The Case for Social Web Marketing

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June 16, 2011
Marketing
Joe Buhler

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For the past few years, social media has developed from being a topic written about only by some early adopters and specialist media to one recognized by just about anyone and covered by main stream media. Organizations in any industry and sector have started to recognize that this is not a short-term fad but rather an issue that needs to be addressed for its implications on the business.  Social media has gone mainstream.

Despite this intense focus on what is also described by the wider term, social Web, a lack of understanding of what it all means still remains, especially among small to midsize businesses. A lot of the reporting, rather than bringing clarity to the issue, often results in more confusion. In large part, this is due to the almost exclusive focus on the various hot and shiny new tools, which have burst onto the scene and entered the popular vocabulary. All the talk about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Foursquare, Gowalla and many more doesn’t really provide any guidance about how to successfully address the challenges presented by a radically transformed marketplace marked by unfiltered communications and conversations.

So, let’s step back and focus on some basic tenets of successful business practice first. The proven adage that tactics follow strategy remains applicable in this situation and the first question you need to ask yourself is, why? This is a good way to start out on the path to engage with your customers on the social Web and here are a few good reasons why.

One, because millions of people are communicating using social Web tools, with Facebook being the dominant social network approaching 700 million global users, with 50 percent of them logging in any given day. Two, Twitter just recorded 200 million people with an account. Granted, a huge majority is not very active and many have hardly any followers, but those who are, and there are tens of millions, have a high degree of influence with their followers on a wide range of topics and travel happens to be one of them. Three, YouTube has become the second largest search engine after Google and is on the way to have 500 million unique users who spend nearly 3 billion hours on the site per month.

This should convincingly answer the question, why. These are numbers that cannot be ignored by any business because even if only a tiny fraction of the total number of people talk about your business in these social networks it is a huge audience where the conversation is happening about any topic imaginable, with travel being one of the favorites. These conversations are your market. To be absent from it and unengaged, is simply no longer an option.

Equally important is the second question, how? How do you mark your presence in this massive marketplace of communities? This is where you need to look at your own organization first. How are you interacting today with your existing customers and how do you try to attract new ones? How ready are you to do this with an authentic voice in a transparent environment with no place to hide and paper over any blemishes? Is your culture an open one, both within the organization and with your audience? Are your employees really your most important asset, as is so often proclaimed by the CEO, but equally as often not reflected in reality? If your answer to these questions is negative, you are not ready to engage; if it is positive, you are well positioned for success in this brave new world.

A successful social Web marketing strategy starts with listening and learning, not with pitching and selling. After doing this for a while, and gaining social capital by participating and contributing valuable content, the audience will realize how sincere you are and they will spread your message for you with more credibility and effectiveness than you can do on your own. Your job is to enable and encourage that word of mouth on steroids. This is only possible if you realize that the customer controls the conversation and ultimately your brand but that you need to be an active participant with an open mind while continuing to provide a superior product or service.

Only after finding the answers to the strategic questions of why and how, are you ready for the third one, what? This is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. Based on a careful analysis of overall business goals and objectives, the tactical tools need to be evaluated for their effectiveness and for the ideal fit into your overall marketing effort. Social media is not a replacement of all your present marketing activities but a key element of an integrated strategy required to produce positive results. By now there are at least a hundred case studies, which address and answer the question of social Web marketing ROI. With a smart approach your own effort should show equally positive results.

The next step after going through the evaluation process outlined here, is to start your engagement on the social Web and maintain an active presence, at least on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These are free tools, but their management, active use and content creation require internal and initially external resources. There is a serious level of commitment required to not only do social but for your business to actually be social. On the other hand there is no alternative today and going forward. Not being present on the social Web is just no longer an option.

Joe Buhler is principal of buhlerworks a social Web marketing consultancy and social Web and destination marketing analyst at PhoCusWright, Inc. the travel industry research authority on the evolving dynamics that influence how travelers, suppliers and intermediaries connect.

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