Social Loyalty isn't a choice - it's a requirement
Many brand marketers are debating - either quietly behind closed doors or more openly in the board room - whether or not they should be linking their customer loyalty initiatives into social media and, if so, to what degree. But there is no need to debate the matter, according to Peter Clark, author of The Loyalty Guide, who explains here why social and loyalty are now inextricably tied together.
Most companies have got a social media strategy in place, no matter how simple. Many companies have got a loyalty programme or a customer rewards/recognition scheme in place. But a much smaller subset of those have tied both together in a way which today's consumer has come to not only want or demand but expect.
Social media marketing is being driven by the widespread popularisation among consumers of social networking web sites and services such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Foursquare and others. These services don't only hold true to the original vision of sites such as Facebook (i.e. connecting people in a safe and personal way) but they now also include other services and technologies that augment that goal, such as location-based services which allow people to 'check in' just about anywhere - whether it be a popular club, restaurant, or their own home, or any other venue - usually thanks to the GPS that's built into their mobile phone handset. This allows people to 'be seen' in all the right places but, more importantly, it has important implications for brands that they choose to associate with in their social network.
Social marketing is more than a fan page When it comes to social media, one of the most common misconceptions among marketers is that social marketing is as easy as putting up a page on Facebook, or setting up a Twitter account. Of course those are the basic building blocks, but there's a whole world of detail that needs to be considered first. As in any other marketing or advertising discipline, you first need to identify and clarify a host of factors (such as the brand identity, brand message, brand values, target audiences, value proposition, referral and advocacy benefits, social gaming elements, social commerce and currency, messaging strategy, creative elements and imagery, and of course how - if at all - the social marketing initiative will link up with any existing marketing initiatives - for example your loyalty programme, or perhaps even an external loyalty initiative or coalition programme).
Generally, unless your brand already has 'top of mind' presence in most households, it is not enough to simply set up a social marketing programme and hope for the best. Like its cousin, web marketing, social marketing requires a great deal of advertising, exposure, reinforcement in every consumer-facing message, ever-present reminders in every communication channel, and even partnerships with external organisations that are also likely to deal with your own target audiences.
The push & pull of social media marketing Never forget that social media is unique as a marketing channel because every exchange between consumers and brands involves both 'pull' and 'push' marketing: a brand has access to a consumer only after the consumer gives the brand permission to talk in their presence by adding its social channel to their profile (the 'pull'), and the brand can then talk to its followers and encourage them to spread the word among their network of friends (the 'push'). The snag with social media is that, even after linking a brand with their profile, it is generally very easy for a consumer to either block a brand's messages, report a brand for spamming, or 'unfriend' or 'unlike' a brand - even if the crime is making one too many Tweets in a given week, or saying something that somehow offends the consumer.
Although this problem also applies to email marketing and email-based customer relationship management, there is still a feeling in the average consumer's mind that it's a hassle to unsubscribe because they have to search the email for the instructions, then probably follow more instructions after clicking a web link, and so on. But with social networking sites such as Facebook, it's always the same simple procedure - for example, click on the brand's profile and then click 'unlike'... and the brand is history, never to be heard from again.
Viral social marketing Another misconception is that it's easy to plan and execute a viral social media campaign. The mantra "all we need to do is come up with something whacky and get it out there on YouTube and Facebook" is heard far too often in too many management meetings. But the truth of the matter is that something that goes viral does so usually because of a small group of very dedicated people who really like what they see and want to send it to everybody they know. The trouble is that it is hard - if not impossible - to predict who those people will be before the time, and even if you can identify such a group, it's impossible to guide or manipulate the responses of the people they send your message to.
The other big problem with trying to set up a viral campaign is that the marketer naturally tries to control the media or the channel used, whereas consumers tend to choose their own channels. For example, a brand might try to send its latest advert into a viral whirlwind using a combination of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, only to discover three months later - and after no particular success - that most of its advocates are having their conversations about the brand on MySpace. That's a very simplified example, of course, and in reality most brand-related conversations happen on a variety of platforms, not all of which the brand marketer will have even heard of, let alone be able to influence or control. The hardest part of any viral success is that marketers have to - for the most part - completely let go of the communication process and trust that their creative inspiration and message 'has what it takes' to spread on its own, even if the campaign is initially seeded from accounts owned by trusted, loyalty brand advocates from the company's existing customer base.
Do brands really lose control? Another issue that many marketers seem to wrestle with when they're planning their level of involvement in social media is the degree to which they're willing to surrender control of the brand/consumer conversation. The problem is that, once you have made your brand available for public comment on one or more social platforms, it is impossible to control what is said by others. A number of ill-advised attempts have been made in the past to have posts, pages, and even whole user profiles withdrawn from social media sites, but the outrage and public fury associated with those actions have, in every case, damaged the brand even further.
