SOCIAL media has emerged as the shiny new red apple favoured by organisations around the world and applied across different business functions. This is largely because many of today’s consumers are evolving into a savvy breed of “social customers”.

These individuals actively participate in social media when making purchasing decisions, providing feedback, demanding customer service and reading or contributing to online product reviews.

Here are four ways that businesses are leveraging on social media platforms to boost their chances of success:

 

Generating sales

Businesses regularly use social media to generate sales leads, by connecting with potential customers and building stronger relationships with existing customers.

The best way to start is to first understand the preferred platform of the target audience, as there is a wide range of social media platforms. Once brands have selected the right platform, they need to engage with the community.

Since social media is meant to be “social”, brands should not simply post news or pictures of their product or service, and expect this to lead to increased sales. Instead, they need to present products in an attractive way that encourages discussion or provides valuable information.

Many businesses ask existing happy customers for referrals, as word-of-mouth from a trusted source can be very effective. Organisations must also put in place tracking facilities, so they can verify whether their social media strategy is leading to an increase in sales.

A good example of a company that used social media to drive sales is Foiled Cupcakes, a United States-based cupcake online delivery business. IT uses platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs to engage potential customers.

However, rather than focusing only on selling cupcakes, its social media strategy focuses on building relationships through participating in general conversations, initiating cupcake-related conversations (such as soliciting feedback on names for a new cupcake) and connecting on social networks with past customers.

The company relies purely on social media as its only form of advertising and yet it surpassed its revenue targets by some 600 per cent. Tellingly, Foiled Cupcakes did not start out with this social media strategy in mind, but used it as a last-case resort, when its website launch was delayed.

 

Marketing

Social media is ideal for marketing, as businesses can communicate the value of their product or service through many online sites. They can do this by creating useful content that attracts attention, making it likely that users will not only read it, but also share it with their social networks.

Many organisations are aware of the benefits of social media marketing, and have made significant investments in this area. The challenge now is to measure performance and justify the return on investment.

For example, a Thai tourism company launched a Facebook contest, to raise awareness of Bangkok as an ideal destination for a holiday. Members of the public were invited to create their dream one-day holiday itinerary in Bangkok, choosing from categories such as “Things to see”, “Things to do” and “Things to eat”.

Users posted these one-day holidays on their Facebook page and the top 20 users that earned the most likes from their friends were rewarded with prizes ranging from Thai memorabilia to a paid flight to Bangkok. This marketing campaign acquired over 80,000 new Facebook likes and drew 18,000 contest entries in just six weeks.

 

Customer service

The advantage of using social media sites, such as online forums and blogs, to provide customer service is that information can be provided by both the organisation, as well as the community, which naturally acts as independent third-party endorsers.

In 2005, General Motors introduced its FastLane blog, opening a multi-way communication platform between the brand, its customers and car enthusiasts. Not only did this blog draw attention from customers, the media and bloggers, it also helped to revamp General Motors’ image as a technology leader.

The blog is regularly updated by General Motors’ vice-chairman and other key executives, who provide first peeks at brand-new vehicles, offer invitations to test-drive new cars and trucks or upload podcasts. The FastLane blog attracts millions of visitors and receives thousands of comments. It also helps to reduce General Motors’ customer feedback cost by US$180,000 (S$220,000) a year.

 

Product innovation

Social customers often take to online channels to comment on what they like and don’t like about a brand. Vocal customers appreciate it when their voices are heard. When converted into advocates, these individuals make excellent brand ambassadors.

Realising this, many companies are using social media platforms to listen to what their customers want, and this feedback is incorporated into developing the next generation of products and services.

For example, coffee chain Starbucks began an online community called MyStarbucksIdea.com. This encourages people to share, vote and discuss how to enhance their Starbucks experience in an open dialogue.

Over the past five years, some 150,000 ideas have been received from customers. Starbucks has listened and acted on many of the suggestions, resulting in nearly 300 new innovations. These include new flavours, skinny beverages, digital rewards and free Wi-Fi in Starbucks outlets.

The use of social media in business is relatively new. Organisations are still learning how to unlock its true potential and regularly adapt their social media strategies. However, one thing is clear — organisations cannot choose to ignore social media without the risk of losing out on significant new opportunities and profits.

 

Article by Leon C.K. Leong, the chief business development officer (South-east Asia) of Techsailor, an online social media specialist that is the social media engagement arm of To The New Group. For more information, visit www.techsailor.com