Social Marketing Myth: It’s Cheap

One of the things I encounter frequently in speaking with marketers and that was recently highlighted in a recent study by eMarketer is that many perceive a huge benefit of Social Marketing to be that it is an inexpensive way to market. That blog post by Mashable! maintains:

With 51% of respondents also citing “low cost” as a benefit, I think the case can still be made that social media marketing is a viable medium for driving customer growth next year.

I disagree (respectfully) with that 51% in this survey and others, and think that approaching social marketing with a low-cost mentality can be hazardous not only to the political future of social marketing in your corporate boardroom, but also to your career health.

Yard Sale!First, let me explain what my basis of comparison for “cheapness” is. I’m comparing social marketing to other marketing you can do online. In general I believe that for the impact it can have when implemented intelligently, most everything you can do online is cheaper than offline marketing. So compared to running a Superbowl ad, social marketing is a steal!

But is it really cheaper than search engine marketing? Building a website? Running banner ads? Delivering an email campaign? I don’t think so, and here are some reasons why.

The Viral Ker-plunk

The first case studies with regard to social marketing that got marketers excited were the examples of when a brand or product marketer produced a piece of clever campaign content that “went viral” on YouTube or on their own site.  For a shoestring budget millions of impressions had been produced! Unfortunately, most of these bets don’t pan out, and when they do the actual business ROI is iffy because continued engagement doesn’t occur. While making sure that content is always enabled to “go viral” is smart, that happening can never be along the critical path of a marketing plan. And as the viral channels become more crowded with brand-sponsored content, a pure word-of-mouth success will be even rarer.

Free Technology!

Another reality of the social web that makes it look inexpensive is the prevalence of free or very cheap technology offerings. With the exception of some socio-analytical or graphic technologies that enable new kinds of interaction or analysis, social tools are just not very complex technologically. As a result, the technical side is becoming commoditized and is now as simple as logging on to Ning to set up your own free (ad-supported) social network. But as Jeremiah Owyang at Forrester recently pointed out, the bulk of the investment  in social marketing programs has to be in managing the program to success – in services, not technology. And services can be expensive, especially expert services in a very nascent field.

Joining Up

So why not just join a social network? Well, a lot of VCs still have money in play that makes that technology and even more importantly network access free . . . for now. Marketers can participate in Facebook and Twitter, generating some traction with consumers and gaining fans and followers without investing too heavily. But is this a long-term strategy? Eventually those companies will have to monetize their networks for their investors, and in that environment corporate participants will be attractive to fees. Even if those fees aren’t exorbitant, the marketing ROI potential within environments focused on person-to-person interaction and not brand-to-person interaction from a consumer-perception perspective will always be limited.

Just Another Notch on the Go-Live Calendar

A final factor that contributes to an illusion of cheapness is the set-up compared to other brand websites. Designing a community that is based on pre-existing, hosted technologies and getting it “live” can be easy and quick, particularly in comparison to a corporate website that includes heavy content development and interactive design. There are two gotchas for marketers who approach community as they would any other website.

The first trap is the level of investment in content and programming. Successful communities demand a unique, valuable, continuous contribution by the brand in order to succeed sustainably – and may demand the same or more content investment than a company’s corporate or product websites – not less.

The second trap is the level of post-launch effort. I touched on this earlier, but launching community is a lot like childbirth, in that go-live is just the beginning of the commitment. Constant management and adaptation is necessary, feed and caring is critical. We’ve found internally that even in communities where no significant function is added to the site after go-live, 50-70% of the overall annual cost is in its management. If you underestimate this burden, giving a community to your customers and but then having to take it away from them, they will resent it.

If You Pay, It Will Pay to Go Social

So it’s comparatively expensive in terms of online strategies. But the power of opening up your brand, investing in content and programming that people care about, of hosting and participating in relevant conversations, is real. When appropriately implemented by experienced folks, the engagement it can produce and the marketing ROIs possible set new standards for marketing effectiveness. However, the bar for minimum successful investment is not as low as many think.

