Friday, September 28, 2007

Generating Leads With Social Media

For all the talk about social media—blogs, podcasts, wikis, forums—the majority of marketers I talk with are still uncertain about how to apply social media to their lead generation efforts.

In too many cases, social media initiatives are funded as pet projects—a sudden itch from on high that needs to be scratched.

These are real quotes:

“We have to have a viral video piece on YouTube ready for our customer conference.”

“Our competitor has a new blog, and we can do a hell of a lot better.”

“Our CEO wants us to start podcasting.”

Now, I’m all for innovation. Whatever it takes to get the ball rolling. But I can count on the fingers of one hand the marketers I’ve spoken with recently who are aggressively and systematically applying their knowledge of lead generation fundamentals to social media. That number needs to grow. So let’s dig in a little and talk about social media in the context of applied marketing and lead gen.

If you’re new to the social media discussion, the first thing to understand is that social media signifies a big shift in marketing. What you used to call a market, or a market segment, is now a networked customer community. Attitudes are no longer driven by your carefully crafted message, blasted relentlessly through a series of channels to gather 1.5% response. The internet makes it easy for people to connect and share information, and they know there’s a lot more value in learning about products from others like themselves than from marketing campaigns.

What this means is that markets are increasingly driven by content, conversation and community. Instead of flooding the market with pick-up lines, you need to listen, engage and catalyze your customer community. If you do it well, if you have something of real value and interest for your market community, they’ll spread your message for you.

The best place to start is by finding out where your customer community is already connecting to talk about your market, and who is influencing the conversation. You can begin by using some of the many new tools focused on searching through social content. You can search social bookmarks for keyword concepts related to your market on Del.icio.us or Ma.gnolia. You can search for recent blog postings on Technorati. You can search for news items related to your market that were highly rated by web users at Reddit, Digg or Sphere. And when you're ready to start seriously tracking the flow of conversation and the impact of key influencers, you can check out tools like Buzzlogic and Factiva’s Reputation Intelligence.

Once you know where the conversation is happening, the best thing you can do is to spend some time just listening. What are people talking about? What issues are driving the discussion? If you have something meaningful to say, then jump in. But get engaged as an interested participant, not as a product shill. As a useful analogy, think of your market as a dinner party. Imagine your attitude toward someone who butted into a conversation, talked about how great he was for a few minutes, and then walked away to barge into the next conversation. Unfortunately, that’s the impression many marketers are making today as they trawl blogs, dropping self-serving comments and then disappearing. Communities are much more welcoming to people who have something interesting to say, are authentic, and take a genuine interest in the people around them.

When you’re engaged with one or more of market communities, lead generation programs start to define themselves. You'll know which community hotspots are attracting traffic and what content is relevant. A lead gen campaign for a bike company at MySpace, for example, might focus on leveraging a big personality like Lance Armstrong to attract friends and drive links. A campaign at Mountain Bike Review Forum, with 60,000 dedicated cyclists, would be more product focused, maybe organizing a demo ride. The program you put together should be designed to fit the community, and you'll only know how to do that if you're engaged.

At any existing community where you want to generate leads, it’s important to understand and respect any policies about commercial campaigns on their networks. Some communities will have opportunities for sponsorship, or co-branded content, while others may have specific prohibitions against direct response marketing. If you're just interested in testing the waters to see how a community--particularly a large community--might perform in a broader campaign, you can often buy banner ads or adword campaigns that focus on particular sites so you can test the interest in program concepts.

When you are well oriented to your market community, campaign execution will look surprisingly familiar. It's still important as ever to have a compelling offer, a clear message, and to test everything you can to continually improve effectiveness. The difference today is that you need to be much more transparent, honest and accountable in the ways you engage your market. Prospects aren't just individual "targets" to pick off like sitting ducks. They're members of a community where word travels fast.

Next time, we’ll look at some specific types of social media lead generation programs. In the meantime, I’ve written a Marketing Brief detailing 12 Essential Tips for Success in Social Media. It’s free and only requires registration. Wait a minute. Am I trying to generate leads on this social media site? You bet.