Today your customers are more empowered than ever.
Cell phones, laptops, PCs, blogs, and social networking sites are all tools that consumers use to constantly communicate with each other. Even Internet access is no longer restricted to the home or office, as many businesses now offer wi-fi connections, and cell phones give consumers the chance to surf the net on the go.
Sites such as YouTube and Flickr allow consumers to create their own content and instantly upload their pictures and videos so that they can be shared and viewed by anyone with Internet access. Your customers as a community now have the tools they need to communicate instantly with each other, whether they are in the same room, or across the globe. And, oh yes... they are definitely talking about you!
But here's the problem: Faster and more efficient communication means that ideas are exchanged more quickly than ever before within communities. Thoughts are exchanged, styles are developed, trends are created... all at an ever-accelerating pace. Attempting to guess from afar what the current trends and preferences are for your hyper-connected customers is a crapshoot at best, and a total waste of time at worst.
So, at this point, you have a choice: You can continue using the same marketing methods you have always used to reach your customers, or you can try something revolutionary. You can join them. You can stop trying to guess what your customers are talking about, and instead join their communities and talk to them directly.
Sound scary? Good, because at first it will be. But the good news is that when you join consumers in their space, you begin to understand them. You begin to understand what their wants and needs are, and you begin to "speak their language." Perhaps just as important, they begin to understand you.
Here are some of the tools that your customers are already using to communicate online, and how you can incorporate them into your marketing plan:
Technorati (www.technorati.com), the most popular blog search engine, currently tracks over 40 million blogs. Technorati estimates that approximately 70,000 new blogs are created every day, and that the size of the blogosphere (the total number of blogs) doubles at least twice a year.
That means a lot of people are talking on a lot of blogs. Using a blog search tool such as Technorati can tell you within seconds what bloggers are saying about your company. And what bloggers are saying about your company will be honest and unfiltered. Some bloggers may be critical of your company, others may be downright offensive.
But what you need to keep in mind is... this is their community. If a customer is upset with your company, your willingness to join their conversation and address their concerns can go a long way toward re-establishing, or creating, goodwill for your company. Usually, a customer with a complaint simply wants to know that the company is listening. Monitoring blogs and answering issues that your customers raise on their blogs might be the most affective form of marketing available to companies today.
Start a blog
After you have begun to monitor and reply to issues your customers have raised on blogs, you will likely soon want to start your own blog. Do so as soon as possible. And if feasible, start your own blog, with a service such as Blogger (www.blogger.com) or TypePad (www.typepad.com).
A blog puts a human face on a corporation and is a wonderful way of signaling to your community that you want to join them. And, of course, it is a great way to keep your customers updated on all the latest company news, product offerings, etc. Also, your blog gives customers a place to find you and give you invaluable product feedback.
Simply put, starting a blog gives you a level of credibility with your community, because it shows them that you are attempting to communicate with them in their space and using the same tools that they use.
Check out MySpace
How many times have you heard a company say that they are "targeting the MySpace crowd"? MySpace (www.myspace.com) is the hot social-networking site of the moment, populated by primarily 20-somethings. Music artists and bands have found MySpace to be a great avenue for promoting their music. The site boasts over 80 million members, and is the fifth most popular Web site on the Internet.
Obviously, the high number of members, coupled with the site's appeal to a very desirable demographic, has marketers salivating for a way to promote themselves on MySpace.
However, this demographic is very resistant to traditional forms of marketing and advertising and will resent any company that it feels is using MySpace in this manner. Still, MySpace presents a great avenue for marketing with your community, if you are willing to engage with MySpacers on their terms.
More and more, movie studios and television networks are beginning to promote themselves on MySpace. Popular movie or TV characters will have their own MySpace profile, which other MySpace users will add to their profile as a "friend," which helps promote the show or movie virally. Studios can use their MySpace page as a way to give fellow MySpacers access to new movie trailers, and in some cases special movie showings are being reserved solely for MySpace users. The recent release of the movie An Inconvenient Truth was sparked by a 10-city tour where select showings were available only to MySpace users.
MySpace can be a very valuable weapon in your marketing arsenal, but only if you give its users a reason to interact with you in their space. Make sure that your marketing efforts are done WITH MySpace users, and that you do not market TO them.
Tap consumer-generated media sites
Today's consumer can very easily post their own photos or even videos on the Web. YouTube (www.youtube.com) and Flickr (www.flickr.com) are very popular video and picture hosting Web sites. Both sites allow you to freely distribute your own videos and pictures, as well as view and comment on media that has been posted by other community members.
As with blogs, you can search both sites and see whether any videos or pictures have been posted that relate to your company or their products. You can also view comments that community members have left for each entry. Also, YouTube videos and Flickr photos can be easily shared on blogs, message boards, and social networking sites such as MySpace, which adds a viral element.
Consumer-generated media (CGM) is becoming incredibly popular, and even entire marketing campaigns are now being created around CGM. Months ago, the movie Snakes on a Plane was destined to follow the path of many b-movies before it, and fade into obscurity. But the refreshingly honest title of the movie made it instantly popular with Internet users.
Almost overnight, parody movie posters, and even video trailers were popping up all over YouTube and on blogs. NewLine Cinema not only embraced the community's support for the film but openly encouraged fans to continue to create promotional material for the film.
At one point, New Line even went back and re-shot some scenes to include dialogue that had appeared in one of the more popular fan-created movie trailers, and added more graphic scenes to gain an R rating that the Internet communities had said the movie needed.
The community of fans for Snakes on a Plane have literally become a marketing partner for the movie.
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With all of the above examples, you'll need to familiarize yourself with the Web site or service being offered. These are the Web 2.0 tools that your customers are using to communicate and exchange ideas, so if you want to talk to them you'll have to learn their language.
Consumers are more resistant to traditional forms of marketing than ever before. But if you can find new and exciting ways to reach your customers while giving value back to the community, your customers will not only listen to your message but also help you spread that message to other members of their community.
The tools listed above will help you convert customers into marketing partners for your message.