Online marketing tools are a dime a dozen, but the most effective among them build links not out of persuasion, but rather the passion of your potential customers. Social media marketing is changing the rules of the game - here's how you can get involved.
Photo credit: Marc Dietrich
The first incarnation of the world wide web was defined by static websites, banner advertising and a one-way, top-down approach to delivering information. Web 2.0, on the other hand, is every bit about opening up the conversation and blurring the line between producer and audience.
Whether you look at the huge success of online video sharing sites such as YouTube, user-generated news destinations like Digg, or social networking services as typified by MySpace, the new web is all about social media. Media made by the people, for the people, and in a constant dialogue with the people.
To effectively promote your business, organization or publication in this brave new world it isn't enough to fall back on the tried and tested marketing methods of Media 1.0. The new breed of marketing engages with potential customers on their own terms, rather than trying to blanket bomb them into submission.
In this guide to the landscape, I take you through ten ways you can leverage social media marketing to promote your business and build a loyal customer-base. I look at:
Photo credit: Marc Dietrich
So what exactly are social media, and why have they become so important to marketing? It isn't that traditional PR and marketing are dead in the water, so much as the fact that new and evolving audiences can be reached in a number of exciting new ways, without necessarily having to lay down a single cent.
Wikipedia defines social media marketing as:
''Social Media Marketing (SMM) combines the goals of internet marketing with social media sites such as Digg, Flickr, MySpace, YouTube and many others. The SMM goals will be different for every business or organization, however most will involve some form of viral marketing to build idea or brand awareness, increase visibility, and possibly sell a product or service. SMM may also include online reputation management.
Most online communities don’t welcome traditional direct or hard sell techniques so an effective SMM campaign will require more finesse to execute properly. SMM campaigns must be targeted to the community you want to reach with a message that appeals to them. Some common ways of achieving this are with authoritative information, entertainment, humor or controversy.''
Social media is a broad term, then, encompassing the full range of ways that people can share their thoughts, information and data across the web. And because people are the center of these media, rather than on the periphery, there is a natural distrust of traditional marketing tactics within them. If you want to succeed in social media marketing there is no short cut, no easy way out - you are going to need to engage with your customers directly.
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Viral marketing doesn't involve using germ warfare on your prospects, but rather tapping into the organic process of strong ideas or content being replicated over and over. In other words - if you create media that people enjoy or find useful in some way, they are likely to pass it along and spread the word about it. If that media happens to be linked back to your web presence in some way, the results are of course a new influx of potential customers.
The two most important things about viral media content are:
The most important thing to remember is not to make your content look like a tacky commercial. Nobody will want to spread that around. Be subtle in your branding, get people to visit your web destination, and do your selling from there. Viral media is supposed to entice people, not necessarily sell something to them.
Photo credit: Pavel Losevsky
At the heart of social media is community, and there are many ways that you can go about fostering a strong community presence around your web destination. At the very least, make sure you have a blog that gets updated more than once a month, and make sure that you always respond to comments left by your readers.
Beyond blogging there are a wealth of other alternatives. The most ambitious among them is setting up your own social network service using one of the freely available tools for doing so. A social network service will allow your users to set up user profiles, befriend one another (and you), share media files, discuss common interests in user forums, and take part in other community features together.
If your product is something that people can get passionate about, or even just feel the need to discuss, you may have the makings of a micro-MySpace. Among the tools that make it possible are:
Photo credit: Murat Baysan
It isn't enough to expect people to come directly to you with their praise or criticism. The blogosphere is a very big place, and if you want to keep some kind of control over how the public perceives your product or service, you are going to need to respond to what people have to say about it.
If somebody writes a positive review of your product, make a point of thanking them either by email, or even better in the comments section of their blog. Likewise, if a critic or customer has something negative to say about you or your service, be sure to respond constructively to their thoughts. A company that listens and enters into discussion with its evangelists and critics will at least win respect, and at best, a wider following.
Finding out who's saying what is as simple as running a series of searches using a blog search tool like Technorati or IceRocket using your product name. You can even subscribe to the RSS feed for your results and have the latest updates brought right to your desktop
Photo credit: Emin Ozkan
If you have a blog or a website make sure that you make it easy for people to find, scan and share your work with the utmost ease.
First and foremost, write great titles for your blog posts. The quality of your titles will determine whether your article is ever found, or chosen from a stream of alternatives by potential readers. Robin Good wrote a useful tutorial on what makes for an effective title on the web.
Also, make it easy for your reader to scan your content for points of interest. If you present them with endless, long paragraphs they are likely to leave your website without having read a thing. Robin Good shows you how in his article on information design for bloggers.
Finally, once your reader has enjoyed the content for themselves, make it easy for them to pass it along using the popular social bookmarking and social news sites. You can do this, for instance, by adding a Digg this or other social bookmakring button that will appear at the end of your article, and allow readers to instantly share your content.
