Build Your Own Customer Community. Step One: Observe and Create a Customer Map

build your customer communityMarketing to the social web is increasingly important, but is it right for you and your customers? To avoid the “build it and they will come” syndrome, you have to do your homework, build a solid foundation for your community, and get a dialogue going. So this section is all about the seven steps and four platforms you need to harness the power of marketing to the social web.

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First I’m going to outline the seven steps and then explore each step in more detail, chapter by chapter. To show you how the process works, I’ll use Saturn as an example. Assume, Saturn has four large competitors fighting for the top spot among its particular target consumers: Toyota, Hyundai, BMW Mini Cooper, and Honda. 

The competitors have been gaining ground and consumers no longer value Saturn as a groundbreaking leader in automotive manufacturing and business practices. Management wants to reestablish Saturn’s position as the leader of this industry. If Saturn were a client (it is not) and if Saturn management wanted to market to the social web (and I have no idea what Saturn’s management is up to these days), we would first observe what is happening on the Web as it relates to Saturn. That takes us into step 1.

Steps to Marketing on the Social Web

1. Observe. Go into the social media and the blogosphere to understand the most influential places within the social web. What are the largest communities? What are they talking about? What is the relevant content? For Saturn, we would search throughout the blogosphere to track conversations from bloggers, analysts, automotive writers, and consumers. What are they saying about the company, its products, and its key competitors? Which automotive brands are generating more buzz and which are the focus of the conversations in the digital world?

2. Recruit. To shape a community, you must enlist a core group of people who want to talk about your company, your products, things you are doing, where you are going. This second step is based on the research collected in the first step—you have to know who your recruitment efforts should target.

3. Evaluate platforms. What are the best platforms for your marketing goals? Blogs? Reputation aggregators? An e-community? A social network? (Each of these is worth its own chapter.) Some combination of these, or all four? What kind of search tools? Is your audience more interested in listening to things than reading? Are they interested in seeing a lot of things? Do they want to have questions and answers all the time? Do they want to edit?

4. Engage. Engagement is all about content. How do you build relevant content that will get people coming, talking, responding? How do you build the mix of professional user-generated and enterprise-generated content to do that? Here’s where you really get the dialogue going.

5. Measure. This is self-explanatory, although more difficult to do that it might seem at first glance. What do you need to measure? What is your community really connecting with? What are the most relevant metrics?

6. Promote. While some sites do not need much promotion (think MySpace or YouTube), most do. You have to get out to the other communities. You have to use the social media to get people talking so they will come back and download things. You have to advertise just as if nothing had changed.

7. Improve. Make it better. Add improvements to the site; make it more convenient, more useful, more friendly, more rewarding.

Now back to our Saturn example. In the “observe” step, after searching Saturn’s name, the names of its cars, and its services (e.g., the cars can come installed with the GM OnStar system), we would search for key influencers in the vertical automotive websites, those that specialize in news and information about cars.

One way to find these influences is based on keyword searches. Another is to use search tools, such as Technorati, Google Blog Search, and others, to narrow the focus. Saturn might suggest keywords such as “automotive services,” “top automotive marketing,” and “peace-of-mind driving.” Assume that after we researched the blogosphere and the Web, we learn that Saturn is not taking advantage of the music subsection of the automotive websites.

Suppose we find that Saturn’s competitors are leveraging the music industry to promote their automotive products and services through free music downloads, iPod connections in their vehicles, and concert sponsorships. Assume further that Saturn heavily endorses the music industry, but is not mentioned as often as its competitors in conversations on the Web. The insights we take from this observation step show that Saturn is not dominating the digital channels.

Other automotive companies are generating more buzz from their online campaigns. We learned that the drivers in Saturn’s target market were embracing online tools that make it easier for prospective customers to find information. Also, even though Saturn has been a tremendous supporter of the music industry, it is not promoted at large music industry and festival sites. With these insights, Saturn’s management now has a direction and a goal to begin planning the next steps. With this as a quick overview, let’s dig deeper into how you can take the first step and observe.

Look Who’s Talking

During the observation phase, you want to find out what—if anything— people are saying about you on the Web. Are you being talked about in these new channels and platforms in the digital world? Are any blogs covering you? Are any blogs saying anything about your cars? (If you’re General Motors, they are. In fact, they’re talking about your cars even if you are as obscure as Stanguillini Motors.)

