More marketers use social networking to reach customers

•Speak directly to customers. Blogs, Twitter or Facebook can be an ideal forum for CEOs to offer customers a candid viewpoint.

When a hack attack disabled Twitter's service for hours this month, co-founder Biz Stone gave up-to-the-minute updates on the company's blog.

The Carphone Warehouse, Europe's leading independent retailer of mobile phones and services, has a simple credo: It says, "I'm sorry" when necessary on its Twitter page for customer support.

"There is no gap between the CEO and customer. They now talk directly to each other," says Promise Phelon, CEO of UpMo, a career-management website. "The network is so connected, there's no need for a middleman."

"These customers want honesty, and quickly," says Shiv Singh, who wrote a report on social-media marketing for ad agency Razorfish.

Challenges ahead

But with rewards come risks.

Reaching out to millions of consumers who thrive online around the clock requires an investment, a different type of thinking and some courage, says Petouhoff. She spent six months on a just-released report on monetization of social-media tools at 20 companies, including Lenovo and Intuit.

Many companies — reflecting the general public's sentiment toward social media — fall into two camps: Those who embrace it and those who eschew it. "Those that don't know how to get their arms around it seem to be held back by worrying about the legal implications of customers helping customers, and about being too honest with customers," Petouhoff says.

Most corporations are still wedded to a traditional marketing approach, based on TV, radio and print ads, says Charlene Li, partner at technology consulting firm Altimeter Group. "Ford and Levi's are at the avant-garde of social-media use, but they are not typical," she says.

A social-media plan is hardly a guarantee of success, Li and others say. While some companies — especially market leaders such as Starbucks and Nike with consumer products — are predisposed to the medium, others aren't. Tightly regulated health care providers, for example, may think twice about making the public's comments readily available on Facebook or Twitter.

"Social media is not the messiah," says Michael Brito, social-media strategist at Intel. "It is one of several tools."

Still, a growing number of marketers can't afford to ignore millions of potential customers who are consuming media in new ways.

Three-fourths of men ages 18 to 34 say they spend most of their time in front of a computer screen vs. 18% in front of a TV screen, according to a survey of 50,000 by AskMen.com, a lifestyle website. Those who don't have a social-media plan don't at their own risk, say marketing experts.

"Companies have no choice. This is where their customers are going," says Shel Israel, author of the forthcoming Twitterville: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods. "Companies have no choice. This is where their customers are going."

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