"In the YouTube era, the illusion of control is no longer sustainable."*
Social media, social networking, social marketing, social recruiting. Whatever you call these new connectivity platforms, they're sweeping the business world in 2009--much as the Internet and World Wide Web did circa 1995.
Everybody wants in on the action, but no one is quite sure how. Okay, maybe some people know. We asked a few--and went online (of course) to find out more. We also pulled a few thoughts from "The Long Tail," a book by Wired magazine Editor Chris Anderson on how Web 2.0 and social media have transformed marketing and sales.
One of the most important things to understand about social media and Web 2.0 (and for many "Old Skool" types the scariest) is the 2.0-way-ness of social media; the loss of control associated with its successful deployment. This also is perhaps the trickiest part to understand. Let's start with a bit of online history.
In many ways, the first Internet era (1995-2005) was about adapting print and other traditional media to an online environment. Lead generation and franchise recruitment went online, and expensive glossy sales brochures went digital, changing in some ways to adapt to the new medium. Yet despite the emphasis on "interactive," it was still mainly about "push," about one-way communication.
"In the YouTube era, the illusion of control is no longer sustainable."*
By contrast, social media is all about listening, about letting customers (or anyone, for that matter) tell you what they want, and allowing them to help shape your company's brand, products, and even your message. For many sales and marketing pros, this is scary. It means not controlling the message. It means accepting feedback 24/7--online, where the whole world can see it, even before you do. And it means responding on that same stage, where any mistakes go worldwide in an instant.
"From a marketing standpoint, what new media allow any marketer to do is create a conversation with consumers," says John Carroll, mass communication professor at Boston University and senior media analyst for NPR radio station WBUR. "For ever, advertising was one-way communication, so it was expensive. But it was also controllable in terms of brand image, message, how often, and on what terms. Now you have a completely different dynamic--a two-way dynamic--and as often as not consumers get to define your image as much as you do."
"For custodians of brands, who have spent most of their careers polishing their messages, the idea that the message is longer theirs to create and own is somewhere between heretical and terrifying…. There's no stopping it, however."*
Forward-thinkers, however, are embracing the new media. "What you have with social media," says Carroll, "is an opportunity to develop a community, to have a consumer conversation--not only between the marketer and the consumer, but also to encourage consumers to have a conversation and form their own brands, basically around your brand. There's a tremendous amount of potential out there in social media markets."
Feeling left out? Competitors showing up on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube? How do you join the party?
One of the easiest ways to begin is with a Twitter search. Simply type "search.twitter.com" into your web browser and you're off to the races. Then type whatever you want into the search box: your company name, your favorite food or sports team, a word from the day's headlines, or just random words to see who's talking about what. (Hint: Use quotation marks for search terms of more than one word, such as "franchise finance".)
Once you find your e-legs, it's time to make your presence known. Set up a Twitter and/or Facebook account so you can speak, as well as listen. Finding local customers--both existing and potential--is easy, says Boston-based social media consultant Patrick O'Malley, aka 617Patrick.
"Twitter has unbelievable marketing power for businesses," says O'Malley. For example, a Dunkin' Donuts franchisee can use Twitter to search for everyone talking about donuts within 25 miles of their store. "They're your target market, you can follow them. And here's the magic of Twitter from a marketing point of view: if you follow 2,000 people, 50 percent will follow you back."
At least to start. Now you have to engage them if you want to keep them and grow your base. And there are a number of ways--none of which include hard-sell tactics, he cautions. Provide value, such as articles, news, photos, videos, humor, recipes, and conversations on topics you hope they're interested in. Assuming you've done well at this, he says, "You are now cool with them and they'll be cool with you and pass you on to others." So where's the sell?
"Do something to advertise periodically--not a lot or they'll hate you," says O'Malley. He suggests a pitch every 7 to 10 tweets, letting followers know about a special on Coolattas or a new low-fat muffin. For example: "Medford DD special for Twitter followers. Free coffee 1 to 3 pm today. Code MM23."
Then there's retweeting, where your Twitter followers do the work for you by forwarding your offer to their friends. "If you have a great special like free coffee, and instead of an ad on TV or radio you tweet that to 1,000 people, there's a real good chance a bunch of them will pass it on to their followers," he says. "It's the best advertising in history--and can be passed at the speed of the Internet to cell phones, iPhones, etc." And since it's immediate, a timely tweet can give your business a boost when things are slow--whether it's muffins or home repair services.
