Custom Partners 090918 There’s plenty of buzz these days about businesses “getting into the conversation” with customers through social networking platforms. The goal is to enhance the brand by gaining valuable insights about and through customers.

At a time when everyone is looking for new ways to grow sales and improve cash flow, no rock should go unturned. But before you jump into the conversation, be aware that there are good ways to get involved and not-so-good ways, too.

According to Steve Ennen, managing director of the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative, “Because of the ubiquity of digital tools and interactive media platforms, consumers have for the first time in history the ability to talk among themselves. The rankings, ratings and opinions about a brand can now reach a global scale. Everyone is online. The consumer is discussing your brand so you darn well better know what they are saying.”

Consider the technology industry. Through PC World, Computer World and other publications and platforms there’s a lot of talk about new products. “People are getting information about new technology from blogs more than from Consumer Reports,” says Ennen. “Early adapters recognized the validity of the blog. They could talk back; there were a lot of dynamics at play. There’s interaction. Early adopters looked to a blogging source for information on products they were interested in buying.”

You can see it across professional communities as well, he says. “Office professionals have networks. Members discuss office supplies, HR issues and other areas of interest. They can focus the conversation and gain answers from trusted sources. They can get expert advice from managers and content providers. This could be in the form of forums where one person posts a question and others respond. It’s about focus and trust. That’s what makes the buzz.”

Tapping into the Conversation – Appropriately

On the other hand, not all buzzes are created equal. Indeed, some of these conversations have harmed the brand. The Wrigley Company allowed anyone and everyone to post comments first on a web site and then on a Facebook page dedicated to Skittles candy. According to Ennen, the candy maker’s plans went sour. “There were really bad comments, foul language, it was out of control. It created a lot of buzz. But they lost control of the brand. They were facilitating anarchy! Who cares if you have 15,000 site visitors per hour if they are using profanity and hurting your brand?”

Some companies are looking for ways to tap into the conversation constructively. Here are three steps that Ennen says should help:

• Listen. Examine the environment. It’s market research, but it’s different than before. Use the platforms yourself. Learn how they work. Watch how people use them. “Understand the ecosystem,” says Ennen. “Understand the dynamics of social and professional networking.”

• Have a clear strategy. “Don’t just jump into something because your CMO says, ‘Let’s get into social media,’” says Ennen. You need a strategy for engaging customers – and you may need a filter to edit some of their comments.

• Measure. Tremendous amounts of data are available, such as metrics that show ROI. Without a clear strategy you can’t measure effectively. Says Ennen, “If you can’t measure effectively you’ll just continue a cycle of experimentation.”

Try to see your company’s entry into the conversation as a value-add. “If I’m a garden center and I have information on how to use lighting, fertilizer, etc., then I add value by sharing that information,” says Ennen. “A brand can enter the conversation and bring value. This is different from a soft drink company blogging about how great their product is. A pure promotional play will look like promotion only.”