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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.

That is not always an easy balance to strike, but it's the key to succeeding in the new marketing world order.

I received dozens of comments on that post from other "big brains" in the industry (including MarketingProfs's own Ann Handley). The resounding response was that social media is all about creating and sustaining relationships through active listening and conversation.

Establishing valuable customer relationships online is much more effective when you are providing content to your community via social-media channels.

With that as a backdrop, if you're a brand looking for a company to build your online community or create your social-marketing program, ask that company the following questions:

  • Does it philosophically embrace the concepts that it's asking you to adopt (e.g., transparency, authenticity, and a "give before you get" approach to value)?
  • Is it practicing what it preaches by blogging, engaging customers through its own customer-support community, commenting on other industry blogs, and engaging the public in places like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter?
  • Does it have "community" or "social" experience working with brands like yours?

Once you find a company you're comfortable using to power your online-community or social-media initiatives, the question will shift to whether you are ready to eat your own dog food.

If the answer is yes, just be sure to do so in moderation. Your customers will be happy to see you eating your own dog food, but not if you stick their face in the dog food or, worse, if you pretend that you've always eaten dog food and can't imagine someone not enjoying the taste.

Continue reading "Why All the Talk About Dog Food?" ... Read the full article

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image of Aaron Strout

Aaron Strout is the chief marketing officer at Powered (