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The Social Media Imperative

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Many marketer hands have been wrung over the shifts in consumer behavior during the recent recession. The fear, the anxiety, the uncertainty over jobs and dwindling retirement accounts all resulted in predictable shifts in spending patterns, brand loyalties and the information-gathering processes shaping these loyalties.

Now, with some degree of economic recovery under way, it's tempting to presume that consumer mind-sets will reset to pre-recessionary habits. The implied hope behind any recovery prophecy is that marketers can go back to communicating with consumers in a business-as-usual manner.

I say, "Stop!" The recession has sparked the irrevocable emergence of a more nuanced, sophisticated and discerning consumer. Nowhere is this more striking than in the transformed usage of social media by consumers of every demographic stripe.

Social networking originally surfaced as a lighthearted endeavor for most consumers -- photo and video sharing or tracking friends and families. The recession has subsequently inspired consumers to utilize social media as a primary tool for a range of weightier activities, from career management to brand consideration and purchasing.

Dire stories of home foreclosures and job losses coupled with the outrage towards Wall Street contributed to a massive breach of consumer confidence that led buyers to increasingly reject typical marketer entreaties, i.e., campaigns "pushed out" via traditional media, in favor of seeking alternative sources of validation and information -- the kind that social networking provides. It was the perfect confluence of redefined need and a new breed of technology. During the recession, with brand loyalties challenged, consumers embraced aggressively a multitude of new options to exercise a more disciplined due diligence than in the past. Suddenly, the opinions of a loosely knit community of strangers came to mean as much if not more to consumers than any ad campaign.

WPP Group's Kantar Research recently reported the powerful psychographic forces that steered consumer actions during the recession would continue to influence behavior even as the economy recovers. For one, it states that the era of gamesmanship is over. Economic anxiety may be lessening, but vigilance and discrimination in brand choice are not. Consumers are used to following a new pattern of decision making, and brands must continue to work hard to build and retain trust.

The report also notes that consumer demand for information is not diminishing. Determining value continues to be a priority, and now that consumers know where and how to get better information they will continue to be more thoughtful in their purchase considerations.
 
Also of importance, it states that consumers listen more to conversations about marketing more than to the marketing. Consumers will not back off from driving conversations about brands with each other and directly with the brands themselves.

Consumer maturation with social media has decisively changed the playing field for marketers, with implications not only for communications strategies, but also for almost every aspect of a business. From my perspective as a media agency CEO, I have seen how powerful strategic application of social networking tools can be. True commitment must be made; lip service will no longer suffice. My suggestions:
 
1. Allow social media to inform all aspects of your business: The further upstream, the better. Social media should begin to inform decisions as early as the product-development stage, right through to customer service, legal, CRM and, of course, communications. If integrated correctly, social media will change the job remit of virtually everyone in your organization as customer feedback is applied to improve upon best practices. Think of social media as a real-time focus group that if properly monitored and applied, can help you avoid potential problems and revenue loss, and/or leapfrog to greater profit.  

2. Embrace the new level of transparency: The way to secure consumer trust is not by tightly controlling brand chatter, but by facilitating a public forum for your brand. This can be scary, but participating in the process -- not squelching it -- is the most efficient and lasting means of
affecting the dialogue in a positive manner. Devote sufficient resources to nimbly manage your reputation and quickly correct misinformation about your brand. This requires a well-trained staff, trustworthy enough to satisfy legal while creatively responding quickly and on brand.

3. Include social media on every communication plan: If you're not in those places where consumers are digging and talking, you're not part of the conversation. And if you're not part of the conversation, no matter how much you're spending to push out your message, what you're saying could be completely irrelevant to how consumers are actually evaluating your brand.

4. Choose your social media partners well: Implementing an integrated social strategy requires working with a partner who fully understands your business and your brand objectives. There are tremendous tools now available to monitor conversations regarding your brand, but the true value can only come from translating this data into something actionable and accountable. Fully capitalizing on the value that social media can bring to your brand is a complex process -- a process that media agencies engage in every day.

The rules of the game have changed, but winning is still achievable. Marketers should laud the post-recessionary consumer as an opportunity for growth, not a hindrance to it.

Doug Checkeris is CEO of MediaCom North America. He can be reached at doug.checkeris@mediacom.com.