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This summer, I directed research on consumers' attitudes toward marketing. We surveyed more than 2,300 consumers and interviewed nearly 100 people on the street.

Among our findings was that 70% of consumers who visit Facebook at least once a month and are a "fan" of at least one company or brand don't believe they have given those companies permission to market to them. Moreover, 40% of those "fans" don't believe marketers are welcome in social networks at all.

Getting people to identify themselves as fans is obviously a good thing, but what is the value if consumers don't believe they are kindling a relationship with marketers when doing so?

The following insights from the study* will help you understand how companies can capitalize on this demonstration of enthusiasm without turning fans off.

Consider the environment

People visit social networks to communicate with current friends, catch up with old friends, and otherwise express themselves.

A full 44% of people who are fans of at least one company or brand on Facebook also say social networks should be used strictly for interpersonal communication.

They don't believe marketers are welcome. To them, self-identification as a fan is not an invitation; it is an expression of personal taste or style intended to be shared primarily with friends.

Remember preppies? They identified themselves by sporting the Polo logo. They were not asking Polo to advertise to them;, rather, they were inadvertently marketing for Polo. Don't overlook the fact that by creating the space for consumers to share their enthusiasm you are creating a platform where their endorsement is itself marketing.

Don't act like "marketers"

The core message is simple. Warranted or not, "marketer" has become a derogatory term in the minds of most consumers. Consumers don't trust marketing. Consumers trust people (or brands) that help them and exhibit interests similar to theirs.

Marketers' first inclination is to build a fan base so that they can send those people marketing messages. Even when promoted as "exclusively for our fans," that approach is similar to other direct-marketing tactics; unless offers are truly unique, consumers are increasingly put off by such offers.

Align with fans instead of selling to them

Anything that demonstrates the alignment of your interests as a brand with the interests of your consumers can constitute a meaningful brand experience.

Consider TripAdvisor's "More than Footprints" campaign, which promised to distribute $1 million across five preselected nonprofit organizations according to how members voted.

The campaign netted TripAdvisor 500,000 new members, measurably improved members' overall impressions of the brand, and generated extensive press coverage. Remove the goodwill, tax write-off, and press coverage, and the campaign was still a huge success at a $2 cost per new member—all by figuring out how to energize TripAdvisor's existing community.

Be quick to listen and slow to speak

When it comes to positive comments, let your fans tell the story for you.

However, there are also negative comments. They come in two forms: those you can address in a helpful way (e.g., "I went to the store, and they couldn't help me...") and those you can't (e.g., "You suck").

Don't engage unless you can be helpful, but choose to engage in real-world dialogue and problem-solving. That allows your brand to demonstrate its relational prowess in a public forum—which, in turn, can create raving fans. When you impress your fans by handling their issues, you give them additional ammunition to act as your advocate.

In addition, listening helps identify opportunities for improvements to your products or services. Develop a system for capturing those and allow your customer to see that you are listening.

(For example, ExactTarget has instituted a system allowing customers to vote on other users' product suggestions; those with the most votes quickly become priorities on the product road map.)

Direct consumers to other channels for marketing messages

Comparing data from this year with data collected in 2008, we see consumers' attitudes toward nonpermission (or "pushy") marketing messages souring fast. However, that isn't true for permission-based messages; consumers are very receptive to promotions and are reporting using coupons more often.

In marketer-initiated communications, email is the preferred channel (75% of consumers overall), even among teens (64%) and college students (70%). Consumers prefer to maintain a church-and-state separation between how they communicate with friends and how they receive deals from the brands they follow.

Use what you learn to improve marketing across the board

Marketers have two clear opportunities to leverage data gathered through social media to improve the performance of other marketing channels.

First, fans' sentiments can provide crucial insight into what is and isn't resonating with audiences—allowing marketers to adjust their messaging through other channels accordingly. Positive aspects of the brand can be highlighted, and common issues or misconceptions can be addressed proactively.

Second, by identifying email subscribers (or subscribers to other channels, such as direct mail or text messages) as Facebook fans, marketers are able to better target and communicate with them as members of this highly motivated and engaged audience.

That communication may involve addressing hot topics being discussed by fans on your Wall, highlighting additional social experiences that may be of interest, or asking this proactive group to rate and review products on your website.

* * *

Consumers' expectations in social-media environments are fundamentally different from their expectations of other direct-marketing channels. Approach social media with that difference in mind. To succeed, marketers need to overcome considerable skepticism on the part of their consumers.

Of course, there are exceptions. Apple, for example, includes promotions on its Apple Students fan page. However, Apple has already developed a reputation for being a company that listens and engages. That type of reputation takes time to develop, but once it's in place customers see your marketing differently—in fact, they won't even think of it as marketing; they come to think of it as an extension of your service.

If consumers are to change their minds about marketers' being welcome on Facebook or other social networks, it will be because marketers interact as participants in the dialogue instead of attempting to control the dialogue through slick messaging.

It's not that marketers can't launch social-media campaigns; rather, they can't act and think like marketers when doing so. They must create meaningful brand experiences that are focused on service, and they must be so well aligned with fans that fans don't even realize they are being marketed to.

*For more, download Customer Knowledge Is Marketer Power, a commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting, and the 2009 Channel Preference Study, at http://www.ExactTarget.com/preferences.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Morgan Stewart
Morgan Stewart is co-founder and CEO of Trendline Interactive (www.trendlineinteractive.com), a strategic email marketing agency.