Rewarding loyal customers with specials, and making them feel special as part of the "in crowd," is also helpful in attracting new customers. Referrals are the gold standard for new business acquisition, whether for new customers or new franchise candidates. It's about the value of trusted peer-to-peer referrals, of quality over quantity, says O'Malley.
"These words have existed in business forever, but have never been more effective than they are today. Think about the power and speed of that retweeted referral," he says. "When has there been a time in history when you could get the word out in a couple of hours to thousands of people for zero cost?" says O'Malley. Twitter, he says, is one of several ways in social media to do this.
"Nothing beats word of mouth, and as we've seen, the Web is the greatest word-of-mouth amplifier the world has ever seen."*
"The beauty is that it's free to do all this, though it does take time," says O'Malley. "You can get to 1,000 people in your target market. For franchises this has tremendous power."
However, he adds, there's more to success in this realm than signing on to Twitter and starting a conversation. "It can be a lot more complicated than that. I make my living on telling companies the good and bad ways to do it," he says.
"Look at it from the perspective of your audience, as opposed to your own perspective," advises Carroll. From a franchisee viewpoint, he says, "Don't think about 'What can I do with Twitter to improve my business?' Think about 'How can I get customers to do what they want with Twitter?' The whole concept of going out and engineering a marketing campaign on Twitter is a mistake. Let consumers make what they want on it." In fact, he says, Twitter itself is a perfect example. "Twitter put out a framework on the web and the users created it," adding their own value to it.
"When you empower consumers to create what they want, that's when you create a bond with them," says Carroll. "You can't make something go viral. It happens in an organic way. Be patient, be smart."
Smart and lucky!
Earlier this year, NAKEDpizza--with only one store, a 600-s.f. takeout and delivery location in New Orleans--went viral and became a poster child for the power of social media. It began in April, when the store replaced its own sign with a large Twitter sign, sparking a worldwide flurry of articles, tweets, and blogs from analysts, consultants, and marketers, as well as queries from potential investors--and made the little company with big plans a social media superstar.
So how did the company do it? Through a carefully orchestrated, costly marketing plan? No, not really, says Robbie Vitrano, CEO of Trumpet Ventures, a New Orleans marketing firm, and a partner heading up branding for NAKEDpizza. It's more about being themselves--online.
"Probably the most important thing is that NAKEDpizza's social media strategy has not been so much a strategy as an organic expression of the business itself--which is a lesson we've learned collectively," says Vitrano. "It's demonstrated less about a precise social media strategy than about having a business idea that is interesting and rich enough in content to initiate conversations in the marketplace."
At NAKEDpizza, that conversation began with the interests of co-founder Jeff Leach, who describes himself on his website (jeffleach.org) as an anthropologist, writer, health advocate, and founder of the Paleobiotics Lab.
"Because of Jeff's interests, there is an interesting conversation latent and ready to take place. It's not just marketing and sales," says Vitrano. "The topic here happens to be humans and food. What's yours? How can you make yourself interesting enough to attract an audience and a following, a fan base with enough legs and juice to keep it going, to keep them coming back in between the coupons?"
(For a short interview with Leach on his company's use of Twitter, see http://adweek.blogs.com/tweetfreak/qa-with-jeff-leach-of-naked-pizza-.html)
Markets are conversations, says Vitrano. Understanding this is essential to succeeding in the world of social media. He attributes part of NAKEDpizza's success to its founders using an authentic voice in their posts. "Lack of perfection makes it accessible, more interesting," he says. "There's great efficiency in authenticity. It may be one of the last great assets."
"Blogging is all about authenticity and the individual voice, not paid spin. Many bloggers seem just culturally mismatched with the preternaturally positive PR professionals, and woe to the flack who's busted trying to game Digg without revealing that he or she is paid to do so."*
Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, is one person who liked what the founders had to say. When he introduced his "Mark Cuban Stimulus Plan" in February, NAKEDpizza jumped at the opportunity--and became his first investment. Today Cuban owns the development rights to all of Texas, which in theory could support 50 to 75 or more units. "He's someone who obviously brings a lot of cachet to the table. He's a smart investor and knows a thing or two about technology," says Vitrano.