Photo Credit: Uploaded by The Morning Toast


Ball Bearings, Men’s Underwear and Drano Oh My!

drano1Last week, my colleague, Bill Fanning, and I put together a post that talked about the fact that not many people would want to join a community that focused on toothpaste. Our point was that in most cases, many people are much more passionate about lifestyle topics like fishing, fitness or cooking vs. an individual product (iPhones and Chia Pets excluded). At the end of the post, Bill and I issued a challenge:

Rather than ask you the traditional, “what do yout think?” question, I’m going to issue you a challenge instead. In the comments, feel free to offer up any product, service or brand and I’ll brainstorm with the Powered team to come up with a relevant online community.

To be fair, the comments were much more engaging than the actual post (one advantage of getting a bunch of verbose  bloggers to come and write mini-posts in your comments section). In particular, TimScott and Doug offered insights on how one might go about building a toothpaste community. Others were more than happy to issue challenges (listed below).

As a refresher, here is the list of the challenge items/topics that came up:


  • Ball bearings (thanks to Peter Kim)
  • Razor blades, Drano, enterprise IT desktop configuration or anti-virus management tools (thanks to Warren Sukernek)
  • Textbook publishers, soy-based candles, fur coats, or water pistols (thanks to Ari Herzog)
  •  Mail sorting machines and/or postage meters and men’s underwear (thanks to Jay Gaines)
  • Farm equipment (thanks to Paul May)
  • Office cleaning services (thanks to Mike Langford)
  • Life insurance (thanks to Jim Storer)
  • Dogfood (thanks to KyNam Doan)
  • Niche electronic components geared toward engineers and purchasers for contract manufacturers and OEMs (thanks to Jesse Luna)
  • Medical devices (thanks to Adam Cohen and Howard Greenstein who weren’t exactly able to agree on target audience)

At the risk of looking like Bill and I are copping out, we attempted to boil the items above into buckets and then pick one to illustrate our point. At some point in time, I will try and expand on this and can flesh out other community ideas but in order to get this out in a semi-timely fashion, this is our approach.

Basically, the challenges fell into three categories:

  1. Products – ball bearings, drano, razor blades, software, men’s underwear, candles, fur coats, water pistols, electronics components
  2. Services – textbook publishing, office cleaning, insurance [“insurance” added at 5:35 thanks to sister, Heather’s comment]
  3. Equipment – farm equipment, postage meters/sorting equipment



For the first bunch, the answer is actually pretty easy. As we discussed in the original post (and in the comments), one only needs to ask either “who uses the product?” or “where does the product fit into someone’s lifestyle?” In the case of ball bearings, I would not recommend that someone build a ball bearing community and neither would Peter Kim. 


To that end, after Peter issued his challenged, he offered me a hint at where he might start in thinking about a community that included ball bearings in the mix by DM-ing me a link to the Shaeffler Group’s INA site — a site geared toward “precision equipment for the automotive industry” which includes ball bearings. Voila, if we want to build a ball bearing community, we could target folks that manufacture precision parts for industrial equipment makers OR for the auto industry. The focus could be on things like standard setting, new technologies, recommended suppliers, etc. Boring stuff for you and me but a core part of the job for anyone in that industry.

The same could be done with razor blades (part of a painter’s community), drano (a discussion topic for a green cleaning products community) or even soy wax candles (believe it or not, there are thousands of people that actually manufacture these things – I know because my friend Laura Mitrovich does this). A couple of important things to note here: one, the long tail makes it easier than ever to bring niche audiences together thanks to Web 2.0 technologies and two, communities don’t require millions or even thousands of members to thrive.



Services are actually easier in many ways than products because all you have to do is look at the people participating in the “service” being rendered to find a target for your community. In the case of an office cleaning services community, this could be targeted at the people that clean offices, or their managers, with a goal of exchanging best practices around green cleaning products, sources for new talent, ways to cut costs or even ways to combat sleep deprivation (some of the office cleaners I’ve met work 2-3 jobs and as a result don’t have much time for sleep).

If we take this same approach to a service like “book publishing” (vs. the actual end product which are the books themselves), you could provide the online equivalent of O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change Conference to publishers. Just take a look at the agenda for ideas on what the topics of conversation might look like.



