Clearly, David Ciccarelli has no problem converting social-media followers into customers. Just look at his metrics. Over the past year, the CEO of Voices.com—a London, Ont.-based online marketplace for voice actors—has logged 3.3 million visitors, 94,000 of them unique visitors referred from Facebook. The latter yielded 1,500 job postings. Which translated into $369,000 in revenue. Click, click, ka-ching!
Unfortunately, Ciccarelli is the exception. According to Michael Scissons, CEO of Syncapse Corp., a Toronto-based socialmedia marketing consultancy, SMEs have struggled with this space. Entrepreneurs, given their penchant for risk-taking, are often overeager in embracing a promising new marketing channel without fully contemplating what they can offer customers. "A big part of the strategy should start with the customer," says Scissons. "What is the content that the customer wants?"
If business owners are eager, though, it's hard to blame them. A study Syncapse released in March found that social-media platforms were among the most influential marketing channels available: 84% of consumers, for example, value recommendations from friends and family above all other forms, and 40% cite Facebook specifically as a trusted source of recommendations.
What these findings underscore—and what separates social media from basic online publishing—is the marketing potential inherent in social interaction. After all, it's not the content delivered via a Facebook fan page or Twitter stream that persuades a casual follower to spend her hard-earned dollars. Rather, it's the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend.
So, how do you inspire this kind of participative devotion? Simple as it sounds, the recipe is in the terminology itself: "social media." This involves, first, creating a forum in which people can interact (that's the social part); and, second, drawing in potential customers with informative and entertaining content (that's the media part).
The most basic level of interaction is customer service, and it forms a big part of Ciccarelli's strategy. Clients with questions or concerns about Voices.com will go to Facebook first, even ahead of the firm's own site. That's because they've seen others receive an immediate response this way—not just from company reps but from other customers willing to share their knowledge.
It took years for Ciccarelli to hone his strategy to its current success: 20,000 followers, and counting. When he started using social media six years ago, he rushed in like everyone else. Ciccarelli scoured the Web for every platform, only to discover there were way too many to wrap his head around.
There's Facebook, of course, and Twitter and LinkedIn. But what about Digg, Newsvine or StumbleUpon? Or Reddit, Technorati, BlinkList, BlogMarks or Delicious? Or Furl, DailyBooth, Faves, folkd or Posterous? At last count, there were more than 500 social-media platforms out there—more than any business would ever need or want.
Ciccarelli managed this overabundance of options with an elegant solution from KnowEm, which for US$250 will create a single profile identity and password for your choice of 100 social-media platforms. "We secured our name on all these sites," he says, "so if any of them gained traction, we could go back and start to build a community there."
With that element in place, Ciccarelli got to work building a portfolio of "media assets" to support his social-media strategy. Some of the publishing platforms he uses overlap with social media only marginally. Marketers, for example, don't generally regard iTunes as a social-media channel, but, Ciccarelli says, he has been able to attract thousands of podcast subscribers, who go on to discuss what they've learned on Facebook or LinkedIn.
The media component also requires creating an editorial calendar of regularly scheduled events. Voices.com, for example, posts content like clockwork: every day, it posts a blog called Vox Daily; every week, it posts Webinar Wednesdays and Freebie Fridays; and on a set day each month, it posts podcasts and YouTube videos. This way, its followers know that if they engage at a certain time, they'll get a particular type of content.
Pushing out content, however, is only the first step in an effective social-media strategy. Fostering interaction is equally important, and Ciccarelli has devised many ways to do so. Instead of merely advertising a discount, for example, he runs contests that require participation. On a given Freebie Friday, Ciccarelli might post an intriguing question related to a podcast: "Last week's podcast on microphones recommends microphones with such-and-such technology. Which microphone do you use and why? Participants will be entered to win a Brand X microphone."
A simple question like this can prompt a flood of interaction, says Ciccarelli. Followers begin as individuals, visiting fan pages to glean information. Fifty of these individuals then encounter an interesting question and are enticed by the chance to win a prize. They respond, leading to an intense debate over microphone technology and to valuable exchange of information. These individuals then leave your site with a good impression and plans to return.
At Calgary-based Babybot, an e-tailer of designer baby products and decor, co-founder Michael Tran takes a slightly different approach. Rather than focus on customer service, Babybot pulls in followers by trading discounts for word of mouth.
The firm got off to a quick start with a "milestone campaign" in which Babybot advertised a series of events on Facebook that would trigger discounts. To start, the company announced that if it reached 500 fans, these fans would receive 10% off everything on the site for one day. This spurred new fans to tell their friends. By the time Babybot's fans reached the firm's final milestone, 1,000 of them were receiving 40% off for the day. "We were giving away our margins for that short period of time," concedes Tran. "But once we got to the 1,000-fan mark, it grew rapidly. We're at a little over 2,000 fans now. So, getting off to an awesome start was really important to us."
Babybot released another innovative campaign, called Share the Love, on Valentine's Day. It gave customers the option of checking out purchases using a Facebook widget that asked for their Facebook login. If they did so, the purchase would be shared with friends and appear on their Wall, along with a promo code for 15%. For each of up to five friends who used this code, the original customer received a $5 credit.
Tran says the uptake was amazing, with fully 30% of customers opting to use the Facebook login. This not only generated sales but exposed the brand to people who'd never heard of Babybot.
Engaging in public conversations with thousands of customers does carry risks, of course. At Voices.com, Ciccarelli has instituted social-media guidelines for his 15 employees. These consist of two pages of bullet points outlining what employees should and shouldn't do if they encounter specific problems.
Scissons, for his part, says it's too late for firms to worry about whether social media is a good idea or not. "That ship has left the dock," he says. "There isn't a major Canadian company you can search for that doesn't have lots of positive and negative things written about them online."
In the end, says Scissons, the positives usually outweigh the negatives. In any event, social-media forums often regulate themselves, he says, with disgruntled complainers being drowned out by ardent devotees who come to the brand's rescue: "There are almost always more people that love the brand and will defend it."
The important thing is that SMEs think through their campaigns, says Scissons. This means, first, defining objectives; second, considering which types of content would be useful; and, third, selecting the platforms best suited to this content.
Once a campaign gets rolling, monitoring Web traffic and return on investment become equally important. To that end, Scissons recommends software such as Involver and HootSuite, which allow managers to publish content, monitor conversations and track analytics. Ciccarelli raves about Salesforce.com's CRM software, which integrates with Google Analytics to build detailed reports about where visitors are coming from, what they're buying and how their behaviour changes over time.
Whatever the strategy, says Scissons, SMEs should be careful when using social media. Uploading random product shots and comments that are streamed onto thousands of Facebook walls, he warns, could have the opposite effect of what you intend: "If you have no idea what you're trying to accomplish, your customers won't have any idea, either."