Photo credit: James Steidl
Casual social media users will not be given the same respect and kudos as those that have contributed content over time. If you take pains to build up a reputation for expertise in your niche area, this will finally result in your gaining the confidence of other members of your respective community - the best kind of marketing there is.
For example, if you are knowledgeable about a certain something that happens to be connected to your business, contribute content to open projects like Wikipedia or Yahoo Answers. Just remember that contributing content isn't the same as spamming links to your company website and doing little else besides. This is the surest way to get your content deleted by moderators.
However, if you include this information within context, having already contributed elsewhere within the community, it is much more likely to be deemed trustworthy and acceptable.
The same can be said for contributing to social news or social bookmarking sites, like Digg or de.licio.us - take the time to build up a reputation as a valuable source of news and links, and you will be given more leeway when it comes to promoting your own web content.
Photo credit: Kheng Guan Toh
If you can effectively gather information from around the web and bring it together as a niche-targeted resource, you will already have a reason for people to visit your website that goes beyond simply buying your product or signing up to your service.
The most effective way to do this is by aggregating and publishing filtered news feeds using RSS. This gives you the opportunity to create a stream of news targeted precisely to your customer profile, which will in turn save that customer from having to chase around the web finding it all for themselves.
This process of creating a News Radar has been extensively covered by Robin Good, and is easier than it might sound. Then, when you have an aggregated stream of the latest niche news, you can easily publish it to your website using on the of simple RSS to HTML tools available.
Photo credit: Bora Ucak
Further to the previously mentioned option of creating your own social network service, there are many other opportunities for you to engage directly with your customers. From your own website you can do so through your own site-embedded chat room, visually enhanced voice messaging or at very least the comments section of your blog.
But remember, you shouldn't expect your potential customers to come flocking to you, at least not in the first instance. So it's just as important to go out an meet future customers on their own turf.
Join or start groups on services like YouTube or Flickr, and consider creating user profiles on the major social networking services such as MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn. Play an active part in extending your community by engaging with its potential members as people rather than prospects.
Photo credit: Stephen Coburn
It's one thing to have a News Radar and another to cover hot news stories on your company blog. By using the networking tools mentioned so far - with a special emphasis on RSS and social network services - you have the rich potential to get wind of niche-targeted breaking news of real interest to your customers. Furthermore, if you are the first to cover a story, you will be linked to again and again by all that follow in your footsteps, bringing site visitors back to the source.
By subscribing to the latest press releases via services like PR News Wire, paying close attention to the RSS feeds you have set up for your custom News Radar, and doing plenty of good old-fashioned networking with others in your field, sooner or later you will land a piece of hot breaking news that will guarantee your website a lot of interest, and help to win you new leads in the process.
Photo credit: Zlatko Kostic
Blogging is one great way of building up your online presence, but there are many more besides that will further consolidate your web-based identity, and in turn help you to promote your product or service. Among the other options you should consider if you want to extend your reach beyond the pages of your website are:
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Finally, why not bring your audience together either online or in the flesh?
The possibilities for creating online webinars, Skypecasts, or live text chat make it easy to create a one-off event online that could well prove to be a major pull for your potential customers, if you get your topic right.
But you don't have to draw the line at meeting online, when there are plentiful opportunities to take advantage of social media for arranging live, face-to-face gatherings. Consider putting together an unconference or barcamp - informal gatherings of like-minded people sharing their thoughts on a particular niche topic.
You can make use of a number of web-based tools to find - or indeed create - such events in your local area:
Social media doesn't get more social than being in the same room, and this is a great way to both win support for your cause and extend your existing network.
Social media marketing takes full advantage of the open, conversational, two-way nature of Web 2.0. Rather than attempting to win new customers - or retain existing ones - through interruptive advertising, branding and static press releases, the social media marketing approach is rooted in engagement.
Audiences are rapidly transforming into participants, and customers into members of communities. If you want to make an impact and stand out from the competition, it has never been more important to enter into a dialogue with your users, and engage with them on a number of levels.
From blogging and news aggregation to social networking and Twitter presence, if you can invest the time in social media, the rewards will become readily visible. Certainly, if you are running a business by yourself there are only going to be so many hours in the day that you can devote to social media marketing, but the incentives are even greater than they are for larger companies. Corporations can and do hire full time social media professionals to build their presence online - if you are working for yourself, the task is left to you.
The key thing is to enjoy it, to immerse yourself in the communities and information streams surrounding your product, service, organization or publication. Over time, if you have engaged with the broader web communities feeding into the lifeblood of your business, your efforts will be rewarded with customers that don't just want to buy your product, but to connect to it on a deeper, personal level.
Engaged customers make for loyal customers, and product evangelists alike. The real beauty of social media marketing, then, is that at some point, your audience starts to do the work for you.
If you would like to read more about social media marketing, you might want to check out the following links:
Originally written by Michael Pick for Master New Media and originally published as: "Online Marketing Tools: 10 Ways To Promote Your Business With Social Media"