It may be a leap of faith for the marketer - perhaps more so for the C-level executives who need to vote to fund a social marketing campaign - but the consumer is generally a fair-minded individual and most will ignore (or even 'flame' - a form of internet put-down) those who are too extreme or excessive in their negative comments. However, genuine consumers saying genuinely good things about a brand are worth the leap of faith. That kind of advocacy can spread rapidly among social networks, even leaping from site to site as it is re-posted or re-tweeted.
The idea that a PR agency can be appointed to control social media conversations about the brand is old, outdated, and certainly not practical. At best, the PR agency (or the brand's own customer service team) can respond to both criticisms and praises found on social networks, and try to rectify problems before they become more widespread, and also try to find ways to reward true advocacy. But for certain, resorting to legal means or threats to silence the brand's detractors is a sure way to achieve infamy, ridicule and disrespect among the very consumers who should instead be talking positively about how the brand fixed its failings.
Types of social media One of the problems when trying to get to grips with what the world knows as 'social media' is that there are so many facets to it. Social media is not simply another way of referring to Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. Instead the social activities and features available, among many others, can include:
- Social news sites (e.g. Digg, Reddit, NewsVine);
- Social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, MySpace);
- Social bookmarking (e.g. Delicious, Magnolia);
- Social sharing (e.g. YouTube, Flickr);
- Social events (e.g. Eventful, Meetup, Upcoming);
- Blogs (e.g. the many blogs hosted by Blogger);
- Microblogs (e.g. Twitter, Plurk);
- Wiki knowledge sharing (e.g. Wikipedia, WikiHow);
- Forums & communities (often subject-specific).
Clearly, more types of social media will evolve as computers, tablets, smartphones, and broadband connections become even faster, cheaper, and more powerful, and as the consumer's appetite for on-demand media increases in step with a growing disinterest in pre-scheduled broadcast media (such as radio and television) and traditional printed media (such as newspapers and periodicals).
The hurdles of social marketing But marketing via social media channels is not as simple as it is through other channels because of two main factors that combine to form a two-edged sword:
- Consumers can publicise negative experiences and ideas very widely in a matter of minutes;
- They can also publicise positive experiences and ideas very widely in a matter of minutes.
There are also a great number of restrictions on how brands can establish contact with consumers in the world of social networking, as the idea of 'push marketing' (i.e. the ability for the brand to initiate a first-time contact with the consumer) is almost non-existent due to the stringent security and privacy policies of these services.
Almost all contact through social networks - except when individual consumers give direct permission (to other people and companies) to post entries on their personal 'wall' - has to be based on the 'pull' strategy (i.e. the consumer purposefully searches for and requests information, initiating a carefully controlled contact process without necessarily even setting up the necessary permissions for a longer-term dialogue).
In essence, this means that every dialogue opened through social networking is potentially a once-only event, and every communication counts. The stakes are therefore much higher when interacting with consumers via social networking sites.
How loyalty and social media work together There is no doubt that the ongoing and fast-developing social media revolution is having an enormous impact not only on the way consumers can communicate with other consumers, but also on the ways in which consumers and brands communicate with each other.
The first thing every marketer thinks about social media is "That's great - our customers can tell their families and friends how great we are!" - but that's not the most likely scenario. They're much more likely to grumble about a bad experience than to talk about an experience that met their basic requirements (e.g. delivered on time, and product as described). When was the last time you advocated a brand for doing what was expected? The key to using social media as a loyalty channel is to encourage customers to share details of brand interactions to which their friends and family might also aspire to have.
So, because of the consumer-driven nature of the social channel, and its enormous potential for producing both brand advocates and brand detractors - all far outside of the brand's control - the customer loyalty programme leaps into focus as a key channel for driving memorable brand experiences and subsequent positive word-of-mouth.
For example, if a customer redeems some of their hard-earned loyalty points for an aspirational reward, they can be encouraged to share that moment with their social networks. Every time they earn points for an online or mobile purchase, they can be encouraged to share the details not only of their shiny new product but also how many valuable points it earned them.
The social channel itself is good for far more than just sharing positive experiences like these. It is also the perfect channel for quickly and decisively resolving customers' problems or providing pre-sale information in a very public way. When a consumer asks a question on a brand's Facebook page, the reply can potentially be seen by all their friends, family, and of course every other consumer who 'Likes' the page.
Your loyalty programme's currency - be it points, miles, status or other soft benefits - can also be used to drive advocacy. Considering the potential for brand advocacy immediately following the speedy resolution of a problem, why not also offer the customer additional loyalty points or a bonus soft benefit in return for sharing that interaction more widely via one or more of their social networks?
"You have to meet the customer where they are and, like it or not, most of them are engaged in daily conversation with 'others like them' on social networks," concluded Clark. "For all these reasons, social media loyalty and engagement strategies are no longer a 'nice to have' but a 'must have', and they can no longer sit around the edges but be a central focus of any loyalty marketing strategy."
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