Intent is the new demographic

I'm Facebook friends with my mom. I check out reviews of restaurants that are 3,000 miles away. I belong to an online community for multiple sclerosis that counts nearly every age and race among its membership.

I'm Facebook friends with my mom. I check out reviews of restaurants that are 3,000 miles away. I belong to an online community for multiple sclerosis that counts nearly every age and race among its membership.

Clearly, the old notions of “demographics” are becoming less applicable as broadband penetration continues to increase, and adoption of social networks and other Web 2.0 technologies steadily rise.

Age, race, gender, and geographic location begin to lose importance as more of us use the Web for similar activities. As a result, the idea of “right message, right place, right time” is gaining importance. In order to effectively communicate with audiences online, we have to move beyond understanding who they are, and begin tailoring the message to what they want. And we now have the ability to anticipate a user's “want” or intent, with search engines serving as the gateway to most Web experiences. Delivering messages that align with that intent, at crucial moments, is key to engaging netizens.

Catching up with friends, exploring passions, finding bargains, and seeking support are among a few of the many activities that audiences are engaging in online. Through these activities, users encounter blog posts, video clips, message boards and a host of other social media. The challenge for any brand is to understand how to add value to the conversations that are already taking place, and how to ignite conversation where none exists. Ultimately, the measure of brand participation in social media will always come back to whether or not we added something of value that delivers on the user's intent.

There are a number of ways for PR practitioners to add value to the conversations taking place online. The first and most important approach would be to turn brand experts into social media ambassadors. There are executives, employees, spokespeople, and other thought-leaders in our orbit that could be trained to participate online, actively joining conversations and contributing new content that's relevant for the brand.

The next approach would be to fulfill unmet needs. Look for common themes of the audience and then determine if there's something that can be provided to help alleviate that issue or fill that void. Is misinformation consistently being written about a certain topic related to the brand? Perhaps that's the perfect chance to create a series of blog posts, videos, etc. that speak directly to that issue.

Lastly, it's ok to offer some incentives for users in return for engaging with one's brand. Sears gives $10 to every one of their new Facebook friends. Zappos alerts Twitter followers to special promotions and discounts. Everybody loves a bargain – and given the current economic environment, some incentives may go a long way toward bring people closer to the brand. There are many more ways to add value to the conversations taking place online, and one is encouraged to look at the unique attributes of their brands that can be of value as well.

One of the main benefits that comes from understanding the audience's intent, is that we as PR professionals can begin to tap into to the always-on focus group that is social media. Looking to add value for users means that we are gaining insight about how to optimize not only our communications, but the brand itself.

Tyler Pennock is SVP and director of social media at Ruder Finn.

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