There are countless conversations happening online. We're beyond the point of brands knowing they need to join those conversations. They do. What they may not realize is that the longer they wait to jump in, the more work they'll have to do before they can ask for customer's business.
Since its modern inception, the internet has been a resource for people looking for information. That hasn't changed, but what has happened recently is the social web now gives various entities the opportunity to become thought leaders in a specific category. While some attain this status by consistently offering valuable information, many (especially in competitive categories) becomes leaders by guiding those who are searching.
To illustrate this point, rather than referencing some of the overused (albeit relevant) examples of Dell, Zappos, or Wine Library, I'm going to go local. If there's one thing we have a lot of in Chicago, it's pizza places. If someone told me the number of places in the vicinity was near 10,000 I would believe it.
The point is, you've got a popular product that is available from a lot of different places. Pizza places make it very easy for you to find them when you're looking, but do they try to help or interest you when you're not? A fellow by the name of Ramon De Leon or DPZRamon as most know him runs several Dominoes chains in Chicago. He also leverages social networks to connect with Chicagoans. He reaches out to consumers about local events, technology, and yes Pizza. There is no question, that among online influencers in Chicago, Ramon is the most well known pizza guy. I won't go into deep detail about him, you can get that here.
Right now, Ramon is fairly unique in Chicago, there aren't many pizza chains in Chicago that also have such a well known personality. But what about the next pizza shop that jumps into the online conversation after Ramon? And the one after that? Will they be able to establish themselves as the same kind of resource to the local audience, and on the flip side, will they be able to reap the benefits of engaging in these social channels?
The answer is yes, but what they have to realize is that they're going to have to work much harder than Ramon. There's already a "pizza guy" offering great conversation in Chicago so in order to have any chance of winning attention (and subsequently the opportunity to promote themselves) the next pizzeria is going to have to work longer and harder to earn the trust and ears of their potential customers. If they mimic Ramon but only use the channels to promote themselves, they will not see success.
If you're not the first thought leader in your category it's ok but–
1. Start adding value among your potential community immediately. The longer you wait, the more of a head start your competition will have.
2. Remember that adding value doesn't mean only talking about things relevant to your product. People don't always care about a product, but they do care about people (or a personable brand). Give them a reason to like you, and they'll go to you when they need a commodity you offer.
3. "Take" from the community very sparingly until the time is right. Remember there was someone before you who offers the same as what you're offering however they may have already earned the right to ask for some help. Or they offer help/advice for free without "pitching" anyone.
4. Leverage your brand equity from elsewhere. Some brands have a strong community before entering a social space. Transfer as much of that equity to the new space. There's no reason to waste an investment.
5. Don't compare yourself to your peers when it's not appropriate. If your competitor has been at it for two years, don't expect to use their results as your own. Measure your progress against checkpoints in time you've set.
6. Approach your potential community from a different angle. Just because you have a lot of competitors in social networks, it doesn't mean your brand can't become the expert in certain niche.
Len Kendall is a Chicago native with a passion for technology, advertising, and film.
Len is a Digital Supervisor with GolinHarris within the Dialogue Group. The digital/social practice of the agency. His client work includes Mercedes-Benz, Allstate, McDonald's and Walmart. He is also the CoFounder of the3six5 project, a collective diary of 2010.
In Len's downtime he can be found blogging at www.constructivegrumpiness.com tweeting at twitter.com/lenkendall and sharing random thought nuggets at lenkendall.posterous.com