Who owns your brand? Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009
The days of having one-way conversations with your customers are over.Today, businesses not only talk to their customers, customers also talk back — and to each other — on social networking sites.

You may think that the more buzz there is about your business the better, but are you prepared for the impact that interactive marketing has on your carefully crafted corporate message?

“Marketers have entered an era when they are no longer in charge of the message — and that is scary,” says Debra Zahay, Acxiom Corporation Professor of Interactive Marketing at Northern Illinois University.

Smart Business spoke with Zahay about the impact of interactive marketing on the Web and what businesses can do to regain control of their marketing message.

How is marketing different today than in the past?

It is no longer the 1950s, when everyone came home from work and watched the same TV shows and received the same message. We now have the ability to engage customers through RSS feeds, e-mail, blogging, podcasts, webinars and social networking sites.

When customers want to find out about your product or service, they turn to the Web to read reviews, interact with other customers and give feedback to the business. Ultimately, the result of all this interaction is that the customer ends up owning the brand — they are now in charge.

One of the opportunities this interaction creates is a new ability for businesses to take this data from customers and create personalized messages and even products.

Amazon.com — the poster child of interactive marketing — remembers your preferences, profile and what you ordered, and then makes recommendations for future purchases. Interactivity is also driving new products, such as Nike shoes; a longstanding feature on its Web site allows customers to personalize running sneakers with not only color and style but also the customer’s name.

But there are major challenges to interactive marketing. The first challenge is figuring out which channel is the most effective for your particular product or service. The second is how to control and manage all the talk and opinions about your company. The third is figuring out how to measure all the relational data that will come streaming in once you jump into social media.

How can a business find the right social media for its message?

Look at your marketing objectives. If you are trying to reach a target audience that is greater than 75 years old, they may be on the Internet, but they are probably not in social media. Fish where the fish are. If your target audience is using just e-mail or is on Facebook or Twitter, go there.

Second, learn social media. After you learn where your target audience is hanging out, learn how to use the media. Sign up for an account on YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook. Learn the landscape and learn how to use social media.

Once it finds the right social media, how can a company use it to best get its message across?

Tie social media to your strategy. What do you want to achieve with social media? For example, Microsoft wanted to create a better image of itself to counter the monolithic image it had with its customers. So it created The Human Face of Microsoft, where one employee blogged about the company, positively and negatively.

The goal is not to always paint a happy and positive picture of the company but to aim for sincerity. Comcast has a huge presence on Twitter and is engaging customers and solving customer complaints using this social networking tool.

Second, remember consumers are very smart and will tune out social media that exist solely to put a positive spin on everything. Consumers are looking for genuine interaction, so involving technical rather than public relations personnel in a blog, for example, is a good idea.

Lastly, monitor the posts. While you don’t want to filter out negative posts, you do want to monitor and delete those that are inappropriate or are not genuine concerns about your product or service.

How can a company measure the data it gets through social media?

What goes on inside social media, unfortunately, is difficult to measure. It’s messy. While you get to know your customers, you can also become overwhelmed by the data. But if you can get a handle on it, studies show you’ll be more successful in customer retention.

One way to manage the data is to create a new position of director of social media. You can also hire a social media consultant if your firm does not have the resources to create this position.

But realize that even a social media expert will have limits on what he or she can report. It is nearly impossible to figure out how these social media channels are interacting. It is possible to build models to track some of them, but you might never pinpoint the marketing ROI of, say, all your time spent Twittering or on Facebook.

Debra Zahay is Acxiom Corporation Professor of Interactive Marketing at Northern Illinois University. Reach her at (815) 753-6215 or zahay@niu.edu.