Observation helps you get a handle on the landscape. You’ll discover what is being said and the conversations that are going on about your company, your products, your category, your competitors, your enthusiasts, your detractors, your suppliers, your partners. These are the groups most important to the fabric of your business. Who’s talking is as important as what they’re saying. You need to figure out who is more influential in what is being said.

Although 9,000 blogs may have mentioned your car, there may be only 10 that are critical to your reputation, that are growing, and that are becoming as authoritative as Motor Trend or the New York Times. All of this applies not only to large corporations, but also to fairly small or medium-size companies. Remember, the digital world is a big place with a lot going on.

You’re likely to find conversations that discuss what you make, what you do, who you compete with, what your customers are saying and buying. No matter what your size, there are digital conversations about you, your industry, and where it is going. (If there actually are no conversations, you have an invaluable opportunity to start one.) In addition, you have to analyze the influence of new media.

This is similar to the media kit that newspapers and magazines have always produced. For instance, check how each medium matches the demographics of your audience: how much money your customers make, where they live, what they eat.

You Need a Business Goal

Within this first step of marketing to the social web, there are a number of research guides that a company should establish before proceeding:

  • Identify and prioritize the company’s needs and goals.
  • Important dates that will determine when in-market activities will need to start.
  • Target audience definitions—whom are we most interested in getting a point of view from?
  • Products/services to be searched.
  • Which languages to search.
  • Top four or five competitors.
  • Best practice comparisons. Which competitors within the industry or in other industries are using the digital channels to their advantage, particularly social media?
  • Keywords for searching the Web.
  • Tools audit. Which tools (if any) are we already using to monitor, track, and report?

It should be obvious—but it is not always—that before you begin to think about marketing to the social web, you must have a business goal or marketing goal of some kind. Is there a target market you want to reach more effectively? Do you want to reach a certain market more often? Do you want to change the message for a particular market?

You might set a marketing goal around an event such as a product launch. Or you might be experiencing—or think you are about to experience— a crisis of some kind: a product recall, a government investigation, a strike. Start by defining the business goal you are trying to achieve through this whole activity and come up with important dates. For instance, if the business goal is a successful product launch of a new product, nail down the date that product is launching and whether there is any kind of prelaunch beta period or anything that might affect the launch.

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Define the Target Audience and Speak Their Language

Then you need to define the target audience. Whose point of view is most important to your business? What customer group is your most immediate focus? Do you care about teenagers? Do you care about Java developers? People with diabetes? Quilters? Big 10 football fans? You can define the target audience by behavior, demographics, topical interests, or whatever is relevant to the business goal.

This is an absolutely critical point. As in other marketing efforts, the more precisely you can define your target audience, the more effective your marketing will be. You may discover, for example, that the behavior you are looking for is among people who don’t use the Internet much.

I have assumed up to this point that the target audience you are trying to listen to and later influence is in fact on the Internet. That may not be true, and once you learn your target is not on the Web, you may want to review your business goals.

You also need to define which products or services are relevant to the business goals.With a new refrigerator, as an example, are you going to look at energy efficiency, recycling issues, service experience, dealer comments, cleaning tips, or some other aspect? With a new sandwich shop, are you going to consider nutrition (a must), variety, breads, condiments, beverages, music, in-store ambience, take-out service, environmental impact?What do people care about? And if you find an issue that the target market seems indifferent toward—such as environmental impact—should you care anyway and take it into account?

You have to decide what languages you are going to search. While English is on its way to becoming the universal language, if you’re a global company doing business in France, Germany, Spain, Japan, China, or any country where the Internet is significant and English is not, you need to search in the native language. The Japanese are the most active bloggers in the world right now. You should figure out what languages are relevant and have someone with the appropriate skills conduct observation.

Look for Best Practice Examples

Given your business goal and target market, you want to look at competitive websites (or the subdomains of the websites) with an eye toward identifying best practices in managing digital conversations. Carefully examine the features and functions and the uses of social media on your competitors’ websites and relevant subdomains. Ideally, you should select one or two websites outside of your direct competitive set that can serve as best-practice examples of specific elements.

For example, Oracle did a flash piece called, “Who Caught John Blade?” (I found it on the Oracle.com site and it may still be available if you search.) This piece was probably made from a high-end video that was originally produced for major account sales calls. Essentially, it’s a who-done-it mystery that takes viewers through a case example of a close call with a terrorist bomber trying to get into a nuclear power facility with a vanload of dynamite.

