Companies should consider value before jumping into social media

It might turn out to be the worst year in recent memory for the PR industry, but there has been great progress in the use of social media to reach various constituencies.

It might turn out to be the worst year in recent memory for the PR industry, but there has been great progress in the use of social media to reach various constituencies. From Skittles' experiment, whereby the company turned over its homepage to a running search of Skittles references on Twitter and employed various other social networking curios, to eBay's decision to live blog its recent analyst day via Twitter, companies are finding groundbreaking ways to use Web 2.0 properties for marketing campaigns. Of course, we don't quite know whether a revamped Web site will drive people to purchase Skittles over some other confection, or whether eBay's tactic actually appealed to investors, but campaigns are easy – measurement is hard.

While it is promising to see companies experimenting – especially in an economic environment where experimentation is usually verboten – there is still a lack of leadership in the industry as to how to link what can be done and what should be done. We don't doubt that great thought goes into these types of campaigns, but there seems to be an absence of explanation for particular endeavors. Is it the concern about giving away the secret strategic sauce, or are companies merely trying out things to attract buzz with little thought beyond that?

Certainly there is room for experimentation, even in this economy. Yet, if social media efforts are to succeed, they must have a purpose aligned with a specific business goal. Article after article discusses consumers' monomaniacal focus on value, which of course is the product of utility plus price. Value, not buzz, is the major driver today. And while those who follow Twitter might serve as “influencers” by alerting non-social media-adopting friends to the unique corporate marketing campaigns online, merely having a presence does not a value argument make.

At this point, the marketing community's obsession with Twitter might be slightly misplaced. The latest cited traffic figures place unique visitors to Twitter behind a number of news outlets. While Twitter's numbers are more than respectable, the Web 2.0/media echo chamber might be placing too much emphasis on the service that offers the greatest opportunity to reach a large group of people. Indeed, Twitter could be the Velvet Underground of social media applications – VU, it was said, had only 1,000 fans, but those 1,000 people all formed bands that influenced the greater public. Traditional media and nontraditional influencers are big boosters of the service, but let's get some results before we declare it the most important thing in the cosmos.

Inevitably there is talk about a Twitter backlash, due to its embracement by the PR community. As any new channel arises, the marketing community joins up, and tinkers and tests the boundaries of said technology. Twitter has not yet reached critical mass and we're already at a crossroads. The key driver for anything successful in 2009 is value. That not only applies to the consumer you are reaching, but also that of your client or company.

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