It’s not that marketing has become a conversation more than a pitch, or that companies no longer control their brand message, or that customers trust peers more than manufacturers. All of that is true. But there’s something more fundamental.
I had the good fortune this week to spend several days talking shop with a group of high-tech business owners and principals. The event was a summit among the top partners of a large IT manufacturer, looking ahead and developing plans for the coming year. My role was to talk about social media tools and techniques that might help these business leaders grow their markets.
My first thought in preparing was to organize my talk around the most important social media marketing trends on the horizon for the coming year—after all, it’s high season for Top 10 lists on trends and predictions for the coming year. But workshops with engineering principles aren’t like social marketing conferences. You don’t get a room full of breathless excitement and optimism for every new trend, you get a roundtable of skeptics who want to see the roadmap for translating buzz words into revenue.
If you cut through all the hype, what is the single truth that explains social media’s disruptive role in business?
So instead of talking about a bunch of trends for the future, I focused on trying to distill the significance of social media’s impact on business down to a single point. If you cut through all the hype, if you boil all the trends down to one fact, what is the single, incontrovertible truth that explains social media’s disruptive role in business?
The answer lies in the way social media has changed the fundamental relationship between companies and customers. It’s not the fact that marketing has become a conversation more than a pitch, or that companies no longer control their brand message, or that customers want to hear about products from peers more than manufacturers. All of those points and a dozen more like them are relevant and true. But there’s something simpler and more fundamental.
For roughly 115 years—since the time when marketing was formally organized as a corporate function, and not coincidentally at around the same time mass communication and manufacturing were exploding—businesses have viewed their markets as a collection of many one-to-one customer relationships. Marketing’s long march toward automation centers on the efficient manufacturing and management of individual customer relationships, repeated and scaled many times over.
Segmentation and profiling may aggregate customers into groups in order to make advertising more effective and marketing more efficient, but the relationships themselves are still an individual line of communication between company and customer.
What social media has unquestionably changed is that it has turned those collections of individual relationships into a networked community of customers who talk to each other. Sure, customers could talk to each other in the past. But while an owner of a Sears lawnmower in the 1960s might know a few neighbors with the same product, today that same owner can access the opinions of thousands of customers at a moment’s notice.
The networked community of customers enabled by communications technology is the unique contribution of social media that has made possible the tidal wave of trends and hype that have washed over businesses for the past 15 years.
Here’s what it means for business:
While it’s still important to have a compelling brand message and a unique value proposition, messaging and content are no longer sufficient. This is one thing many businesses—and many content marketing gurus—still don’t seem to fully appreciate. Social media is not just a new communications medium to more efficiently blast your carefully crafted message, or even manage your collection of one-to-one customer relationships.
What’s changed is that businesses need to bring their message to life by developing a role in the community of customers they serve. It’s not enough to say you’re a market leader; you have to live that role every day in a way that is meaningful and relevant to your customers.
To do that well, you not only need to understand why your customer wants what you’re selling, you have to understand why your customers want to engage with other customers. What is the shared interest that drives them to connect? Maybe it’s just to compare price and quality before a purchase. But often it’s a lot more than that. Customers connect when there is a need that is not being filled—for support, for training, for new ideas about how to solve business problems, for putting together the pieces that create a more complete solution than any one company is organized to deliver. The list is as varied as the markets businesses serve.
The good news is that because customers are connecting through social media, these aren’t difficult questions to answer if you take the time to really listen and participate—as opposed to, say, putting your Twitter feed on autopilot. Usually it’s just a matter of stepping back and thinking about what you’re trying to accomplish with social media for your business.
If you’re just trying to find something with a better rate of return than email or telemarketing, or if you’re just trying to look relevant by having a Twitter feed or a LinkedIn company page, you’re likely to find social media to be a constantly moving target with elusive ROI.
If you’re just trying to find something with a better rate of return than email, you’re likely to find social media to be a constantly moving target with elusive ROI.
But if you’re trying to join the conversation among your community of customers, if you’re trying to bring your 2-dimensional branding message into 3-dimensional life by talking shop with your product stakeholders, if you’re letting your customers help you realize the role you can play in adding value to the conversation, you’re likely to find social media a valuable way to open and expand your market.
Yes, there are plenty of new trends that will drive another round of hype and debate about social media next year. But underneath it all is a simple truth about the changing relationship between companies and customers: what you used to think of as a market segment has become a networked community of customers. Go join it.