Step 3: Evaluate Online Conduit Strategies (And Don’t Forget Search)

Evaluate Online Conduit Strategies (And Don’t Forget Search)Who do you want to reach? What do you want to say to them?

Those are the key questions to think about as you plan your conduit strategies—your plan for using the social web to reach your target audiences. The big four conduit strategies are reputation aggregators, blogs, e-communities, and social networks. And don’t forget search, for the simple reason that you want people to find you.

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Search comes in two flavors: unpaid—or organic— and paid, which can offer a nice return. Wyndham Hotels & Resorts calculates that for every $1 it spends on search advertising, the firm generates $14 in revenue. Small wonder that Wyndham has increased its spending on search advertising by 500 percent since 2001. Roughly two-thirds of its online ad budget—and close to 15 percent of its total marketing budget—goes to search ads keyed to phrases like “Bahamas hotel” and “Phoenix golf.” Kevin Rupert, Wyndham’s vice president of marketing and strategy, says: “Search marketing is a basic foundation—you have to have it.”1 I couldn’t agree more.

This Way to the Conduit

Before I explain the big four in more detail, I want to emphasize that the lines of demarcation between reputation aggregators, blogs, e-communities, and social networks are somewhat permeable. The line between e-community and social network can blur, meaning it’s hard to say where an e-community ends and a social network begins.

The line between blog and reputation aggregator is definitely blurry: Important blogs and the links they cite are very important, and so the blogs themselves are reputation aggregators targeted at a relatively narrow audience. The bottom line: Conduit strategies are not black and white.

This chapter paints the big picture; in Part III, I’ll detail how you can actually use each of the big four conduit strategies effectively.

Now a bit more about them:

  • A reputation aggregator is a site that provides rankings of content/ sites. People use these sites to decide what content they want or need. Examples include Google, Yahoo, Ask, and MSN among others. Reputation aggregators are a key—perhaps the key—gateway for all users to reach online content.
  • A blog (or weblogs, although only pedants call them that these days) is a digital diary; authors create dated journal entries (with or without images) that others can comment on. In the same vein, a vlog is a video blog.
  • E-communities are online sites where people aggregate around a common interest area with topical interest and often it includes professional content. Examples includeWebMD, iVillage, DailyCandy.
  • Social networks are member-based communities that enable users to link to one another based on common interests and through invites. Examples include eHarmony, MySpace, Friendster, and more.

The social web, by the way, covers all four conduits, although you could argue that an e-community site that has no dialogue with its members is not really part of the social web. Also bear in mind that the conduits will continue to change, just as what was considered a website in 1993 would hardly be considered a website today.

Another point: Marketing, advertising, and public relations people often talk about “platforms.” There are really two platforms: the actual physical or electronic platform—a newspaper ad, a television commercial, a magazine article—and the communications platform. To be clear, this chapter is about the online conduits you can use to communicate your platform, not the electronic platforms themselves.

The communications platform involves analyzing who you’re trying to reach and what you’re trying to say. So think about questions like: What do we stand for? What is our position in the marketplace? What are the messages we want to get out to our various customer communities? Is our audience more interested in listening to things than reading about them? Are they more visual, interested in seeing a lot of things? Do they want their questions answered? Do they want to comment about, say, a drug’s side effects, a computer’s performance, a politician’s behavior?

Again, you don’t need to forget everything you already know as a marketer. You’re not starting from scratch when you market to the social web. You’re just adding some new sensibilities and perspectives to your toolkit.

Searching, Searching

As you formulate conduit strategies, consider how search engines (which act as a form of reputation aggregator) rank sites. The rankings can vary widely based on a site’s age, content, keywords, structure, and links to other sites.

In addition, think about how prospects, customers, partners, financial analysts, and other people might go about finding your product or company online. Because some percentage of these people will find you using search engines, you can’t ignore where your site comes up in the search results.

The good news is that you can materially affect search results using unpaid media, such as blogs, e-communities, and social networks. While search engine optimization has become an entire special discipline, the principles of organic search are fairly straightforward. Identify the hot topics and search terms that people are likely to use to find you.

If prospective customers are not deeply familiar with your product or solution, they’re not going to hunt for it. So try to imagine what they will hunt for and “tag” your site so it turns up. (A tag is a word or code assigned to items like Web pages or photos to facilitate searching and sharing. “Bahamas hotel” could be a tag.) If your site is not turning up on search results or is far down in the rankings, you have to start using the other three conduits as well as digital media marketing, otherwise known as paid search.

Your goal is to create branded community-based destinations to start the virtuous circle in motion: a person finds your site, comments, links to it, tells friends and acquaintances who tell their friends and acquaintances who link back to your site, and so it goes. And as the circle grows, your site moves higher and higher in the rankings.

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More about Blogs

You hear a lot these days about blogs and the blogosphere (also blogsphere), a collective term encompassing all weblogs or blogs as a community or social network. Many blogs are densely interconnected; bloggers read others’ blogs, link to them, reference them in their own writing, and post comments on each others’ blogs.

