The Press, October 2013

Is social media the most overhyped development in the generally over-hyped history of marketing? Is all this tweeting, facebooking and linkedining as pointless as it seems?

Mostly yes, because too many firms look at social media in completely the wrong way. Social media works best when it is used to pull people in to listen to your company’s story, rather than treated as yet another channel to push your message on potential customers.

Advertising, direct marketing, trade shows, email marketing, publicity and so on, are all about shouting out to gain the attention of potential customers, hoping to convince them that you are the best solution to their problem.

These tactics are still valid, but they are becoming increasingly inefficient at supporting sales, for two main reasons. Consumers are bombarded at every turn by advertising, in every conceivable form. There has also been a steady erosion of trust as consumers become more and more sceptical about the claims of advertisers.

Effectively using new communications channels like social media is all about sharing, in this case sharing knowledge. A little US swimming pool company is an unlikely, but great, example of this approach. Formed in 2001, Washington-based River Pools was hit hard from 2008 onwards as the US housing market collapsed in the wake of the global financial crisis. Heading towards business failure they had to try something radically different, and needed to slash their $250,000 annual marketing budget by 90 per cent to survive, according to an article in the New York Times.

Desperate to survive, River Pools decided to become ‘‘ . . . the best teachers in the world about our business – which was in-ground fibreglass swimming pools. This decision saved our company,’’ says Marcus Sheridian, one of the company’s three founders, in an interview on copyblogger.com.

They started by endeavouring to answer every question a customer could possibly have about buying a fibreglass pool and putting this information on their website. Not to shout to the world how great their pools were or how cheap they were, but to share information that consumers wanted in the process of selecting a swimming pool.

Traffic to their website exploded, because when people searched online for answers to their questions about pools, Rivers Pools’ helpful resources came up first. This traffic to their website generated large numbers of leads that turned into sales.

To do this effectively you need to really understand your market, understand the people within these markets that make buying decisions, and understand their problems. What kind of information and tools could help them? Is it a whitepaper about your subject area, a spreadsheet tool, an infographic, a mobile phone app, a video case study of success, a checklist?

Survey your customers, ask your sales team, talk to resellers, go to tradeshows, read blog posts and other online tools, read industry media, talk to technical experts to gather this data. The basic question to understand is what questions would a potential customer type into Google if they were searching for your type of product?

You need to offer real, well thought-through, valuable information to a customer.

Once you can start producing this useful content is where social media channels come in, as tools to pull people into your website so they can consume useful content and start on the buying process with your company. Sites like Facebook (750 million users), Twitter (250 million), LinkedIn (110 million), Pinterest (86 million) and Google+ (65 million) have huge volumes of visitors, and can be used to attract visitors to your website. In many ways this inbound marketing approach is ideal for the average Kiwi technology exporter, selling a complicated product from the end of the world. Potential customers across the world can be targeted quite specifically and cost effectively online.

The annual Market Measures study of sales and marketing by hitech New Zealand exporters shows the most successful companies are shifting their marketing towards this inbound approach.

Most Kiwi hi-tech firms still tend towards producing the same old marketing materials and pushing them through the same old channels. Many of them are wasting their time with social media, they’d be better served to turn off their Twitter or LinkedIn, and focus on really understanding their customer’s problems and developing resources that help them solve those. Once in place, let the tweeting begin.

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