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How to use Web 2.0 to start a conversation with customers

Greg Fine

As if marketing a small to mid-tiered company isn’t challenging enough, along comes another “marketing speak” term to absorb: Web 2.0.

If you are like some of our clients, you’re probably attempting to sort through the hype and unearth the relevance. Here’s a brief primer on Web 2.0, why you shouldn’t ignore it, and how you might employ a Web 2.0 strategy to strike up a powerful one-on-one conversation with your customers.

Web 2.0 goes beyond email and building a website. It is the Internet and its users coming of age. This online evolution is allowing each user to entertain his or her gregarious nature while speaking their mind via blogs, podcasts, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Ning, Digg, etc. From a businessperson’s outlook, this massive, web-based soapbox and the ensuing interaction can be cultivated into invaluable business-to-consumer relationships.

The days of the vertical advertising model are largely past. In this age of the media dog pile, traditional marketing activities the print ad, the radio spot, the 30-second TV commercial, the press release only reach a fraction of your audience as you try to convey your brand’s personality, communicate what you’re selling and explain why customers should consider buying from you. Meanwhile, the rest of your target is hovering over the computer.

More starkly, customers don’t tolerate being “talked to” anymore. That traditional, one-sided braying, which was always controlled by “The Company”‘ is not only ignored, it’s scoffed at, particularly by younger consumers.

The marketing model from here on out should be considered horizontal. In other words, instead of “The Company” talking and expecting the customer to listen, you now have an opportunity to strike up a conversation directly with your customers. The one-to-one relationship is the most basic, most effective sales tool available. Face it: The better you know someone, such as an attorney, a radiologist, or a local banker, the more comfortable you are doing business with them.

Plus, you initiate a conversation with a potential customer earlier in the buying cycle. When they are ready to purchase, they will be familiar with your company while realizing that there is actually a human behind the corporate logo with whom they’ve had some kind of a conversation.

There are many avenues available on the Web to get that conversation started, quickly, easily and typically with a low-cost entry point.

Check out http://www.mayoclinic.com/ and http://twitter.com/JetBlue to see how two organizations initiated sincere back-and-forth conversations.

Granted, these are major players (and don’t we all wish we had their marketing budgets?). But the point is, they use a bevy of easy-to-implement online tools and converse directly with regular everyday folks like you and me, mano y mano.

So, what’s it take to start that conversation?

First, does Web 2.0 benefit your marketing framework? Web 2.0 takes time and diligence. Once you’ve committed, you and your marketing team have to stay on top of it. Whether it’s your in-house team manning the reins, your marketing firm, or a combination of each, there must be a consistent focus. Nothing will turn off a potential buyer/customer faster than a failed promise in this case starting a conversation and then letting it wither.

Second, are your customers online? If your target audience is 95-year-old Siberian dog mushers, you might want to consider other marketing alternatives.

Third, allot budget to the endeavor. While the Web 2.0 realm is not cost restrictive by any means, you will need to support it financially. You and your marketing team have to develop the right online outreach tools, whether it’s a blog, a regular Twitter feed, a Facebook page, a podcast, or a combo thereof. Then you’ll have to consistently provide content with polished marketing, writing and design content.

Fourth, be curious. The beauty of the Internet is its ability to test multiple messages and delivery channels consecutively without incurring the costs of more traditional approaches. Once your program is in place, you’ll have opportunities to test, finesse and adjust as you see the results of your labors produce fruit.

Fifth, and finally, be brave. The reason so many gather online is because it’s a medium that gives all the chance to voice their thoughts. View your Web 2.0 program with likeminded openness. As with any conversation, it’s a two-way street, and you’ll be faced with certain responses that in the old vertical marketing world would never see the light of day. But many companies are truly winning over their customers by listening to complaints, honestly addressing them and sincerely working to make amends. In

July 2006, for example, Dell Computer tackled customer complaints head on and openly with their blog. Their willingness to engage dramatically improved both their reputation and customer loyalty.

Here are three sites you might want to visit:

* http://sharemarketing.wordpress.com/,

* http://www.socialmediatoday.com/SMC/,

* http://www.mycustomer.com/.

Due diligence research will undoubtedly lead you to other background sources.

Greg Fine is a principal and creative director at Ding Communications in Reno. Contact him at Greg@DingThinking.com or (775) 786-3464, extension 1.