Mmmk, I don’t think I fully grasped what social search meant for brands when I first wrote about it. A recent Altimeter post by Charlene Li, who I had the pleasure of seeing at last year’s SXSWi, really broke it down for me. It’s ok to be confused about this, because it’s a big jui jitsu match right now between the web’s sweatiest heavyweights, and when the dust settles the web will be fundamentally different.
So, while the eventual goal will be search results that are local and profile-based to some extent (your friends talking about what you’re interested in), the first deals between Twitter, Facebook, Bing* and Google will focus on real time trending topics and authority, meaning someone with a lot of followers (or fans, or friends, presumably) will come in at the top of the results, and people’s interactions with brands (good and bad) will spread like so much melted Cheez Whiz**.
For brands, companies, and organizations, this means less direct control over messaging than ever. Your own site pages will not necessarily be the most important results when the real-time web is elevated to equal status with the “brochure web”. The opinions tweeted by your customers/users/whoever wants to say anything about you will be very visible when people search you. Customer service is your new brand experience and the resulting word-of-mouth is your new advertising.
A moment to ponder Heather Locklear, here.
So what’s a poor org to do? How do we “make sure” people are saying nice things about us?
- Pull up your social media socks. No more half-assing it tweeting press releases. Round up whatever valuable content you can provide—know-how, industry expertise, reporting, whitepapers, ebooks, comics, wacky staff members—and get it out there, for free, with a “tweet this’” stuck to its shoe. Build your org up as knowledgeable and willing to share. Go answer some questions. Make something cool slash useful and give it away. This is called “being proactive”.
- Put some resources on your website. For Pete’s sake. Where do you think burning viral content comes from? “Updating” your company website will be a critical SEO tactic. (What huh? “SEO” means “getting me up there in the Google”.) If you don’t already use a blog format where you post industry news, press releases, testimonial videos and the like, with lots of invitations to comment and share, you better get on it. The days of a static “brochure” website are looong gone. You will be buried in search engine rankings if you don’t heed this advice.
- Get to know some peoples. Building friendships with influencers will be a critical PR tactic. Buddyhood can come in the form of responding to consumer questions (try taking an irate email and addressing it on your main page. That should get the circulation going over in Legal.), commenting on blogs and news sites, highlighting important volunteers (people love to send out links to things that make them look good. Duh.), giving out freebies/samples/discounts and asking for feedback. The person or persons appointed to this public role, incidentally, should be hilarious, outgoing, and imbued with enough authority to solve a few problems.
- Build community wherever you find it. Obviously not your own community, unless you`ve got zillions of dollars, a really popular product and a user base you’d describe as “stoked”. But if people are talking about you somewhere, get in there, hand out some coupons and gather some emails. Just talking to you & finding you friendly might be enough to make people feel a personal connection to your brand.
- Put your customer touchpoints on steroids. Customer service will be a critical engagement tactic. Where do people interact with your company? Who talks to them, and what do they say? Are you blasting them with boring emails and straight-to-recycling direct mail? Do problems get (publicly) solved and generous supporters (publicly) thanked? This is the real key building an insanely solid brand in the age of social media. If your public is happy with you, they will say nice things about you. Make sure they are happy.
Community building and an old-school “the customer is always right” attitude need to become core competencies of your organization, whatever field you’re in. Some real soul-searching looks in the mirror are required—it’s easy to say “give people what they want”, but depending on the relative agility or arthriticness of your org’s chain of command, it can be hard to do. But it has to be done. The secret to social media is that it’s not an advertising channel where you go tell users what to think of you, it’s a customer feedback channel where the reality of using your service is disclosed. You’re responsible for the quality of your product and the way you treat the people who buy it. You can count on them telling two friends.
* Why are we talking about Bing like it actually rivals Google? I’m friending the search engine that ranks me 12th for “social media Erica”, and that is not Bing.
** Full discloure: I am not currently sponsored by the always-tasty Cheez Whiz, but am completely open to negotiations. Hit me up, Kraft.