We’ve seen how valuable it can be to appear in search results when searchers are looking for what you have to offer, and we’ve seen the important role that links play in helping your site rank well. We’ve also seen how keyword research can provide insight into how your potential customers are thinking about your brand, your industry, and your competition.
Social media can help on all of these fronts, working as a brand amplifier and customer support extension to deepen engagement with your customers.
What Is Social Media?
Lately, when people hear the term ‘‘social media’’ they tend to think of the fairly new developments of sites such as Facebook and MySpace, but in reality, social media has been around as long as we have been social and have used media. Letters to the editor in traditional print newspapers are an example of social media.
Online social media, in turn, has been around as long as we’ve been online. Before what we now know as the World Wide Web, people were connecting all over the world via ‘‘bulletin board systems’’ (BBS) and later in chat rooms on platforms such as Prodigy and CompuServe. Today, even multi-player online games such as World of Warcraft are social media—they are yet another way that people connect online. Online social media, as defined for the purposes of this book, includes:
- Discussion sites—these include general and topic specific message boards.
- Content sharing sites—these include any sites that enable users to share what they’ve created with each other, such as photo sharing sites (like Flickr), blogging platforms (like Blogger and WordPress), and micro blogging platforms (like Twitter). For the purpose of this book, social bookmarking sites, such as Delicious and Digg fit into this category as well.
- Social networking sites—these include places that exist specifically to facilitate connections between people. For instance, Facebook began as a way for college students to stay in touch and now enables friends, families, and colleagues to share contact information, photos, and all variety of details about their lives.
- Review sites—these are most often seen as stand-alone sites, such as TripAdvisor, which focuses on sharing information about travel, but can also be part of larger sites. Amazon, for instance, is an e-commerce site, but has a large social review component.
Of course, you can see that many of these categories overlap. Digg and Slashdot both enable users to share content they’ve found, as well as discuss that content with each other. Flickr is primarily focused on sharing photos, but users often get into lengthy discussions and form groups around particular topics.
Involvement in social media can be beneficial to companies for a number of reasons, but for this book, we’ll focus on how social media can benefit you as it relates to search.
Other Types of Media
Being involved in other types of media (such as press) can be beneficial from a search perspective for many of the same reasons as social media, so it’s included in this chapter as well. Other types of online media include online newspapers and magazines (and blogs as well, although those can also be considered a type of content-sharing social media), press releases, syndicated or original articles published on sites other than your own, and interviews (given to traditional press or others).
Being Visible in Search Results
As we’ve seen, if your brand doesn’t appear in search results for queries related to your industry or product, searchers are unlikely to consider you and you’ll often lose that potential customer to the competition. One way to appear in search results, of course, is by ensuring your own site appears, but social media gives you nearly infinite opportunity to show up for any number of queries that use language you may not even realize your customers are using.
The most important thing to realize is that potential customers are looking for authenticity. Attempts to blanket social media sites with positive mentions of your brand are likely to backfire. Much better tactics include:
- Ensuring you have a voice in places your customers are talking about you.
- Facilitating discussions online with your customers and potential customers.
- Providing useful and targeted content (in the form of press releases or other resources, articles, and interviews) to interested content creators. (This means not sending out press releases to an untargeted mass distribution list, but identifying those reporters and bloggers who care about your industry and sending them customized e-mail that describes why you think they’re interested and what you’re willing to provide to them.)
Monitor the likely places where people could be talking about your brand, product or industry (you can do this manually or by engaging a service), and build up a brand presence in those locations. Contribute to the conversation whenever useful (by providing additional resources or information, clarifying details, and fixing problems).
The trick is to be helpful rather than overly promotional. Keep in mind that people aren’t spending time on these sites to be marketed to. However, they are interested in your product or industry and welcome solutions to their problems, inside information, and avenues for providing feedback.
How does this relate to search? Say you run a printer business and you’ve started contributing to printer forums in threads where users have been troubleshooting issues. For instance, in one thread, a customer who owns the Acme 1250 color inkjet may be asking if he can print photos and, if so, how he can produce the best prints. You reply with details on the best paper to use, the settings to configure, and how to change the options for 35 versus 57 prints. The customer is ecstatic and tells all his friends about the great service he received.
