Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Social Networking: One-Way Street or Four Lane Highway?

Most of the time, when a business thinks of advertising and promotion, they think of it in terms of “getting the word out”. It’s a very traditional approach to it that has, so far, been working very well. The business will buy ads on radio and TV, they’ll place ads in newspapers and magazines, and they’ll send out press releases in the hopes that others will write or talk about them.

For a long time, businesses have approached the internet in the same way. They buy banner ads. They buy Pay-Per-Click ads. They even pay bloggers to write about their new (and old) products. In the analogy I’ve set up in the title of this article, this is like driving down a one-way street. All of the information about your product flows in one way: From the company to the consumers.

Now, this has worked up to this point, and to a certain extent, will continue to work in the foreseeable future. But there are some things that are changing in the marketplace, and especially in the electronic marketplace.

To continue with the street metaphor, one big change is that there are now a lot of side roads that are intersecting with your one-way thoroughfare. These side roads carry information, too, but they’re not just one-way. These side roads interconnect with each other and information and opinions flow freely back and forth from here to there. What I’m saying is that while you’re sending advertising and information out to your customers, they’re talking amongst themselves. They’re saying things about your products.

This is nothing new to the internet. For years people have been doing it. It’s what businesspeople call “Word of Mouth Advertising”. It can be a great thing. What’s happening online now, however, is that it’s happening much faster, and much easier. If someone discovers a product that’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, instead of just chatting it up with their neighbors across the street, now, they jump to their email groups and their myspace pages and tell a much, much wider audience. Now, it’s called “Word of Mouse”.

So, the newer, savvier marketers are realizing that this change to a more networked, interactive web, which has been dubbed “Web 2.0”, requires a new approach. Instead of a one-way street, the companies that understand ‘net marketing are building in two ways. First of all, they build a two-way, four-lane highway. They make sure that information, communication, and opinions flow back and forth, and they make sure that their infrastructure is in a place where they can handle the traffic. Second, they travel the side roads along with their customers, interacting with them on a more casual and personal level.

Here are some ways to get in on that traffic.

  1. Interact With Your Customers

Any time a customer, or even a potential customer communicates with you, respond. That establishes the road as a two-way immediately. Now, usually this means that when a customer asks a question, you reply. Or, when they complain, you fix their issue. When they buy something, you ship it out. But all of that is only the start. What would you do if someone joined your mailing list? Traditional marketing says to save their name and address and wait to contact them until you’re ready to send out a newsletter. But what if you reply to them right away?

When I’m posting messages to my blog, and someone makes a comment, I respond. When someone sends me a twitter comment, I reply. All of this communication isn’t just inbound.

  1. Share Other Information With Your Customers

What if you’re out on the ‘net and you find a website that’s really cool. Do you wonder if your audience would also find it useful or fun? Why not share it with them? Blog about it, write about it in your own newsletter, twitter tweet about it. Not only will the owner of the other site be impressed (and probably link back to your site), but your audience will start to recognize you as a source of good and interesting stuff. They’ll start to come to you for valuable information. And they’ll stay and shop.

  1. Encourage Customers To Talk To Each Other

They will anyway. They’re already building the backroads and the crossroads that intersect with your main highway. Why not help them build these roads, and then travel them together? Find a web-based forum space online, and set up a bulletin board for your business. Link to it from your website, and encourage people to go there to share communications. You can even moderate it, if necessary. You’ll be able to learn what’s on their minds, what their needs are, and what’s right and wrong with your products. And, your customers will feel like they know you.

  1. Good News Will Spread

If you do this effectively (and it will take a significant amount of time investment), word will get around, and you’ll be able to spread your news. In fact, your customers will eagerly spread it for you.

  1. Bad News Will Spread With The Good

…And yes, the opposite is also true. If you do something wrong, if something breaks in your products or your systems, that word will also spread. However, if you handle it well online, that can actually turn into an advantage. The ‘net is full of stories of corporations who handled bad news on blogs and social networks well, and those that handled it badly. Those that handle it well are responsive to their customers, explaining the circumstances, and fixing the problems. Those companies are perceived as being customer-focused, and bad situations can actually benefit the company.

On the other hand, companies that try to “spin” the problem with their “PR machines” will find themselves losing the trust of the audience they’ve spent so much time and money to gather.

Traditional, one-way advertising works. It will continue to work for a long time. But using the two-way street-level information that flows is fast becoming the difference between surviving and thriving. And it may soon determine those that don’t even survive.

Mark is the co-director of http://seotrafficmagnet.com, the search marketing consulting arm of Clickincome (http://clickincome.com). Mark also has other sites and blogs, including MarkHansenMusic.com and his MoBoy blog.

2 comments:

  1. This is a fantastic point about the direction of internet marketing. Much like the progression of web interactions, Internet marketing must mirror and extend this multi-way communication.

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