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Monday, February 02, 2009

Social Media, Marketing, Retail & Customers

The White Picket Fence originally uploaded by (fez).
What do you think about social media, marketing, retail and customers?  Are you as intrigued with all of the possibilities as I am? You see, markets are conversations, not one-way broadcasts. The only way to have a conversation is if a minimum of 2 human entities interact; more might get drawn in if the conversation looks to be interesting and relevant. However, that can't happen unless there's truly a two-way conversation taking place.

Shockingly, this is how business used to be done. It's also how successful, specialized, local businesses operate today.

My friends, Cynthia and Donald Grey, owners of Isabella's Prestigious Cleaners in Westwood, NJ, do just that.  They are visibly involved in the business, know just about every customer by name and hold events in-store. Their shop welcomes. It also delivers on expectations and it's personal. [Isabella is their daughter's name; she's also my daughter's best friend.] Their conversations take place every time they interact with a customer. They will tell you in no uncertain terms that conversations work.

Not that I personally experienced this, but I was recently reminded that four-party telephone lines used to be how news got around.  Interesting to compare that concept to Twitter - where you broadcast 140 character messages to all those following you - that many businesses are experimenting with.  What's interesting is that Twitter posts - aka 'tweets' - lead to conversation and interaction, as 4-party lines did. My hyperlocal newspaper is there, although it hasn't yet figured things out. I recommend that they and anyone else wanted to give Twitter a try for business read Chris Brogan's 50 ideas on using Twitter for business and John Jantsch's Twitter for Business Beginner's Guide.

Think, too, on the evolution of home building. We used to have porches. That's where we hung out particularly during hot, airless summers to catch a breeze and converse with neighbors. When I first moved to NYC in the early '80s, I lived in the Bronx. From my 5th floor [walk up] apartment building, I watched all of the activity happening below as neighbors hung out outside with TVs blaring or music playing. They were relaxing and chilling in the night air and discussing... food, sports, local happenings. It looked really friendly.

And, then, air conditioners became ubiquitous. They drove us inside and away from people. Away from conversations.

Interestingly, according to the AIA Home Design Trends 3rd Quarter 2008 Survey, desirable home building looks to be shifting back toward areas with better access to public transportation and stores vs. great, wide open spaces.  We are more interested in "simplicity in home styles and exteriors" and we continue to value front and side porches: they offer the possibility for interaction. 

To me that says that we yearn for practical and social environments -- something that social media tools make possible.

Isn't it interesting that the images social media brings to mind are ones like conversation across a white picket fence or around a kitchen table; exchanging ideas with friends in the living or family room; hanging out on the porch and chatting with the neighbors?

Social media tools enable interaction.  That's what makes them so noteworthy and exciting, reminding us that markets are about conversation, where we exchange perspectives, listen to and interact with one another as individual human beings rather than as impersonal organizations. What an opportunity to strengthen relationships with friends, customers and even business associates.

And, don't discount Facebook!  In the past few weeks, I've connected with several work associates.  We're all in different locations, we interact mostly via work tools [i.e., email or phone], and -if lucky- get to meet in person every year or so. But, usually not. Via Facebook, I have a new appreciation for their lives outside of work and something to talk to them about that's not necessarily work related. I find it both exhilarating and humbling. And, I'm thrilled to pieces that my friend Scott Myers has taken the blogging plunge.  

Imagine being able to connect on that level with customers.

By the way, many brands, businesses and retailers are already exploring these social media spaces. Check out this article from the Dallas News titled "Retailers find facebook friends in hopes of finding sales."   In it, you'll read about J.C.Penney's 'Beware of the Doghouse' Facebook application, as well as Victoria's Secret and Sephora.  Beware, though: by participating on many of these platforms, do not try to sell as you would to a captive audience.  If you do, you'll be shunned. Rather, establish connection; interact.  As the article states: "An audience is one-way. A community is two-way. There has to be the right level of transparency with a purpose of interacting, not just broadcasting."

And, in case you prefer to dismiss all of the touchy-feelyness and interaction associated with social environments and platforms, be further warned. According to Ketchum's 3rd annual U.S. Media Myths & Realities survey, customers are busy gathering information from social networking sites, shopping website comments and blogs, often starting at search engines. They are gaining perspective about what matters to them through conversation... and a lot of it online. If you're not there, you'll be missing out. Big time!
  
So, then, what do you think about social media, marketing, retail and customers? How are you enabling conversation?


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