In the days before the Web, he may have simply asked his friends or the local print shop for help and your company would never have had the opportunity to help him. Or, he may have called your 800-number, gotten great service, and told all his friends.
The difference now is that at least 10,000 people a month are searching for information on how to print photos.2 If the discussion thread that you’ve provided such useful information for appears on the first page of results for these queries, you’ve help open a whole new avenue for customer acquisition. As a bonus, the discussion will be slightly different on each site. Some people will ask how to print digital photos, others will wonder how to print pictures, and still others will ask if they can print pictures from their digital camera. If you run a printer business, you’ll want to include a page on your Web site that describes digital printing, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to account for all the various ways people will search for the topic. By contributing to discussions throughout the Web that ask questions about digital printing, you’ll have many more opportunities to rank for related queries, no matter how they’re worded.
These discussions may also help your brand be seen by people doing more generic searches, such as those researching what type of printer to buy. Each month, 7.5 million searches occur about printers, and nearly half a million of those searches are more specifically about digital printing.3 If even a small subset of those searchers are in the market for a printer and see a discussion in which your brand has shown itself to be helpful and responsive to customer needs, you’ve gained an advantage in competitive analysis those searchers may be doing.
The Synergies of Search and Social Media and PR
Consider that the PR you do or social media you become involved with will live well beyond the initial publication or post.
For instance, consider a restaurant. In years past, a positive write up in a newspaper or magazine might result in filled tables the next weekend. One neighbor recounting a delicious meal to another neighbor while walking the dog might get the restaurant an additional reservation that week.
But consider how things have changed with our increasing reliance on search. I’m writing this from Bologna, Italy, and a little earlier today, I decided to venture into the town for lunch. But how do I pick a location in a city famous for its food? With the help of search, of course. Searching for [best place to have lunch in Bologna Italy] brought up an article in The Guardian called ‘‘24 hours in Bologna: Foodie Heaven’’ that listed five promising choices. These five restaurants didn’t only get the lift in visibility during the week that article initially ran in the paper and only among regular readers. The article was written in 2000 and was still showing up on the first page of search results. One positive review has been sending customers to these restaurants for nine years (and counting). Also in the top five was a discussion of Bologna restaurants from the message board Chowhound.com (see Figure 9.1).
Businesses spend a great deal of time and energy on getting that one positive mention in mainstream press, that one good interview, that one well-placed signal of support, even though that publicity can be fleeting and untargeted. But let PR and social media work for you in search and capture a far more receptive audience (one who is specifically searching for what you offer) for years to come.
Online Reputation Management
If you’ve been around for any length of time, it’s likely that someone out there doesn’t like you. If you’re absent from search, it could be your detractor’s site that shows up when potential customers search for you.Generally, there’s not much you can do about this. Search engines such as Google merely index the Web and don’t evaluate the contents for lack of criticism or even truthfulness.
But if your brand has positive mentions throughout the Web via social media sites, press, and other avenues, those mentions could rank highly and push negative mentions of your brand lower in the search results, decreasing chances that searchers even see them.
Lessons from the TSA
We can see this in action with an incident involving the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA). A mom wrote a scathing blog post in which she accused the TSA of taking her baby from her and walking away with him during a routine security check at the airport. The story caught fire and the Google search results for [TSA takes baby] were filled with recounting of the story. The TSA responded the very same day on their blog with video footage showing that in fact, the baby was never separated from the mother and sat in his stroller beside her during the screening. The content of the Google search results quickly changed. A search for [TSA takes baby] became filled with stories about the TSA blog post and the original stories included updates with the TSA’s side of the story (see Figure 9.2).
