user contributions. Accordingly, it's best to implement social computing in a phased manner, beginning with simple features like moderated comments, polls, and social bookmarking. As your audience grows, you can then move on to actually creating a full-fledged online community including user reviews, forums, wikis and other user-generated content.
Also, strategy is critical. It is essential to clearly understand the purpose of your community features in relation to the brand. Is your community a place for people to come and discuss product features, exchange best practices and good ideas for using the products, or is the branding more subtle and the idea to engage customers in other things that might interest them?
For example, Ford in Europe has been very successful in using their www.feelfootball.com site to create a loyal community of football (European soccer) fans that can upload their own content, discuss the minutia of games and more. The Ford branding is subtle, but the idea is brilliant: Use the Web to engage your customers in a positive way, and once they are there you can leverage those eyeballs and energy to reflect positively on your brand.
In all things, moderation: Creating a community is a lot like throwing a party: A great host makes a huge difference. Accordingly, all social computing areas of your site need a dedicated moderator - who is also an avid contributor - to keep the discussion interesting and on track. You may also want to include peer recognition features to encourage active participants, have an explicit standards policy for the community, and employ processes to moderate user-generated content prior to approval for publication.
When handled properly, social computing poses an invaluable opportunity to build your brand. Web users talking about your company shouldn't be seen as a threat - they are your prospects and customers, and with the right coaching they will also become your advocates and partners. As the power of traditional marketing messages declines in favor of user reviews and recommendations, these engaged customers are also your new best marketing and sales teams. This is the promise of social computing for your company.