One of the long-established best-practices of Broadway producers is the out-of-town tryout. Before they put their reputations on the line and sink a lot of time, money, and effort into a major production, savvy producers first take it on the road to other major (but less critical) metropolitan cities. They'll "see how it plays," changing the script, scenery, songs and choreography, stage direction, and sometimes even the actors.
Out-of-town tryouts give producers the opportunity to test and tweak everything, so by the time their plays hit the bright lights of Broadway, they're certain that they have a long-running hit on their hands.
Social Media Tryouts
Industrial marketers can learn a lot from this strategy when making decisions about the use of social media, especially considering the current adoption rates. According to the March 2011 GlobalSpec report "Social Media Use in the Industrial Sector," adoption of social media among engineering, technical, and industrial professionals remains relatively low, though it is showing signs of growth.
Part of the low adoption rate is due to company restrictions on using social media during work hours. According to the report, 35% of respondents have restricted Internet access at work. Of those, 70% are restricted from using Facebook and 66% cannot access YouTube or Twitter. That's OK, though, because only 15% say they have a Twitter account anyway.
Even LinkedIn, which is considered the most business-focused among the most popular social networks, has low usage among this group: 63% say they do not have a LinkedIn account.
These low numbers might lead some industrial marketers to conclude that they can continue to ignore social media in their plans for the coming months. But if that's their takeaway, they're missing a tremendous opportunity: Though adoption may be slower than in the general marketplace, it is happening.
In 2009, only 12% of industrial users said they had a Twitter account, compared with 15% percent in 2010. Facebook adoption grew more rapidly, jumping from 42% to 59% in that same period. LinkedIn adoption rose to 37% from 32 percent.
The general trend is upward, which means that social media will likely become important and useful to industrial marketers at some point. Is that the time you want to start testing strategies and feeling your way through it—when a mistake can be costly?
It makes far more sense to use this period of early adoption and slow growth as your own out-of-town tryout. The number of current users makes giving it a try worthwhile, yet there aren't so many users that a mistake can be costly. And like an audience at an out-of-town tryout, users' expectations will be lower.
Theatergoers expect mishaps when a play is being previewed. They walk in knowing some of the jokes will fall flat, the action will drag, or the special effects won't work. The same goes for social media early adopters, who are simply trying to figure out how these new avenues for information can help them do their jobs better.
The lack of broad social media adoption also means there are likely fewer competitors fighting for the same attention. By the time your competitors catch on, you'll already own the space and the relevant conversations. You'll be seen as a part of the community already, rather than a recent entrant.
Prepare for Opening Night Without Breaking the Bank
Like those Broadway producers with their plays, you don't want to make a huge investment in social media just yet. But here are six key things you can do at a low cost to prepare yourself for "opening night."
- Start a blog about industry news—trends and technologies in a specific industry—or about interesting applications of your product line.
- Have a product expert at your company create a LinkedIn group, and network with users of those products. Use the conversations to help drive product improvements, solve customer problems, and increase customer service. If a relevant LinkedIn group already exists, have key experts join it.
- Create a company Facebook page that informs fans about the organization's involvement in community and industry projects or organizations. (Be sure to use the "Page" option, rather than "Group.")
- Create a YouTube channel and upload videos that explain how to use or repair a product (check with customer service for the most frequent requests). You can also upload interviews with key executives or highlights from a user group meeting.
- Establish a customers-only online discussion forum that allows customers to engage with one another (and internal product managers) via questions and answers.
- Start a Twitter account to send links that will be of interest to your followers. You can link to articles, events, industry news, corporate social-responsibility initiatives, or even general news that affects followers. Don't measure success by the number of followers you have at first, particularly since adoption is still low. Instead, look for retweets, mentions, and other indicators that you are making inroads.
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Most Broadway hits aren't overnight sensations. Instead, they're the result of a careful process of trial, error, and revision that occurs far away from the bright lights of the big city—sometimes over a period of a year or more.
Industrial marketers have the same rare opportunity for preparation. You can learn what works now, so when the throngs flock to social media—and every indication is they will—you'll already have the hottest ticket in town. And you'll be a superstar within your organization.