August 11, 2008
A CONSENSUS SEEMS TO BE emerging that the real marketing significance of social media may lie beyond the opportunity to display targeted media against individuals and groups. Instead, social media’s real power lies in its ability to function as a recommendation engine in which real people praise or pillory products. These opinions may be honest, informed, and impartial –or inaccurate, biased, and vengeful — but it’s clear that they are exerting influence on shoppers as they roll through (or are derailed from) the purchase funnel. This phenomenon hasn’t escaped the attention of SEO types, who have attempted to reinvent themselves as SMO (social media optimization) specialists. Nor has it gone unnoticed by corporate America, whose efforts to “manage” conversations have occasionally resulted in spectacular PR fiascos such as those which embroiled Wal-Mart and Edelman, its PR agency, over “WalMartingAcrossAmerica.com” or Sony and its agency over “AllIWantForChristmasIsAPSP.
Fortunately, there are plenty of things that marketers can do to make better use of the growing body of opinion-based information that don’t have any risk associated with them. Here are some observations and recommendations on how this may be done:
1. Forums are where products are discussed. Too many of us in this business associate the phrase “social media” with Facebook, MySpace, Bebo et al. But these huge sites are more about socializing than exchanging information about products. Do a series of product searches on Google or the other engines and you’ll see that the majority of opinions about products occur on good old fashioned forum pages, the kind that have been up on the Web for more than a decade. Every product vertical you can think of (including photography, autos, movies, household appliances, and a ton of others) likely has several specialized sites associated with important products within these verticals. While a fair number of the people reading such opinions are regular users of such sites, many or most of the accesses to this content come through search engines, where users are conducting long-tail queries such as “Nikon D50 scope mount, “Audi transmission problem,” “koss headphones lightweight” and the like — and discussion forums often turn up in high positions for such long-tail queries.
2. Contextual is king on forum sites. A large number of these product-oriented forums are AdSense or other contextual network publishers, which means that you might consider reaching their users through targeted contextual ads, instead of duking it out with deep-pocketed competitors vying for space on SERPS. Google and the other engines have taken steps to make their contextual networks more attractive by rolling out more precise targeting criteria (including demographic targeting), and just last week Google announced that it will be serving a DoubleClick cookie through this network, which adds frequency capping, plus more advanced reporting. While contextual ads are much cheaper than pure-search ads, only testing can establish whether moving budget to contextual provides similar ROI. Don’t ignore the possibility that your contextual efforts may draw a unique (and possibly more attractive) population of users who might not have responded to a similar (but more expensive) text ad placed a SERP.
3. Move your content with care. After performing a number of product-oriented long-tail searches on several popular sites with forum areas, I was struck by the number of instances in which links embedded in opinion posts yielded Error 404 (broken link) messages. Usually, the broken link pointed to a formerly active URL within a manufacturer/retailer’s site which had drifted with time. Manufacturers and retailers cannot be expected to never move or delete their product URLs, but at the very least they should install appropriate redirects — so that these clicks don’t dead-end in a 404. Just because a product may have been superseded or even discontinued doesn’t mean that people aren’t still talking about it somewhere and following links to investigate a possible purchase. Why destroy a path that may be delivering you customers (and PageRank) right now?
Bottom line: you don’t have to wait for Facebook and its brethren to come up with a new generation of ad units or targeting options to begin harnessing the power of social media. Just find out where everybody’s talking (for good or for ill) about your product, investigate how to reach such people in a cost-effective, non-intrusive, contextually sensitive manner, and do your utmost to make sure that the links that these people have already created still work.
These low-key tactics might not get you a speaking engagement at a high-profile social media conference, but they’ll sure come in handy when it comes time to justify your salary.
Steve Baldwin is editor-in-chief at Didit, an agency for search engine marketing and auctioned media management based in New York. You can reach Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.