Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bringing Brand Image to Life through Social Media Marketing

The venerable Washington Post became the story itself last week. The occasion: a series of “salons” to be held at publisher Katharine Weymouth’s home that would bring together Beltway insiders and Post reporters with sponsors who paid anywhere from $25K to $250K for the privilege. The story, of course, went all over the Internet, and it’s not surprising why. The Post – with its long-standing reputation for high-integrity reporting in a town not known for integrity – appeared to be selling access to its reporters. The Post acted quickly: it cancelled the salon series, and a spokesperson blamed “overzealous marketing” by the parent company’s conference group. (New York Times reporter David Carr wrote an excellent post-mortem on this story.)

But that phrase “overzealous marketing” caught my eye. If the marketers couldn’t anticipate that the salon idea might damage The Post’s reputation, who was minding the brand image?

Today, everyone must mind the brand. Much of a company’s marketing takes place – either by design or by default – on the Internet and in social media: Twitter, Facebook, blogs, consumer rating sites. This means that “minding the brand image” must be the responsibility of everyone in the company: not just the Chief Marketing Officer who creates the brand messages, but the employees who deliver the brand messages with every customer interaction, online and offline. We’re in the era of behavioral branding: we must live the brand 24x7.

Social media marketing campaigns can not only build the business, but also strengthen the brand image. Effectively planned and executed with the brand image in mind, campaigns can bring the brand to life and engage a broader spectrum of customers. And this doesn’t have to be expensive.

Here is one example. My company created a simple, “starter” social media program for a small business (it sells food & wine to consumers). Our Phase-One program consists of a Twitter account and a Facebook fan page. In the three months since we started the program, it has been very successful. It has brought in new customers, generated new revenue, and created more than a dozen ardent new fans who blog and Tweet about the business on a regular basis. Free marketing help – what could be better?

To run the program, we selected a young employee – a digital native who is very familiar with the business and its products. She is also enthusiastic, and she aspires to run her own business some day. She has fairly wide discretion in what she posts – such as making special offers, handling customer situations, or running small contests. Our brand messages – 5 simple attributes that could fit on an index card – are her guidelines. The business owner just asks that anything she posts support one or more of the brand messages.

By using this tactic, we’ve created an authentic, organic presence in social media that accurately reflects the brand image. The business owner periodically participates, but otherwise our young ambassador keeps the conversations going. Sure, once in a while we have a misfire or glitch, but overall, the online brand image tracks the business neatly.

If you want to try this tactic yourself, here’s my advice:

Keep your brand messages simple and memorable – use 3 to 5 messages, and use words (“flexibility”) or short phrases (“award-winning wines”) instead of the long sentences you might typically use in a marketing plan

Ask your online ambassadors to sanity-check their posts or comments against the brand messages before they post (this will become second nature after a while)

Don’t hover! Let your ambassadors “own” what they do and take pride in it.

This one powerful tactic can help you create a program that’s not only effective but also cost-effective.

We will be expanding the social media marketing program for this business in the coming months. I will be writing more about the campaign in the future.

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