Some marketers think "social media marketing" or "social media optimisation" means "social media manipulation."
There is a steady stream of how-to articles describing how to game the system of sites like Digg, or to develop linkbait to drive untargeted traffic to your site.
A better way to approach social media is to remember that behind every successful blog is a person. Reaching out to bloggers and building a relationship with them can go a long way in improving your social media efforts, your search ranking, and your overall marketing plan.
Blogs reflect a steady drumbeat by customers and potential customers, and it's our responsibility to monitor them – and engage when it's appropriate.
Whether you're trying to drive online traffic, build inbound links, sell online, or promote brand awareness, it's time to consider blogs in your marketing efforts.
Recently, I was able to catch up with several experts after their "Meet the Bloggers" session at Search Engine Strategies Chicago. The major takeaways? As marketers, we'll need to leave our comfort zones to succeed in the social ecosystem.
We'll need to get organised in how we listen to bloggers, earn our presence in a culturally sensitive way, and then allocate resources to actively participate within communities. Payoff comes from longer-term commitment to support bloggers.
Leave your comfort zone
Bloggers are not a channel, and push strategy simply doesn't apply. "The concepts of push and pull aren't that useful. Almost everything we do now is a combination of both, in that the focus is on establishing continuous dialogue and relationships," said Nan Dawkins, founder and CEO of RedBoots Consulting, which is rebranding next month to Serengeti Communications.
The traditional one-to-many PR communications are a recipe for failure, according to Sally Falkow, president and senior Web strategist at Expansion Plus. "There's a big shift in influence. Marketing and PR people need to come to the conclusion that they don't own their message," Falkow said.
The biggest mistakes are made when the bloggers are treated like traditional media outlets. They should not be receiving e-mail blasts or press releases, unless they specifically request them. Instead, bloggers must be treated as individuals. This isn't as convenient or easy to do.
Listen to Bloggers
Where to begin? Well, you should actively listen to the buzz about your company and marketplace. There are many free tools to search blogs, such as Technorati, Google's Blogsearch, and Blogpulse. There you'll be able to identify bloggers who share relevant interests or already chat about you.
However, these tools only get you so far. Dawkins compared the experience to "trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon."
Constantin Basturea, who serves as director of new media strategies at Converseon, knows the landscape well. Converseon offers a dedicated service to capture and monitor buzz, along with other suppliers listed at the NewPR Wiki.
He suggested mining the bigger picture conversation and answering these questions: Where are the discussions happening? Who are the most vocal actors? What are the main themes or topics discussed? Who's talking about your company and products, as well as your competitors? What are they saying in terms of issues, tone and polarity?
As an example, Dawkins shared retailer research from MotiveQuest, which was based on 80,000 posters and 1.7 million messages. Posters were most interested in sales/discounts (52%) and specific departments (32%). Message volumes revealed passions, with fewer about sales/discounts (31%) versus departments (57%).
Also, the fashionistas liked to post about shoes, handbags and apparel more than other categories. So if you manufacture four-inch heels, then bragging about luxuries might create decent engagement.
Earn your presence
As a subject matter expert, you should start creating high-quality content that bloggers will want to link to. Establishing and updating your own blog is the ideal way to share content, especially for retailers.
Basturea claimed that "having a strong company blog means being connected and playing in the same space with the other bloggers in your niche – which means that your blog is going to be covered well by other bloggers, as long as you contribute to the conversation and you're offering something of value."
The next step would be syndicating your content. You'll definitely need to create an RSS feed, so that bloggers can access your changing content easily without visiting your site. The mechanics are fairly straightforward, whether you want to share content from your web site or company blog.
Search Engine Watch does this well, through the ubiquitous orange RSS button, which links to a page with Google, Yahoo, Pluck, Newsgator, Bloglines, MSN, Rojo, and Feedburner feeds. If this all seems too technical or difficult, then you may want to explore support services like Press-Feed instead.
In another example, Falkow presented a skin lotion case study. Her client's goal was to reach the public, who would ask their drug stores to stock the new product. She developed and syndicated web site content, based on dermatology research about "shielding lotion" as a dry skin remedy.
"We were watching the blogs like little hawks," explained Falkow, who quickly contacted all the bloggers who mentioned them. They were given free products and additional content, as encouragement. Eventually the public created sufficient demand for the specialised lotion.
What does it take to commit? The experts differ on what resources are required for blog marketing success.
Falkow said you need "a little bit of training and guidance, no more so than normal PR would cost. You're just broadening your view, more than traditional media. There are many ways to do it." She encouraged all marketers to create content and take the blogger community into account, because they are out there.
Basturea advised potential blog marketers to consider the commitment carefully, in light of their overall strategy and business opportunities. He also advised marketers to think about all the social tools available, in addition to blogs.
For bigger companies, you should work with Legal, HR and IT departments to review policies and train employees. Finally, you'll need to assign employees to support all social efforts.
"If there is a viable strategy that includes blogs, then you have to spend some significant time and resources identifying who those folks are and whether you have something to offer them that is of interest. Once you have done that initial research, you have to spend time developing a relationship," declared Dawkins.
"Bottom Line: It is a long-term process that takes significant time and effort."
It's clear that blog marketing is here to stay. It's past time to get comfortable with what bloggers say about you and the related topics impacting your business. Attract blogger interest by creating relevant and evolving content and syndicating it through feeds.
Decide whether you feel it's worth investing in and actively engaging with your blogging community. Don't measure success through old yardsticks like number of bloggers or postings – look at the buzz itself and its direct impact on your overall marketing goals.
By Debby Richman, a senior VP at Collarity, a community-based search technology company.