In these tough economic times, many businesses are re-evaluating their marketing budgets, with a majority of them forced to make significant cuts.
Gone are the TV advertisements and full-page newspaper placements, along with the various customer programs that may or may not bring in sales. But with every cut of fixed marketing costs, public exposure falls as well.
Businesses are in a pickle. If they don't cut their marketing budgets, then something else is bound to suffer down the line.
But if they do make the sacrifices, what happens if their competitors don't? So while their brand fades into the background, guess who will take all the attention? And guess who will be well positioned to move further forward, thanks to the various branding programs and top-of-mind recognition, when the recession is over?
Seeking solutions, many companies are expressing interest in entering the social/digital media. This is not a temporary trend.
The Internet has long been a tool for users to connect with old friends, colleagues and loved ones, but the recent boom of social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook has made it so much easier. Social media has gone mainstream.
Take Facebook for example. Home to millions of users, once you enter you can find people you actually know instead of those who want to "friend" you. The longer you use it, the more you begin to share with your increasingly growing circle of friends photos of the kids, links you found online and the latest gossip heard from non-online colleagues.
According to www.insidefacebook.com, Indonesia had 831,000 Facebook users by the end of 2008, with a 645 percent growth rate for the year. As a follow up, www.nickburcher.com, based on Facebook's advertising interface, found the number in Indonesia grew to around 2.2 million users by the end of March 2009, up 149 percent from just three months ago.
People of various ages are signing up, so they can network with old friends and colleagues. Facebook insists you use your real name, so people will know who you are when you reach out to them. (Does everyone know you as Elite_Hacker278?) Even politicians are using Facebook for the elections, with one political party and presidential aspirant garnering more than 19,000 "fans" linked from all over Facebook.
For businesses, this is a virtual pot of gold. A database of real people with real demographic information, segmented into countries and districts, all with their individual interests and needs, would be an ideal place to offer special programs or sales. And most of these people would not mind as long as it is in line with their requirements.
As a result, many businesses have set up Facebook "fan" pages that allow their loyal customers to share their thoughts, experiences and insights about the brand as well as to evangelize about it. For the brands, this is an ideal platform to selectively offer new products or inventory clearing sales, as well as to gather some valuable market research feedback from their customers.
But then comes the fear. Businesses are usually in control of their messages. Traditional marketing techniques are usually one way, with a toll free number or special code to be given at the cash register for sales tracking. But with social media, people can talk back. And sometimes, they tell the ugly truth.
And on the Internet, no one knows if you are an actual customer or not. Thus, in addition to the freedom (and low-cost nature) of accessing customers online is the capacity for people to raise issues or grievances about the product and services in question. And this is something that some companies fear the most. What do you do if someone raises an issue that may be blown out of proportion affecting sales, or worse, attract the attention of traditional media, where it is further disseminated to the non-Internet viewing public?
The first thing to do is to take a page from Dr. Strangelove, or "How I learned to stop worrying and love social media" (not a direct quote!). Regardless of you like it or not, marketing conversations are now two way. The old command-and-control era is gone, and people are more vocal thanks to the various communication tools at their fingertips. The old adage of an unhappy customer will tell 100 friends has now changed to an unhappy customer will email, text message, blog, Twitter and Facebook thoughts that can be forwarded to the rest of the free world.
So how can you stop worrying? As with any customer relationship, you have to deal with it - and fast. In the "old days", brands would launch a counterstrike team only if someone wrote a letter to the editor or there was a negative news article. Facts were established, perspective offered and solutions reached.
Now, regardless of whether the brand has an online presence or not, people will start talking, about both the positive and the negative. And wouldn't it be better if the brand is part of this conversation? Online? The old marketing communications relationships still apply, it's just that you have to be smarter, faster and wiser on a new platform because most likely that's where your customers are.
But what about those anonymous "trolls" who are on the Internet just to make trouble? They will still be there, but with social media platforms like Facebook, they can no longer be anonymous. Their network of actual friends makes it difficult for them to be completely unreasonable as everyone they know could be watching. And that is the strength of the community: You would not misbehave if you know your family, boss, or potential employers were watching, or could look up, what you have been doing online.
Consumer behavior is changing, and with this battered economy, businesses had better come up with an effective and efficient strategy for their marketing communications. Before their competitors show them how.