Since a blog is also a website, the term “site” and “blog” can sometimes be used interchangeably if a site has blog capabilities. Is blogging right for your company or brand? Consider what role you want it to play. Do you want to play a thought leadership role? If so, blogging is probably a really good idea.

Here’s the big but: Blogging is a good conduit strategy only if you can imagine you or someone in the company becoming a publisher with an editorial calendar, an editorial agenda, and—guess what?—a writer. The hard part is becoming a publisher with the responsibility for obtaining content, enforcing deadlines, and maintaining quality.

This is very similar to Web 1.0 in the early 1990s when an executive might wake up one day and say, “I need a website and it has to go live in six weeks.” And in 1993 or 1994—maybe 1995 for latecomers—the site might go up without the company figuring out how to keep the thing fed, fresh, new.

The blogosphere is very similar—you have to be a publisher to make any impact at all. If you can’t commit to an editorial agenda and calendar, with an editorial strategy that supports your overall marketing goal, don’t do it. If you’re only going to post every six weeks, or every six months, don’t bother.

Don’t wind up like the failures of Web 1.0, when people looked at a website, saw that it hadn’t changed for weeks or months, and decided the company was either sleepy or clueless.

I’m still shocked when I visit a website, check out the company’s press releases and links to news stories, and see that the most recent item is eight months old. Is the firm still in business? Are its managers so busy that they have no time to update the website? Has nothing newsworthy happened in eight months?

Don’t set up an online newsroom if you can’t maintain it; otherwise, the company looks moribund. Keeping a newsroom or company blog current requires an investment in time. Not only do you have the initial cost of setting up the mechanism, you have to consider the ongoing cost to maintain, whether internal time or an outside consultant’s time and fee.

Nevertheless, as Jonathan Schwartz, the president and chief operating officer at Sun Microsystems, has said, “Leadership is all about communications, it’s what leaders do. Almost by definition, your set of responsibilities comes down to who you pick to work for you, how much budget you give them, and then what do you say all day long when you are trying to motivate change and drive people forward. So blogging is a tool that, especially for leaders, is critical to amplify your communications."

Welcome to the E-Community

E-communities offer professional content to members and allow member (or visitor) dialogue. In addition to the sites I mentioned earlier in the chapter, sites like IBM.com, Cisco.com, Sun.com, Microsoft.com, and behospitable.com (Hilton Hotels) are e-communities.

No hard sell, but lots of interesting information and a chance to add ideas or ask questions. Behospitable.com, for instance, has handy professional content like suggested toasts and ice-breakers. It also invites visitors to submit their own anecdotes about hospitality and tips for being hospitable.

Of course, the site has links to Hilton Hotel brands and reservations as well as multimedia content about the company itself. It’s up to the user to decide what to browse, what to contribute, and whether to investigate Hilton’s offerings.

In the publishing industry, certain e-communities are starting to take the place of magazines. BusinessWeek.com is an e-community, as is Forbes.com, Smartmoney.com, Fastcompany.com, and many, many more. If the content is valuable enough, the site may even be able to charge a subscription fee (think Wall Street Journal).

Here’s where your marketing smarts come into play. You need to clarify your marketing objectives and determine whether an e-community would help achieve these goals. If so, go ahead and create the site—with concrete plans for maintaining it.

On the other hand, maybe you don’t need a separate e-community. Depending on your situation and objectives, would you benefit more from participating in someone else’s existing e-community?

For example, the site money.cnn.com is the Internet home of Fortune, Money, Business 2.0, and Fortune Small Business. Just as Welch’s Grape Jelly might team up with Skippy Peanut Butter in a joint promotion, L.L.Bean with Subaru, so could a pharmaceutical company team up with Sermo.com (“a free online community by physicians for physicians”) or a pet food company with Dogster.com or an airline with behospitable.com. If you are a small company, you can search not just in these bigtime online e-communities, but small trade groups—restaurants, opticians, liquor stores, specialty shops, all depending on your local market or trading area. But on e-communities, you are not only aware but can give opinions and answer questions.

Tap into Social Networks

Certain social networks—MySpace, FaceBook, Friendster—have received a huge amount of publicity, but there are actually hundreds more online. Nearly all require members to register, and some—like aSmallWorld, DeadJournal, and Doostang—require an invitation to join. You can market on a social network, but be very careful in the approach you take.

In fact, before you jump in, study what other companies have done. Reuters, for example, has assigned a technology reporter to cover stories within the Second Life virtual world. The reporter’s avatar works out of a virtual home office in a virtual building that looks like a cross between Reuters’ London and Reuters’ Times Square buildings.

Reuters has become the news supplier for Second Life, which at this writing has almost a million residents but is growing by double digits every year. Not only does Reuters enhance its brand by participating in Second Life, it also puts its reporter in a great position to pick up stories about Second Life—written just for Second Life members.

You probably can’t release a movie today without having a presence on MySpace, among other social networks. What if you’re marketing hardware or software, financial services or healthcare? Should you market on these venues? My advice is to be very prudent.

Remember, “build it and they will come” does not apply online. “Blow it and they will slam you,” however, definitely applies. Perhaps the biggest challenge of the online world is the speed with which news, ideas, opinions can catch on virally, both positive and negative. So choose your social networks with great care.

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