What could have been a public relations disaster for the TSA was quickly averted and anyone searching for information on the story was presented with both sides. The TSA didn’t just stop there. They monitored the story and updated their post with answers to questions and additional video footage.Helping Your Company Site to Rank Well
As mentioned on page 112, relevant external links to your site are an important factor in how search engines decide how to order search results. By raising awareness about your brand and product on a site such as Digg or Flickr, you increase the chances that others will mention (and link to) you in blogs, forums, and social networking sites. The key is targeting an interested audience. While Digg has a large audience, it may not include very many people who are interested in your industry and who are likely to, in turn, blog about it.
You can also use search itself to find out what they’re saying about you, your competition, and your industry. The advantage of adding social media search to your market research toolset is that you’ll get near real-time information that can help alert you to any upcoming public relations issues, get a head start on the competition about coming trends, and get much richer detail than a list of generated keywords from search data can provide.
You’re already keeping track of where you’re being talked about online and becoming involved in the conversation as described above. Now you can simply take the next step and use this information for market research.
Finding Out Where People Are Talking about You Online
The first step to finding out where the conversations of interest to you are happening online is compiling a list of sources. Next, compile a list of topics to search for (you might use standard keyword research to augment this): generally your brand, your competition, your products, and industry-specific topics. Then, conduct the searches and save the results. In many cases, you can set up alerts so that you are notified right away when a conversation is taking place.
You have many options for this process—from completely manual (and free) to engaging an expensive service that not only conducts the searches, but analyzes the information and creates reports on it.
Below are some suggestions on where to start when embarking on this task manually.
- Use Google search—With Google advanced options, you can restrict searches to a specific timeframe (such as the last 24 hours) and can even search through only reviews or only discussion forums. You can also use Google Blog Search to search through only blogs and Google News to search through only news (see Figure 9.3).
- Use Google Alerts—Google Alerts enables you to set up automated searches for news, blogs, video, groups, and Web search and have the results delivered via e-mail or RSS as they happen, once a day, or once a week.
- Use vertical search engines—Take advantage of the search built into many sites. Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, for instance,
all have fairly robust search capabilities. Some sites even let you subscribe to results so you can be alerted to new discussions as they happen.
- Seek out reviews—If you sell a product or service, chances are good that someone, somewhere, is reviewing what you have to offer. If you provide a product, check out e-commerce sites, such as Amazon, that encourage reviews. And look for targeted review sites (such as TripAdvisor for travel and Epinions for everything else).
- Find targeted communities—Nearly every topic has an enthusiast community and many brands do as well (see Figure 9.4).
Check Flickr, for instance, for groups, discussions, and photos (see Figure 9.5).
Averting a Public Relations Disaster
Up to the minute focus groups via search of social media chatter don’t only provide long-term insight into future product direction and customer engagement, they can alert you to an issue before it becomes a crisis.
When Motrin launched its ‘‘baby wearing’’ campaign, they didn’t need to commission a customer survey to find out how viewers perceived it. They had to look no farther than Twitter, a micro blogging service that enables anyone to post short thoughts on the Web (see Figure 9.6).
A quick search the day after the campaign launched revealed that many moms were offended by the campaign, and in fact created the #motrinmom hashtag (a grassroots categorization system that enables users to cluster their posts together under a single topic) to compile their grievances. The negative posts rose quickly (see Figure 9.7).
The New York Times noted that within hours of the campaign launch, #motrinmom was the most tweeted subject on Twitter.5 A YouTube video sprung up that showcased the posts (see Figure 9.8)
Motrin may have had a misstep with the campaign, but they had instant access to amazing consumer feedback. Did they take advantage
of it? Not at first. In fact, Motrin didn’t appear to even realize their customers were talking about them online until a blogger called their agency to ask about the uproar. Once alerted, they took down the ad and said that they ‘‘take feedback seriously.’’ And, after the incident, I imagine they are doing a better job of understanding where they might find that feedback in our online world.
But We Want to Control Our Branding!
Many companies are understandably hesitant to enter the new world of social media. After all, historically, only those with media and PR training made official statements on behalf of companies for good reason—an entire brand can be at risk with one wrong comment. And legal and marketing departments the world over have spent substantial resources developing branding guidelines and messaging requirements.