The movie follows characters from the local Georgia police department, Homeland Security, and the Savannah River Nuclear Power facility as they work on their computers, send information back and forth, and try to connect the dots, starting with the theft of dynamite from a construction site all the way to the arrest of the alleged terrorist.

At the end of each snippet of the story, an Oracle spokesperson explains the different Oracle tools used by the characters to swiftly narrow down what is going on and eventually catch John Blade before anything happens. After Oracle made the piece and released it, there was a relatively big splash but that was the last I heard about it. Still, when I first saw it, I thought it was an awesome use of social media. “John Blade” is very interactive, it tells a story, which is always a great way to capture attention in marketing activities, and it is a cool story.

It’s an excellent example of communicating compelling product information in the digital world. Another example of how to use social media is IKEA’s site (Ikea.com). Click the “Ask Anna” button to bring up an avatar, a graphic representation of an IKEA customer representative that is animated by computer technology. Her text message says, “Welcome to IKEA. I’m Anna, IKEA United States’s Automated Online Assistant. You can ask me about IKEA and our products and our services.

How can I help you today?” If you type, “I want to redo my bedroom,” Anna takes you immediately to the “Beds and Bedding” pages of the site. Given the number of items for sale on the IKEA site, this is an utterly painless and simple way to search for what you want. Avatars are fairly common now, and studies have found that using an avatar sales agent leads to more satisfaction with the retailer, a more positive attitude toward the product, and greater purchase intention.

It is another cut on search functionality and another way to avoid calling the retailer and going through 47 menus in the automated phone system. In principle, the avatar gets customers to their destination faster than clicking or calling and it may help reduce customer calls, which reduces the retailer’s costs.

Select Key Words and Begin to Search

Next you want to select 10 to 15 key words, the search terms that lead you to the blogs, the news sites, and the communities that are discussing, mentioning, or rating the topics that concern you most. Now you’re ready to embark on your search. You can use a number of tools here.

“Snorkeling tools” (like Cymphony, BuzzMetrics, Nielsen’s Brand Pulse, Intelliseek, or Metrocity) can identify where you’re being mentioned. Search tools (like EveryZing) can help you check for mentions in video, podcasts, and audio files.

But before you begin, find out if somebody within your company is already auditing online conversations. Quite often when we go into a company and propose we do this work, we find that somebody is already using a snorkeling or search tool. Does somebody in your corporate communications, your interactive group, or your Web group (or whatever it’s called in your company) have or license any proprietary tools? If so, use them. All the Internet tools exist for searching have their strengths and drawbacks.

The Web is a Wild West in terms of these tools. But there’s a counterintuitive aspect to this: You might assume that because something is on the Web, you’ll be able to find and measure it in a very detailed way. Unfortunately, that’s not quite true. You have to understand what and how the tool is measuring. And you have to understand and relate what the tool measures to what you’re trying to discover.

For example, a free tool called Alexa can search URLs. Type a URL into the Alexa search function and it will tell you the traffic ranking by week, by month, average page views, and more for the way Alexa measures traffic. Here’s the catch: Unless the material you are searching incorporates the Alexa tag into its own code, Alexa doesn’t pick it up. So the Alexa ranking is only meaningful within the Alexa sphere. But even if your company has licensed a proprietary tool like Cymphony, you should probably start with what we call the “reputation aggregators,” any search capability-type site where the results are automatically ranked: Google, Yahoo, MSN.

Now comes the grunt work for which there is no shortcut, no silver bullet. You must search one site after another, using the parameters you have defined and working hard to stick to them (because it is embarrassingly easy to get sucked down rabbit holes).

This absolutely requires a pair of intelligent eyeballs connected to the brain of someone who begins to learn the players in the blogs, in the communities, and on the news sites. This person also has to get to know the issues and the lingo at least as thoroughly as somebody who works in the domain. In time, someone with this ability begins to recognize the rhythm of the conversations that are going on and can identify the hot topics and the trends. This part of the process is difficult to describe exactly. There is no replacement for simply doing it.

Use several different Web searching and tracking tools, an extensive database of key influencers and the conversations they have about the product and service, then look for patterns in the key words generated. If you have well-defined parameters, in three to five weeks of reading blogs, forums, postings, and community sites, you should have your finger on the pulse of what is going on.