Also not that difficult, mainly because  at my old company, Mzinga, we ran a private community for John Deere tractor dealers and high-end users. The community was a heavily focused on research and helped John Deere answer questions like, what did high-end owners want? what did owners dislike? and how could John Deere work better to co-create with these key constituents.

Now friends, Adam Cohen and Howard Greenstein threw a little bit of a tougher challenge out there in the form of medical devices. And as you can see in their point/counterpoint/point/counterpoint conversation in the comments, not everyone agrees on who the target audience should be for this type of community.

Interestingly, these communities do already exist and some are directed toward the doctor/hospital crowd like the one that Picis runs. Others do involve patients but work to ratchet the discussion up around the disease (prevention AND/OR support). Boston Scientific has started down this path with their site but have yet to add the community features.

So there you have it. Not as meaty as you had hoped? Well, we’ll just have to do a virtual roundtable on the topic. If you’re interested, let me know in the comments or DM me on Twitter.

Hubspot Keeps Delivering the Value

 Last night, I got a direct message from my friend, Mike Volpe, who is the VP of marketing at Boston based company, Hubspot. In his DM, Mike was letting me know that Hubspot would be releasing an informative report this morning on the “State of Twitter.” If you use Twitter as an individual or a business, I would highly recommend that you check out this report as it is chock full of valuable and informative statistics.

With that said, I’m actually not going to write about the report. ReadWriteWeb and Techcrunchalong with many others have already covered that angle (some before Hubspot was ready). Instead, I want to talk about what Hubspot does well. The have learned the incredibly important lesson of “give before you get.” Just take a look at their site which includes freebies like:

With that said, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical of Hubspot CEO, Brian Halligan, when I first met him several months ago. We were on a MITX panel together along with Chris Brogan and Chris Penn. During the panel, I

could tell immediately that Brian was smart and that he got it but I wondered if he might be too far over on the dark side of “using” social media for business. Based on subsequent conversations with Brian and Mike along with watching how Hubspot behaves in the social media “sandbox,” I not only discovered that I was wrong about my initial assessment but also that Brian, Mike and team were in fact REALLY good at tying business goals together with social media outcomes.

I was reminded of my admiration for Hubspot the other day during a webinar I did with Ann Handley of Marketing Profs and Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester. One of the slides in Ann’s portion of the presentation — focused on creating great content — mentioned Hubspot (see below). Between that mention and Mike’s DM last night, I felt compelled to give Hubspot a Stroutmeister “shout out” (that’s a reference to my blog vs. me talking about myself in the 3rd person btw).


To that end, what other companies are doing a great job creating content and sharing it freely with their consituents? I’m always looking for companies to write about, interview or invite to join me on panels etc. If you know of anyone, DM me or leave a comment in the space below.

Cross-posted on

Community Noise: How to “Bring the Unique”

SnowflakeThere are a lot of brands out there chasing the same audiences. Consumer goods purveyors are pursuing the purchasing-power moms. Financial services and technology companies are after the small business owners. Just about everyone is trying to figure out Gen Y and the “digitally born.”

In our last post my colleagues Aaron and Bill touched on how to connect with a passion point to drive community – but what if everyone out there is trying to connect with that same audience, and as a result trying to tap into the same passion point?

There are only so many communities about healthy eating, managing your finances, owning a small business, travel, or even fly fishing that can survive on the web. And often this is a point marketers stop at even before they start. They see the benefits of owning a piece of the conversation, but are daunted by the large and successful communities out there already addressing their audience’s interests.

The key, in my mind, is to turn the analysis inward and ask “what is the unique, relevant value that my company or brand could bring to a community on the web?” Answering that question takes some imagination. Below, a few thoughts on how to tackle that issue and “bring the unique.”

A Bigger Budget

One of the biggest ways brands can offer something unique, especially in contrast to consumer-run online communities, is the resources they can focus on it. A site that is professionally designed and built, with content that is supplied by top-notch experts, and perhaps augmented by the presence of celebrities – these are things that a brand can create that can be truly unique and will attract consumers to commune. A key point here is that the budget should be employed to bring things to consumers that are non-self-serving and of interest to them, so no flashier product demos or buying guides please (though these things have their time and place!).

