So what might the future look like? It certainly won't be the jumble of independent, overlapping, and unreliable tools that we have today. Let's imagine a Social Media future and then consider how we might take actions now that will better prepare us for this future.
The year is 2021. You park your flying car and arrive at a street with three unfamiliar restaurants. At which should you dine? Back in 2008, you'd have gambled and selected one based on its name, signage, or appearance; but here in 2012 you've just been fitted with the latest in contact lens displays. Within moments, you are provided with just the information you want because your personal, portable, and essentially invisible computer knows exactly the data to extract and provide for your consideration.
You may care that one restaurant was rated best overall, another was rated most romantic, and the third was rated best for families. Or perhaps you care about service a great deal, so you are provided with past diners' ratings of the waitstaff for the three restaurants. You can even access data from your network of friends to learn which one is rated best by the people you know, and in doing so may discover a couple of friends are presently dining in one of the restaurants. Based on the objective feedback and information culled from others, you can make an informed selection using the criteria you most value.
If this is the prospect we face--Social Media ever present and integrated into consumers' daily lives--how might we prepare today? If it seems too soon to prepare for this Minority Report-like future, consider what you and your organization might have done in 1995 to prepare for the Internet of 2008; what advantages could you have gained and which mistakes might have been avoided?
I believe there are two broad categories of actions that marketers should take now to pave the road to future Social Media success. The first is to execute the traditional best practices that create and strengthen brands. The second is to begin to embrace the new era of Social Media and create relationships by engaging consumers.
Strengthen Your BrandA strong brand will be perceived better and thus generate more positive Word of Mouth; in addition, stronger brands will be less affected by negative Word of Mouth.
If today your brand is not a strong brand--the kind of brand that people would miss if it were gone tomorrow--you have two choices to prepare for the changes ubiquitous Social Media will bring. You can continue to be one choice among many and constantly struggle to keep up with shifting consumer tastes and competitive offerings. Or you can create a brand to which consumers feel affinity beyond the value of your price, services, and product features.The following is nothing more than Marketing 101, but it never hurts to consider the power of a strong brand:
- Build your brand with emotion: Based on the restaurant example, it may be tempting to think that consumer decisions in the future will be based purely on fact and logic, but successful brands have always found a way to appeal to the right brain as much as the left. The growth of Social Media will make it more important than ever to nurture a brand that creates emotional bonds with consumers.
Last week we revisited the famous story of New Coke. Even though studies conclusively demonstrated consumers preferred the taste of New Coke over the original recipe, people still rebelled against the new product and forced the return of Original Coke. The lesson? Humans are emotional creatures and no matter how much we may wish to believe our decisions are made on fact and logic, the truth is that emotion trumps reason. Social Media will especially threaten those brands that lack an emotional connection and instead compete solely on low price, product features, or execution.
- Maintain your knowledge of what consumers want: A common problem for brands is marketing myopia; most of us in business consider ourselves experts on our own products and consumers, and we become pretty convinced that we understand what consumers want. Business textbooks are full of examples to the contrary, but the lessons we learned as students are quickly forgotten in a business environment that values decisiveness, fast results, knowledge, and experience.
Knowing that many organizations do not gather sufficient intelligence from and about consumers, now would be a good time to assess and improve your consumer research. In a hyper-competitive and transparent world, the brand that understands consumer wants and needs will be best suited to meet them.
- Create a unique position: In our restaurant example, there is room on the street for many restaurants to succeed, provided they serve different needs. One can provide a romantic experience while another may offer the right venue for family dining, but in a future where brands cannot hide from the positive or negative opinions of its customers, there is no room for an establishment that attempts to do both and fails. The key isn't to be the best-rated restaurant on the street (although it doesn't hurt) but to be the best-rated for a certain need state and consumer.
- Create memorable experiences: For some low-engagement brands, the best experience is simply that the product delivers on its promise every time. For other brands, delivering consistent positive experiences can help create affinity while providing excellent experiences can turn affinity into influence in Social Media.
Creating a memorable experience can be done in many ways. It might be proactive service offered via Social Networks. Or marketing that doesn't interrupt consumers but instead enhances their lives. Or hiring and training employees who convey the brand and a superior level of service at every touchpoint. Or violating consumer expectations in an unexpected and delightful way. Or, perhaps it is all of the above, because in a transparent world, the experiences you create will either make or break your reputation and your brand.
Engage Consumers in Social MediaBeing prepared for the Social future will take more than having a unique position and communicating it in traditional advertising channels. Increasingly, success will also depend upon the engagement you have and create with consumers. We can't know all the ways Social Media will grow and evolve in the coming years, but here are some things you can do today:
- Monitor Social Media: The importance of maintaining consumer knowledge was noted above, and Social Media provides new ways for brands to gather intelligence. According to AdAge.com, brands such as P&G and Unilever are leveraging the power of Social Media for research purposes.
Some brands will create private networks, but you don't need to launch an expensive customer network (a la My Starbucks Idea) in order to listen to consumers. Tools such as Twitter search, Technorati Search, and Google Blog Search furnish a means to hear consumer rants and raves right now.
- Step away from the blog and engage consumers where they are: Blogs are a fine Social Media tactic, but in many ways they aren't that different from typical Web sites--blogs offer content provided by the brand within the brand's own private and branded domain. Consumers will rarely feel able to share their honest feedback within sponsored blogs, and frequently if negative opinions are conveyed these are deleted or omitted by moderators.
A glance at Brian Solis's brilliant Conversation Prism demonstrates that blogs are just a small portion of the Social Media realm, and as Social Media grows the vast majority of consumer dialog will occur outside of blogs. It isn't too early for brands to be part of social networks (Facebook and MySpace are already popular for marketers) and Microcontent tools (of which Twitter leads the pack) and to begin testing the waters of social documents, pictures, video, service networks, and the like.
- Communicate the brand internally: Social Media will require more employees to communicate with larger groups of consumers than in the past. Controlling the message and conveying a consistent brand will be very challenging with so many people representing your brand across a variety of channels. Now is the time to make sure those within your organization understand what makes your brand different, the personality it wishes to convey, and the ways its voice can be communicated in Social Media.
Brands don't need to be on the bleeding edge--after all, Bezos wasn't the first to sell books online--but brands that proceed too slowly will be missing opportunities and threats as Social Media becomes more intuitive, more common across consumer groups, and more powerful in shaping consumer perception and actions.