More marketers use social networking to reach customers

Ford Motor has high hopes for Fiesta, a popular model abroad launching in the U.S. next year.

So how does it introduce the subcompact car to Americans? A massive ad blitz on TV? In-house promotions at dealers nationwide?

Nope.

In April, Ford tapped 100 top bloggers and gave them a Fiesta for six months. The catch: Once a month, they're required to upload a video on YouTube about the car, and they're encouraged to talk — no holds barred — about the Fiesta on their blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

"It's extremely important to this company's history," says Scott Monty, whose job as head of social media at Ford was created about a year ago to take advantage of the growing social-networking wave. "It's about culture change and adapting to this ongoing way of communicating. The bloggers are fully free to say what they want."

Social-media services, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and countless other websites, have had a profound effect on how millions of Americans — especially those under 35 — interact with others (or don't), shop and view brands. It's a real-time digital lifestyle, powered by smartphones and netbooks, that often colors what products they purchase, how they view brands and where they spend most of their waking hours.

Marketers have noticed. Social-networking services increasingly are indispensable business tools, says Forrester Research. According to its survey of 1,217 business decision makers worldwide late last year, 95% use social networks to some extent.

And 53% of more than 300 marketers planned to increase social-media marketing spending this year, according to a Forrester presentation in April.

Some of the biggest companies — Ford, Levi Strauss and Chevron, to name a few — are reengineering marketing operations to embrace digital tools to more nimbly brand products, support customers and cash in on the social-media wave. In doing so, they are creating online communities and aggressive outreach programs, and being brutally honest in talking directly to their customers/followers/fans/friends.

"It was an easy call. This is where our customers are," says Megan O'Connor, director of digital marketing at Levi's. The more-than-150-year-old company last month launched a social-media program on Facebook and Twitter along with a larger "Go Forth" traditional marketing campaign. Its goal is to burnish its brand name among young men.

At their core, social networks are fostering a blistering number of personal connections and chatter online. The share of Americans 18 and over online who use a social-networking service more than quadrupled to 35% in 2008 from 8% in 2005, according to Pew Internet & American Life Project.

"It's the modern-day version of knitting — to kill downtime," says Kaitlin Villanova, 26, a social-media strategist in Brooklyn who is an avid iPhone user. "I use social networking to communicate, bank, comparison shop, everything."

Facebook is up to 250 million members, 50 million of whom joined in the past three months. In April, they spent 13.9 billion minutes on Facebook, up 700% from April 2008, says Nielsen NetView.

More than 300,000 businesses — one-third of them small businesses — have a presence on Facebook. Members of its fastest-growing demographic — those 35 and older — have enormous purchasing power, a powerful incentive to marketers.

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