Ok, love him or hate him, Ashton Kutcher’s stunt last week probably did more for Twitter than all of their previous marketing efforts combined (I have to imagine their VC’s are suddenly huge fans of “That 70s Show”). That, and Big O’s arrival, have elevated social networking’s profile considerably. But in reality, most people have no idea what social networking is. For all the hype the Kutcher/CNN battle created, only 6% of CNN’s audience use Twitter. 30% had never even heard of it.

In the past year we’ve seen a big increase in our clients asking us for advice on social marketing. Most of them are in the “We’ve heard this social networking thing is a great marketing tool, and we want to do it too.” category. It’s the same state of mind that companies had about websites 10 or 15 years ago. They hear that they need it, but they don’t know why or what to expect. There seems to be a lot of misconceptions about what social networking is, and we often find ourselves in a “managing expectations” situation.

First, here’s what social networking isn’t. It’s not a “cheap” alternative to traditional marketing. It doesn’t serve the same purpose as an ad, and your audience doesn’t react to it like one. When people see an ad, they know the deal. We understand going in that you have an agenda – you’re trying to sell your product. Most of us accept that. But in a social network, there are few quicker ways to alienate yourself than to try the “hard sell” on other members. It’s a different arena. People aren’t there to buy your product. They’re there to express ideas, share information, and interact with other users.

Think of your ads as meeting with clients in a conference room. Now think of social networking as an industry mixer at the local pub. In the meeting, you can pull out all the stops convincing your audience that your widget is the greatest widget ever created. But at the happy hour afterward, they just want to relax. Sure, you can mention what you do for a living – and they may even be interested – but you don’t want to break out the Power Point and sample book at the bar. Same thing with social networking. It’s less formal, more personal, and without the BS.

It’s also not necessarily “cheap.” There’s a considerable time investment to get real value out of social networking. That investment can be paid with your own real-world hours, or outsourced by paying for someone else’s. Either way, there’s a definite cost. In the past few years we’ve seen social networking become more and more granular, and as a result, require more and more time. We’ve gone from posting photos from last weekend, to tweeting about the last thing we ate. Social networking is a full-time commitment. If you don’t provide a reason for people to be interested in you (i.e., a constant stream of useful/intersting information), you won’t get much out of it. If you’re a numbers person, this calculator can help you estimate the cost.

Now, let’s talk about what social networking is. It is a great way to build up your brand’s identity and credibility. Social networking can be an amazing tool to disseminate information to a large group of people instantly. And, counter-intuitively, it’s also a very personal medium. You get the chance to interact with a large audience, instantly, at a one-on-one level (that’s something truly unique to social networks, and a first in humankind’s long history of marketing tools). Because of this direct line of communication, if you give your audience something useful – whether it’s information, entertainment, or just putting a face to a big corporate behemoth – they’ll reward you with ever-elusive credibility (side note: do not abuse this gift. Your audience is savvy, and their BS detectors are finely tuned). The lasting effect is that your brand gets stronger. More people know you, more people hear your “voice,” and more people have the chance to take a genuine interest in your product.

One aspect of social networking that I expect to see grow in a big way over the next few years is B2B marketing. Historically, B2B has always lagged behind consumer marketing in terms of technological adoption. The audience tends to be a little older, a little more conservative, and a little slower to adopt trends. BrightBox is located in Houston, the heart of the energy sector, and we have a fairly large B2B client base. Can our drillpipe client really expect to find their target audience (project engineers, rig operators, purchasing managers, etc.) on Twitter right now? Probably not. But it’s coming. If you are thinking about jumping into the social networking pool, do some research and make sure your audience knows how to swim first.

Here are some things to keep in mind –

Reasons to Get Social:

  • Communicate directly with large numbers of people
  • Get a personal connection with your audience
  • Disseminate information quickly
  • Less formal medium

What to Expect:

  • Expect your audience to hear what you say. People actually pay attention!
  • Expect to get out of it what you put into it. If you don’t put in the effort, no one will notice you.
  • Expect feedback/criticism. That’s the beautiful thing about having a direct line of communication with your audience. Embrace it.

What NOT to Expect:

  • Do not expect automatic results. Get involved.
  • Do not expect people to seek you out. Again, get involved.
  • Do not expect an instant sales increase. Social networks build your brand and your credibility, which eventually leads to sales.
  • Do not expect your audience to be on the social network of your choice. Do research. Is it really effective to spend time on something your clients have never heard of?

Social networking is a powerful new tool – for communication in general, and marketing specifically. But, like any tool, it has to be used correctly to be effective.

As always, feel free to comment below.