But the truth is that the world has changed. And not participating in the conversation is a loud statement of its own to your customer base. You can’t control your branding message in any case because your customers are already talking about you online. The best you can do is to participate.
And the advantages of search alone (through increased visibility in search results and up-to-the-minute market research) make entering this space worthwhile, not to mention the added benefits of better engaging with customers, providing an efficient customer support mechanism, and opening a whole new acquisition channel.
But it’s smart to be wary of jumping into social media. You want to go about it in the right way, and since you’re engaging directly with consumers, you don’t want to abandon your efforts halfway through to rethink your strategy.
Here are a few options for getting started:
- Start with market research. Find out where your customers and potential customers are talking about you, your competitors, and your industry online and just listen for a while. Gather up the information and get a sense of the overall perception, how your competition is getting involved, what your customers need the most, and what data is most valuable. This alone can provide great insight into your business.
- Train your PR and marketing staff on social media. They already have media and PR training and have experience speaking publicly on behalf of the company. They can combine these skills with an understanding of how social media communities work, the importance of authenticity online, and how to respond online.
- Train your customer support staff on PR and marketing. Your customer support team already is skilled in dealing with customers (particularly the unhappy ones) one-on-one. You can extend these skills by training them in how to speak publicly on behalf of the company so they can begin treating questions posed on social media sites in a similar way as those posed to them directly over phone or e-mail.
- Start a blog. A blog is a great way to start a conversation with your customers. You can use the market research about how your customers are talking about your industry to identify a list of topics to talk about. See a discussion speculating on the next edition of your two-door coupe? Interview the engineer who designed the new dashboard and add a few pictures. Read a blogger’s post questioning the safety record of your competition. Take the initiative and post your own safety record, with backup documentation. In this way, you can begin engaging the community, but at a much smaller scale and with much greater oversight than if you let every employee post on behalf of the company on any social media site they happened upon. Open comments to the blog to evolve this conversation and give a select group of employees the ability to gain experience replying directly online.
- Create a set of common sense guidelines and let your employees spread the company message. This suggestion is a scary one, and certainly, it doesn’t work for every company. But the truth is that most people are online and it’s easy to identify where people work (by virtue of their social networking affiliations, blog bio, or random conversations). Create a set of guidelines about what kind of information not to discuss publicly (such as financial details and upcoming launches), how to speak on behalf of the company (don’t promise things on behalf of another department, don’t belittle customers), and what’s within bounds (offering to pass on feedback, answering questions (‘‘that purse also comes in green and in a larger laptop style’’)). Since you’ve hired smart and capable employees who already likely serve as brand ambassadors for you to their friends and family, trust them to do so at a larger scale.
- Find out where your industry is being discussed to get insight into what potential customers are most interested in.
- Answer questions honestly and provide solutions to problems when you can.
- Provide ‘‘inside information’’ to enthusiasts on blogs or forums.
- When issuing press releases or other resources to bloggers, reporters, or others, ensure you include a URL in addition to a link, link directly to what you are highlighting (not just the home page), and use language that you would like to receive as anchor text.
- Consider adding a company blog so that you have a convenient source to link back to where you can provide more detailed information.
- If you do add a blog, ensure it’s located on your main company domain (at blog.mydomain.com or mydomain.com/blog, for instance) and that it uses backend infrastructure, such as Word- Press, that makes it easy to implement search-friendly technical components.
- Understand that posting online is the same as giving an interview to the New York Times. And that once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. This is all common sense stuff. If you’re out at dinner with your spouse and mention that you’re about to take your company public, someone at the next table might be a reporter who then could write it up as front page news. The difference is that when you post online, everyone is at the next table and you can’t say that you were misquoted. Consider the ABC reporter who posted an (alleged) off-the-record remark made by President Obama about the recent MTV Video Music Awards. The reporter deleted the comment soon after, but it lives on forever in searches and screenshots (see Figure 9.9).
And deleting comments after the fact can start to look like a cover up and only make matters worse (see Figure 9.10).
You don’t have to go any further than TripAdvisor to find examples of what works and what doesn’t. Being apologetic and intent on fixing issues might make potential customers feel as though you care and are appreciative for the feedback (see Figure 9.11).
