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Getting serious about social

Because social media began as the purview of college kids and hipsters, it’s taken some time to register in the business community as a serious path to connection with customers. At the same time, the tools themselves have grown up and are now bringing real value to consumers and to the brands they love. We’re at an exciting moment of inflection, and one that smart companies are seizing with gusto. 

But at this point, most companies have built fan pages on Facebook, opened an account on Twitter, asked someone in their organization to manage it and that’s about it. It’s a good start, but there is so much more you could be doing. The designer Marc Jacobs is on the forward edge in social, using Pinterest — a digital cork board for easy sharing of images and ideas — to provide a sneak preview of his designs to his followers, and to get feedback from and have interactions with fans.

Now I can hear you saying, that’s all fine and well for a NYC designer, but I’m in the CPG world, what can we do at our size and scale? A recent program we did at Collective Bias with Glidden Paint using our influencer community featured a DIY project to makeover a room in the house. Bloggers engaged with their followers about their project, documenting their stories, asking them to vote on the new color choices and more. The resulting content was rich and substantial, driving awareness and sales for the brand. 

In the coming year, we will see more brands and retailers leverage exciting new technology to connect their social efforts at the shelf. The technology appetite of consumers is becoming more voracious every day. Smart marketers will reach out to engage their customers all along their journey. One look at the news from the Consumer Electronics Show out in Las Vegas, or the rapid adoption of smartphones — about half of Americans today use them, up from just 18% two years ago — tells you the tidal wave of mobile and social commerce is already here.

QR codes, for example, are great engagement tools, but only when used creatively. Consumers don’t need another link to your corporate website, they want something that adds value to their shopping experience. If they are going to take the time to scan a QR code while in the store, which usually involves managing crying kids, then make it worthwhile for them. Point customers to a digital coupon, unique product information or offer, a mobile app or Twitter feed of someone in your company who is a “voice” in social. There are a slew of e-commerce mobile apps available to consumers to enhance their shopping experience. Brands and retailers that use this technology to offer valuable benefits to shoppers will win. 

“I love the apps that let you integrate your gift cards, loyalty cards and store coupons,” said Elizabeth Peterson of Traded My BMW for a Minivan. “I love not having to carry cards with me or use my phone number. I think I probably go to Starbucks more now that I can just use my phone to pay and I get rewarded for it.”

The Altimeter group recently reported that the number of brands and retailers implementing social media into their marketing plans increased in 2011 and will continue to grow this year. Consumers already are talking about your products in this space. Why not join their conversation? Consumers love it when they receive direct engagement from brands — it only increases brand loyalty. 

For many companies, the mere potential for negativity is so scary they simply choose not to play. Anyone watching the recent American Airlines drama unfold with Alec Baldwin over Twitter — or other recent public meltdowns amplified through social channels — might conclude that social media is dangerous for business. But companies that stand on the social media sidelines will face increasing challenges from their competitors who are building relationships with their customers, managing social media effectively and taking some risks.

Anytime you ask someone for an opinion, you open yourself up to both positive and negative comments. Social media doesn’t facilitate negative comments over positive ones. It transparently amplifies your company’s most prominent traits. If you have quality products backed by responsive customer service, that will shine through. As with any conversation, how much you interact and how you choose to respond will determine your success.

Kate Berg is President of Collective Bias, a social shopper marketing company that builds relationships between brands and retailers by leveraging social channels.