"There is no cure for sucking!" announces Mark Schmulen, general manager of email and social media marketing firm Constant Contact. "You must provide a great customer experience; otherwise social media cannot work for you."
It's a fairly unusual stance for a roomful of social media evangelists. All, almost to a man, agreed on one thing: You have to invest time and resource into your social media strategy, and you have to have the support of your whole business in order to make social media work. You can't promise a solution on Twitter that is not delivered in the real world. You can't be slapdash in your social media approach. If you're not going to do it properly, why bother?
You also have to be prepared to give up old-fashioned notions about dictating your brand values to your customers. "We're not in Mad Men," says Schmulen. "These days, your customers dictate the brand. Not the other way round."
With these caveats out of the way, Schmulen gets to the silver lining. "51% of US internet users have purchased a product based on an online recommendation," he says. ROI doesn't get much more powerful than that. Here's another interesting statistic: "63% of small businesses say word of mouth is the most effective form of marketing."
If you can win over your customers online, if they say nice things about you, your products, your company, the battle is half won.
Schmulen uses Zappos as a case study. The US shoe company decided to make customer service the focus of its marketing activity. Rather than seek out new customers, it serviced its existing customer base like no other shoe firm - hence the company strap: 'Powered by service'.
Some of the Zappos' stories have become legend. Like the time one of its customer care staff ordered a pizza for a caller who rang the helpline at 3am. When another customer failed to return a pair of unwanted shoes, Zappos got in touch to find out why. She replied that she was behind on admin because her mother had just died. They sent UPS to pick up her shoes for free and sent a huge bunch of flowers. That woman is now a brand ambassador for Zappos. Her story spread across the web like wildfire.
Stories like this create real goodwill. They are also extremely viral: bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers will all share these tales of corporate kindness.
"Social media is about the emotional response," says Schmulen. "You can measure the physical effectiveness: the clicks; page views; opens; fans' followers; and subscribers. You can also measure some of the emotional results: likes; shares; retweets; mentions; user reviews and sentiment. But you can't measure everything. What's the ROI of a conversation?"
Of course, not every business has the budget to send flowers every five minutes. Schmulen mentions two small business case studies to prove that social media isn't just for big brands. Dingo is a US-based micro business selling dog treats and paraphernalia via the internet. It launched a campaign to create a brand presence on Facebook earlier this year. To do this, the company emailed its 9,000-strong subscriber list, offering a $20 voucher to anyone who joined their Facebook group and signed up to the newsletter. Within three days, Dingo reached its Facebook target of 5,000 fans. Revenue that month rose by 22% - 45% of which was new custom. And he's the kicker, 85% of these new customers have ordered from Dingo again.
Then there's Glamour Nails in Austin, Texas. Dom, the owner, was particularly smart with his social media marketing. He came up with three different campaigns: Twitter users had to tweet "I love Glamour Nails" to get a 20% discount; Facebook users had to come into the store and announce "I love Dom!" to get the deal; while customers requesting the discount via email had to use the phrase, "I love getting my nails done". The response was phenomenal and, through this segmentation, Dom was able to see that 50% of the new business came from email, with 20% from Twitter and 30% from Facebook.
In all these examples however, the businesses had very clear objectives. Alan Hamlyn, co-founder of social media dashboard Market Me Suite, thinks this is key for SMEs. "Be very specific about what you want to achieve from your social media," he says. "And don't expect instant results. It can take up to three months to get any real traction from a social media campaign. Don't give up before you've really got going."
Schmulen also warns against using social media as a 'magic bullet'. "You can't solve everyone's problems in 140 characters," he says. "You have to follow up with phone calls or emails. It has to be an integrated strategy."
Luke Brynley-Jones is the co-founder of event company Influence People. He masterminded today's event, and is also a real mover and shaker in the world of social media. He made a very important point: for consumer-facing companies, the key to social media is customer service, discounts and deals. For those in the B2B sector, it's about thought leadership. "Find out what your customers like, what they read about and blog about those topics," he says. "It's all about engaging with your customer base. Tapping into their interests is a great way to do this."
Brynley-Jones also recommends these free /low cost tools for micro-businesses starting out on the social media ladder. "I used ViralHeat and Ubervu," he says. "If you're just getting started, these tools can help you monitor the effectiveness of your social media activity - so you know what works, and what doesn't."
And one final point for all small business owners. "Don't put your intern in charge of your social media," warns Schmulen. "It has to be someone who knows the business inside out and, more importantly, who cares about the business. Think of you social media executive as a maitre d' in a restaurant. First impressions count."