Have you ever heard the expression "eat your own dog food"? It's a funny-sounding concept that essentially means that one is "walking the talk," or leading by example.

For instance, a lot of well-known companies have talked about being "customer-focused," but how many really are? Unfortunately, just saying you're committed to doing something is dramatically different from actually doing it. There is no place where this idea is truer than in the world of social media and online communities.

A couple of months ago, Jeremiah Owyang, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, released the inaugural "Forrester Wave: Community Platforms" report (for Q1 2009). The report rates the top online community providers according to their tools, services, and methodologies. What the report doesn't do (and I'm not advocating that it should) is take into account how many of the companies reviewed in the report are "eating their own dog food."

Being the socially engaged person that Owyang is (there is no question as to whether he eats his own dog food), he announced the arrival of the "Forrester Wave: Community Platforms" report on his blog. In his post, he offered some color commentary on the process, the companies that were selected, and why those companies made the cut.

One of the first comments on his post asks whether Forrester has taken into account whether these social-tool providers are "walking the talk" by offering online communities to their customers; creating corporate blogs; and engaging with potential customers, prospects, and partners in social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and even Twitter.

Though I was honored to be mentioned as an example of someone who does "eat his own dog food," it got me thinking about how important it is for companies and their customers who are engaged in social media to engage in those same practices.

This "dog food" concept has become important to businesses thinking about "social" and "community"—for three reasons:

  1. Creating a great online community or social-marketing program has just as much to do with the philosophy behind the effort as it does with the tools that facilitate such offerings.
  2. Just as the field of email marketing adopted best-practices like opt-outs and truthful subject lines, the discipline of community building and social marketing has best-practices that should be upheld. Anger your customers by posting fake comments in your own blog posts or talking trash about your competitors, and you'll pay through negative PR, or worse—customer attrition.
  3. In such a transparent environment, there is little room for error. (Just ask global PR firm Edelman how its "Wal-Marting Across America" campaign for Wal-Mart turned out a couple of years back.) You also need to make a lot of decisions on the fly, so having an experienced "pilot" can make for a much smoother ride.

To explore the concept further, I wrote a blog post recently called "How We Market"; it talks about the importance of taking a "give before you get" approach, being authentic, and embracing the social tools and sites that one's clients are using while keeping in mind the need as a business to create awareness and leads.

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image of Aaron Strout

Aaron Strout is the chief marketing officer at Powered (www.powered.com).