Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Social Marketing - The Real Thing?

"Social Marketing" is the relatively young term for driving customers to your business using the "social" tools of the Internet - Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and all of the other, similar applications that people use to feel connected to one another electronically. Social media is all about sharing every aspect of your life, and businesses hope that through social marketing you'll opt to share their products and services in such a way that members of your network are inspired to buy them as well.

I wouldn't say that I doubted it was possible for social marketing to work - some products and services would seem like great fits, and any really well-developed marketing campaign can succeed if it's thought through carefully enough. But these days, the "buzz" is that you have to do social marketing, sometimes to the exclusion of virtually every other form of product advertising. I was pretty skeptical.

Martial arts schools are one area where I know this thinking is very prevalent. I attended a couple of webinars hoping to learn a bit more about using Facebook, not realizing that they were really just sales pitches by a firm that sells consulting services and software in the martial arts industry. So I got an earful about how dojos need to jettison door hangers, yellow pages ads, and flyers and get with the social media program. Really? I wondered. Can that really work? I mean, they're talking to a guy who gets very few facebook responses to the stuff I post, and who couldn't even get 25 people to "like" the page I administer for the Syracuse Writer's Roundtable (once you have 25 or 30 likes, you get more info about site traffic and can assign it a unique site name. I haven't been able to do either of those things for the Roundtable - there's just not enough traffic, despite my efforts to make it relevant and interesting to people).

Something happened last week to change my mind. Well, I should say that it opened my mind to the possibility that social marketing could possibly work. I'm not sold yet, but I'm not too far away, either.

You see, the karate school my family goes to, Five Star Martial Arts, has put out some terrific deals through more "traditional' media - print ads and through the TV show "Bridge Street." The Bridge Street deal was actually available through their website, but that still doesn't really count as social media. Anyhow, these two "traditional media" offers were pretty similar, and they didn't sell worth a damn. Practically zero interest.

Then they put out virtually the same offer again, this time through Groupon. Groupon is a service that people sign up for, and they send out a "deal of the day" every... well, every day. It might be a deal on a restaurant, a spa treatment, dog grooming, photography services, movie tickets - anything. And it's always at least 50% off the regular price. You have 48 hours to buy the deal, and it's common for people to share it with each other on Facebook or through email. That's the "social networking" part. In fact, the deal doesn't become "active" until a minimum number of people have bought in, so buyers are encouraged in that way to share the deal - so it will activate.

The deal went live on Thursday morning. At 8:33 AM, they hit the minimum purchase quantity of 10, and the deal went live. The dojo's owners were delighted. Based on their previous offers, getting 10 sales was outstanding. They continued to watch the numbers sold: 20, then 35, then 50... All day long, the counter continued to rise. And rise. By the time the deal was up Friday night, they'd sold 220 of the deals. Go ahead, read that again, because it's an amazing number. 220. The same deal that sold not a single offer on Bridge Street had sold beyond anyone's wildest expectations. The people at Groupon were floored - it was the single biggest fitness-related offer they'd ever sold in Syracuse. Turns out, when they did a little research, it was one of the biggest responses they'd had anywhere. It was on par with the kinds of numbers they'd see in places like Miami, which could hold Syracuse's entire population in a couple of neighborhoods.

And at the same time, all of these new customers were banging on their Facebook page (which, granted, is currently their entire web presence. They're working on that). They were "liking" it. They were asking questions (and getting immediate responses, or nearly so). It was exactly how social media is supposed to work.

I still think social marketing works best when you somehow get your numbers up high enough for the buzz you generate just going about your regular business can be self-sustaining and "viral," but I no longer totally doubt that it can work. I've seen it work. Wow. I'm prepared to be a believer.

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