Case in point: Twitter was not part of the company's original plans, according to a May 29th post by the company's three co-founders on an Advertising Age blog: "…we had honestly never heard of Twitter two months ago. It was not until Mark Cuban tipped us off that we actually created a Twitter account and sent our first tentative tweets."
Just one month earlier, in response to a snarky criticism leveled by a social media blogger questioning their strategy (lots of followers worldwide, but how many in New Orleans?) on an Adweek blog, the folks at NAKEDpizza wrote: "We erected the sign so that we could notify the 35,000 cars that drive by our store every day that we are on Twitter and if u r as well, plz follow. We are about to place our Twitter handle on 10,000 pizza boxes and will be part of our direct mail campaign--mailing 15,000 pieces every month." To his credit, the blogger posted the response, which generated further responses. In the world of social media, everyone's on the learning curve.
Since then, NAKEDpizza has done further experimenting with Twitter, learning as they go from their own experience and from the feedback they receive from posting their results and thoughts online--a perfect example of the reciprocity and shared value that are integral to social media.
To test the ROI, says Vitrano, they ran an experiment. "We asked people to use Twitter for ordering. On that day, it generated 15 percent of sales; in general, it's 5 to 15 percent." They also use Twitter to spike business, tweeting at the times of day when people make eating decisions. "About 85 percent of the general population don't know what they'll have for dinner. It's an opportunity to make a suggestion," says Vitrano.
And it's measurable. "Our entire marketing outreach is integrated into our POS system, so we are always aware of how our interest is generated," says Vitrano. "We just started an entirely automated online ordering system--generally coming through Twitter."
In mid-September, the company went public with its franchising plans and announced a second billionaire sports team owner/entrepreneur had come on board as an investor. The Kraft Group, owner of the New England Patriots, will provide a cash infusion by investing in the fledgling franchisor as well as providing its business expertise.
Says Vitrano, "We're seeing on a daily basis three, four, or five individuals from all over the world, asking how they can participate in NAKEDpizza by investing or becoming a franchisee."
To state the obvious, one of the greatest things about social media platforms (as with the Internet), is that they provide the smallest operation with the power to garner both international attention and to connect with local customers in their territory. Says Vitrano, "This is all part of the conversation, of listening, of being authentic and responding accordingly. In this sense, social media is the great leveler, the great equalizer, the peer-to-peer interconnection, the one-to-one connection marketers seek."
The big "So what?"
As companies flock to add social media tools to their sales and marketing mix, will it really make a difference? Will the shakeout of customers to brands change significantly? At all? Are Twitter, Facebook, et al. just another set of tools, or real game-changers? What happens when the novelty wears off, when the space becomes saturated, when the thrill is gone?
Today, as franchisors and franchisees adjust to the realities of what the First Wave of the Internet offers in the way of lead generation and recruitment (of franchisees, employees, and customers), it is natural for them to view social media as the Coming 2.0, and to place their bets on this Next New Thing.
Yes, franchisors will learn how to listen to and learn from their customers and build online communities; franchisees will learn how to respond to local needs, improve service, and build customer and brand loyalty by forming one-to-one bonds with their target market; and customers will learn how to collaborate with their favorite brands, meet others like themselves online, and form a community of their own, which they will spread to their friends.
In the process, the thousands of social media experts, consultants, authors, and authorities out there--both self-proclaimed and genuine--will have a field day as social media goes mainstream. Inevitably, companies will overpay for poor results, just as many did in the second half of the 1990s to Internet experts, web designers, lead generation portals, etc.
But as those at the bleeding edge of the learning curve keep saying, it's better to be involved, learning as you go, and keeping up on the new rules as they evolve. It's still the Wild West out there in Web 2.0's social media landscape. Give it time.
"People are watching--before you know they're watching you--and making decisions based on the traffic and the quality of conversation," says Vitrano. "There are a lot of different theories about how one should do it. The important thing is to make a commitment to social media and pay attention to it. Be thoughtful in what you're saying. Be yourself. Use the tool in a way that's appropriate for your business. The most important thing is to get involved."
*From The Long Tail by Chris Anderson
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