A Backstage Pass

A great area of community value is simply access to company and brand. People want to meet the people behind a brand or product. They want to know how things are made, and hear the thoughts and opinions of internal experts. Successful companies are unique in the market, and increased access to that can be a great source of fuel for community. Even if a community isn’t truly pulling back the curtain, some level of active participation is always powerful.

Go Niche

A brand can employ its considerable resources and access to a more focused audience than any of its competition does. By narrowing a community focus to a group of people that is of highest relevance to their brand, a company can create a more unique community. In the long run, the deepening of relationships with people who really belong with your brand, and the power of advocacy they bring, will serve you better than trying to lure those who aren’t a great fit with a broader community focus.

Know Your Place

Finally, a point of caution. Even though a brand can get an audience engaged, it doesn’t pay to invest heavily on communications tools for them. Allow them to use the email/IM/Twitter/Facebook that they already have in place and feed into those tools. Social marketing is about offering unique, relevant value in a community-powered environment – not about communications between and coordination of people. The quickest way to doom a community is to compete with the thousands of social networking tools out there. It’s more than just offering a competitive tool – it’s that people don’t feel truly comfortable communicating with each other when a brand is “in the room.” Why do you think display ads on Facebook don’t work well? If people find each other and want to take their new relationships out of the context of your brand, that’s great, it pays to let them – that’s where true advocacy begins.

Any other thoughts on how a company or brand can bring the unique, or reactions to the points above? Please sound off in the comments!

Image uploaded by Karl Wagner

Would You Join a Toothpaste Community?


This post was co-authored by Bill Fanning and Aaron Strout.

A conversation I have somewhat regularly with our sales guys is the concept of whether or not a company can build an online community around a non-passion product or brand. The example that inevitably comes up is whether someone would join a community that focused on toothpaste? My guess is that 999 out of 1,000 people (dentists excepted) wouldn’t be that interested in signing up. After all, even though most of us use toothpaste two or three times a day, it’s not something we are passionate about. The same can be true around similar products such as banking,  food manufacturing or feminine products.

As my colleague, Bill Fanning, likes to remind me, building a community online is not a dramatic departure from how communities are built offline. For example, Bill belongs to a group in Texas called the Guadalupe River Trout Unlimited (GRTU). As you can imagine, the community serves those who love fly fishing for trout. To that end, the GRTU sponsors a variety of events for members to congregate, stay informed on a variety of topics, share ideas and lie a little about the GIANT fish they’ve landed while no one was around to witness.

This offline community is quite successful in that is has a lot members who are highly engaged and purchase products and services from GRTU and affiliated service providers. You’ll note that in the case of GRTU, this offline community isn’t built around fishing poles, flies or tackle boxes. It’s around the concept of fly fishing which is a passion for many folks who comprise its membership base.

Similarly, successful online communities often share some of the same traits as a offline community like GRTU:

  • First, instead of focusing on a product (e.g tackle boxes), an engaging online community might focus on a topic that people are passionate about (e.g. fly fishing).
  • Second, an online community should give value to the community by educating them on topics of interest (fly tying courses, fly casting lessons etc.)
  • Third, good online communities often provide a variety of ways for the community to connect — either through discussion forums, ratings and reviews, blogs or even in different channels like conference calls or webinars.

That brings us back to our original question of whether or not a successful online community can be built around a non-passion brand or product. In addition to toothpaste, the three examples I gave of products that weren’t known for their ability to inspire were financial services, breakfast cereal and feminine products. Amazingly, there are examples of successful communities that have been built around each of these products:

  • Banking – Bank of America wisely realized that small business owners had a lot of spending power AND shared similar needs for things like accountants, tax preparation, office supplies and credit. Their online community gives these small bus owners the chance to share ideas and best practices with BofA as the “party giver.”
  • Food manufacturing – Rather than trying to talk about breakfast cereal, bread or frozen lima beans, General Mills has instead chosen to broaden their focus toward a healthy diet with their Eat Better America community.
  • Feminine products – P&G has garnered significant coverage for its clever Being Girl site. Rather than talking about periods and other feminine hygiene topics, this online space for teens and pre-teens coversa areas of interest like dating, music and makeup with only a subtle “we’re here if you need us” plug by Tampax.
  • Does that mean you could build an online community around toothpaste? Likely not if it just focused on a particularly brand of toothpaste. It might work if it centered around oral health. Even then, it might only interest dentists and hygienists but at the end of they day, they are an important constituent of the toothpaste companies.