For example, assume your business goal is a new product introduction. How do you connect your observation to this goal? Think about your best prospects for this new product: What are the characteristics of those prospects? What are the types of things they will want to know? What will interest them in your product? Now look around the Web to locate where those types of people tend to hang out. What blogs do they read (or would they read if they existed)? What communities do they belong to, if any?

The answer could be “none,” but if your product is new software, for example, you are going to find all kinds of communities. While you are reading through all blogs, news sites, and communities, in the back of your mind you should ask yourself: How can we influence the folks on the Web who influence our prospects and customers? What you find in this observation step may surprise you. Take consumer travel, for example. Say you market vacation packages.

Based on your business’s situation, your parameters might include a target audience of people 55-and-older who have traveled outside the continental United States at least once in the past two years; English language sites; and three or four key potential destinations— Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kyoto, and Seoul. You might find (to your surprise and delight) that the thing people talk about most is currency conversion—how to do it, how to think about it. Currency conversion turns out to be a very hot topic. Conversations pop up about whether to bring traveler’s checks, an ATM card, a credit card, a debit card, or convert money before leaving home.

People want to know how much hard currency they should carry and what is the best place to find information on the exchange rates. Now you’ve got an interesting insight. You started off wanting to know how best to reach consumers who are interested in planning to travel to the four destinations that you have chosen. Currency conversion turns out to be a major topic of interest.

If your particular customers are talking about it, your company should become “the” source of information on the topic. Build a community of people who know about, have had experiences with, and can make suggestions about currency conversion. (I’ll talk about these steps in the chapters ahead.).

Create a Customer Map

So far I’ve referred to a target market in terms of the prospective customers a company wants to reach to sell its products or services. But that, of course, is much too narrow a focus. A company of any size targets many customer groups interested in the organization (some authorities call these “stakeholders” or “constituents.”) In this first step of observing the Web, you should identify who is saying what and which customer group they represent.

A case in point is Saturn, which I used as an example early in this chapter. Saturn should be able to identify at least 10 customer groups: the people who buy the cars, the dealers who sell the cars, the service technicians who repair the cars, the finance people who finance the cars, the workers who build the cars, the regulators who rule on emissions and safety, insurance companies, parts suppliers, independent service shops, automotive writers, and more.

While these are all specific and definable groups, they may overlap to some extent. An employee may also be a customer; a dealer may also handle the financing. Nevertheless, it is important to identify all these different customer groups and understand their wants, needs, and concerns, to create a customer map. This is a key point. Customer communities are not limited to the folks who buy from you. Indeed, given your particular situation, your employees may be a more significant customer community to which you should be marketing.

The community of your dealers may be able to offer each other more tips, ideas, and solutions than your own dealer relations people. It is important, therefore, that senior management map all these customer communities to ensure that no group is overlooked and that the groups are periodically ranked. To sum up, the first step in understanding the social web for the marketer is observation. Don’t stop at snorkeling. I often hear comments like, “Oh gee, my brand appeared in this blog or that blog. I Googled the company and I have this list of everything.”

That is snorkeling from the surface. What I call observation involves diving deep into the social media and the blogosphere and understanding the most influential places within the social web world.

You might find that Boing Boing is very powerful with a New York Times-type reader and has more influence on the East Coast than in the Midwest and that it talks about these five topics. Or you might find that iVillage is important to teenagers and young women. Or that theknot.com is rapidly becoming the most important site for prospective brides. Or that yelp.com is reviewing restaurants, nightlife, shopping, and more in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and more.

Here’s an example. You’re a pharmaceutical company selling diabetes drugs and want to know the fastest growing, most important sites or blogs related to diabetes and diabetics. Which ones have the largest communities? What are the members talking about? What is the relevant content on a daily basis? How about the professional e-content of places like MedPundit.com and WebMD.com?

Much like the New England Journal of Medicine, there are digital versions of professional content. You observe the blogosphere, the community sites, the forums, and other places where people are communicating with each other on the Web, and start looking for threads, topics, places where people are commenting. You are definitely going to observe news events, the more traditional things that organizations have watched for years.

But now you look for what is getting picked up and the chatter about it. Once you have done the observation step (“done” rather than “finished” because in a sense, it is never finished because the world continues to move), it’s time to begin recruiting community members.

Useful Tools

Twitter tool for map building: http://followerwonk.com/

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