Being defensive just makes you sound like a jerk (see Figure 9.12).
The Value of User-Generated Content for Search Acquisition
User-generated content—that content that you let visitors add to your site—can be valuable in a number of ways. It helps you have deeper engagement with your customers (they feel a sense of ownership towards your brand) and you can more quickly build out content that helps visitors and provides more opportunities to rank in search engines.
But user-generated content is also a lot of work. You need to engage vocal users early and get them excited about the site. You need to give users a compelling reason to contribute. And you need to seed the site with content so that you don’t launch empty. You also need internal oversight—someone to keep things moving along, making sure it’s all headed the right direction.
You Can Compel Visitors by Being Compelling
You need to compel users to spend time on your site and the only way to do that is to be compelling. How you do that depends on the type of site that you have. Think about (or talk with your users about) what it is you have that no one else does. Why do visitors need to come to your site rather than anyone else’s? If you can’t come up with anything, then you may need to work on your site a little before sending out the party invites.
Once you have some value to your site, you need to seed the content a bit before asking others to contribute. You can partner with other
content sites (for instance, review sites) to get this content. Just keep in mind that this puts you back into the non-unique content space and those pages are unlikely to rank in search engines. They still may be valuable for seeding purposes though, so you may find that they’re still valuable for your needs. Or perhaps you can create a mash up of content that adds unique value on top of each separate component. You can also hire writers to write content for you, although in that case, you should consider how to disclose it (if the writing is for something like reviews). One way is REI’s model of both expert and user reviews—each on their own tab (see Figure 9.13).
You can also launch with an invite-only test and get a small group to seed the content for you. The difference between launching publicly with no content and launching to a small invite-only group with no content is that the invited group expects that the site will be empty and they’ll know that it’s their job to start testing things out. They’ll much more happily post to empty pages.
How do you go about an invite-only test? Identify the early adopters and influencers in your niche. Often these are bloggers who are fairly easy to find. You can also check out local or topical forums and find those who post early and often. For instance, I live in West Seattle. The West Seattle blog is run by bloggers who are completely engaged with the local community. They know everything, and they blog it all. If I were looking to jump start user-generated content on a Seattle community site, they would be the first ones I would try to get involved. You can find testers like this everywhere: on social networking sites, at conferences, on Wikipedia.
These are your users who are the most knowledgeable so will likely provide the best contributions, who will contribute the most, and who will spread the word about your site to others.
Once you’ve got a group, pull them in with flattery. Let them know how great they are and how they can help you with the site. Let them have input during the test phase, and encourage them to contribute lots of content. You may want to leave the test phase by asking your early testers to invite others, rather than opening the site up to everyone initially. This may get your testers talking about your site and providing a bit of buzz.
You also want to consider incentives for those who add content. Some sites have been successful with cash (such as discounts on future purchases) but that can encourage spam, so watch that closely. Better incentives can simply be things like reputation points, elite badges for top posters, and moderator positions. People tend to post online for the fame and glory.
Amazon does this with their top reviewers program. And for years, online forums have been rewarding top posters with special titles and icons.
You should also consider your focus. Don’t start too big. What’s the core to your site? Start there and expand.
You also need internal oversight to keeps things going and ensure quality. You might be able to do this with outside moderators a la Wikipedia. Or you could allow the community to vote on content. Digg, of course, lets users either vote stories up or bury them. You may end up hiring someone internally. What works for you depends on your site.
Amazon does it by letting you rate the reviews of the Buffy DVDs (see Figure 9.14).
You may want to participate in social networking on other sites, blog, comment on other blogs, jump in and get involved in the community. You can get a better dialogue going with users this way, but you have to be willing to let whoever does that for your company have honest voices.
Before you get all this going, you should definitely set up some goals and ways to measure them, and you should have a backup plan in case the best laid plans don’t lead to the eternal spring fountain. You may need to adjust your site’s value add, your incentives, or the group you’re engaging. The most important question to ask is: Are you building what people need? That’s the best way to keep them coming and coming back.