The other evening I attended an excellent event sponsored by the WSA, entitled, "Social Networking – More Popular than ever – But how will that translate into the business world". There were 250 plus people in the audience and a quality panel of entrepreneurs as well as representatives of Microsoft and Google.
It turned out that there were several distinct topics being discussed. First, there were panelists in the process of launching new social networking site like Zoodango.com and OthersOnline.com. The questions to them revolved around how they will be able to stand out from the pack on new entrants and last long enough to succeed. Secondly, there was the line of questions around what differentiates social networking in the business environment. For example, one panelist stated that you should always use a pseudonym for privacy sake on a social network, but need to use your real name on a business network to lend credibility….
And the third topic, which was most interesting to me, was not about monetizing the companies that are building the social networks, but how to leverage the content, communication and community that takes place on these networks to promote your business objectives, regardless of what product or service you provide. This I think is the core to understanding the power of social media. With an ever increasing sense of déjà vu, I hear loads of new companies say they are going to put great content on the Web and then make money from the advertising that goes with it. While this might work for some in the short term, I do not think that social media is well-suited as an advertising medium and more importantly, those marketers who are thinking of social media purely in terms of a new channel on which to use the same advertising techniques that have given us 50 years of the 30 second TV spot are missing not only the point, but also the power of the channel.
Frankly I don't care whether a conversation happens on MySpace, LinkedIn, Facebook, Spaces or Zoodango. It's the content of the conversation that matters. Social networking is allowing us the opportunity to share our opinions, experiences and preferences with an almost limitless audience in real-time. It used to be said that an angry customer will go tell ten of their friends about a bad experience. Today, a bad customer experience can be shared with millions in less time than it took to walk to the water cooler. Consumers have greater leverage over the marketing message, the brand and ultimately the success or failure of the product or service in way unmatched in the history of marketing.
The business value of social networking and social media is to be able to influence that viral conversation so that it adds to your brand equity, not destroys it. Mentos got a 14% lift in sales because a couple of crazies decided it would be cool to video themselves stuffing Mentos into Diet Coke and watch the explosion. Once posted on YouTube, it has been seen by millions. The message is that Mentos got the sales boost, YouTube was just the platform for the message to be communicated across the network.
In the not too distant future, we will see more Google's buying up YouTubes, not because of their technology, but because of their potential to attach an audience to their platform. The platforms will end being hosted and owned by the Google's, Microsoft's and maybe the Verizon's, but the content, the communities and the value will be in the hands of those savvy marketers who understand how powerful good ideas and good customer experience can really be.