    Rather than ask you the traditional, “what do yout think?” question, I’m going to issue you a challenge instead. In the comments, feel free to offer up any product, service or brand and I’ll brainstorm with the Powered team to come up with a relevant online community. Are you game?

    NOTE: Thanks to Peter Kim for providing examples via his excellent (and now famous) list of companies engaging in social media.

    “Power to the People — and Profits to the Company”

    Nigel Parry)

    Cisco CEO, John Chambers (photo courtesty: Nigel Parry)

    Nearly every Sunday night, you can find me on a Jetblue flight heading from my home just outside of Boston, MA to my soon to be new home, Austin, TX. During these nearly four hour flights, I’m able to catch up on a lot of reading including. This includes a large number of blogs I try and keep up with but a couple of times a month, it also includes FastCompany, the magazine.

    Last night happened to be one of those nights where I read FastCompany. I was feeling particularly “Sponge-like” as I had just had a beverage with my friend, Peter Kim, in JFK airport (the stopover for the evening flight from Boston to Austin). I was particulartly interested in the title article that focused on Cisco’s CEO, John Chambers and how he’w in the process of “socializing” one of the largest and most successful companies in the world.

    What got me excited about this post was the fact that Cisco has gone to great lengths recently to turn themselves into a socially minded organization  not social in the “let’s do good” sense of the word but rather as in social media/social networking. To that end, Chambers truly practices what he preaches and keeps an internal blog (currently ranked no. 2 out of the thousands of other internal blogs at Cisco). He also regularly encourages people to contribute their ideas to the corporate wiki and if so moved, upload videos to Cisco’s version of Youtube called “C-Vision.”

    While I applaud Chambers focus on getting his company to adopt social tools, the thing that really resonated with me was Chamber’s rationale behind  these tools i.e. getting his company to think “collaboration.” And not just with each other but with their customers and their partners.

    I also liked the fact that Chambers gets the fact that the day of “command and control” leadership within an organization is dying. New leaders must change or face being phased out of the company. To make his point un-missable, Chambers has tied the compensation of all his executives (their are nearly 500) to one another’s success. One fails and they all fail.

    This new approach has netted Cisco some pretty big successes like his $4 billion+ financing business . It’s also netted Cisco $26 billion in cash which gives the company an almost unheard of advantage in today’s crappy economy. It’s also earned Cisco a ton of positive press in addition to the Fastcompany article including Time Magazine’s top 100 execs of 2008 among many others.

    How do we know this isn’t just a bunch of corporate b.s. that many companies spout off? For one, my former CEO and CMO at Mzinga worked for Cisco and they regularly raved about Chambers innovation and passion for collaboration. I also know because while I was at Mzinga, we ran a community for one of Cisco’s eventual acquisitions, WebEx. As a result of that relationship, I know that Cisco has launched at least five other community initiatives (probably more at this point).

    What can you do to be more like Cisco? For starters, get your internal house in order and get your employees collaborating. By collaborating, I don’t mean just updating a corporate wiki with HR documentation. I mean real collaboration via microblogging tools like Yammer (see the guest post I co-penned with Joe Cascio on Enterprise microblogging). You should also encourage as many of your employees as possible to blog — maybe not all externally — but at least internally. You should also rally around a public facing social network like FacebookLinkedIn or Plaxo. If you are really ready to see results, you may even think about creating a branded online community.

    Is your company collaborating with it’s employees, customers and partners? Let’s hear how or why not in the comments  below.


    NOTE: The title of this post comes from an excerpt in the Fastcompany article written by Ellen McGirt

    Content and Audience: Inexorably Tied

    At yesterday’s Social Media Breakfast in Austin, Tim Walker had us revisit the past to help us see the present and future more clearly (read or listen to his talk – you’ll enjoy it). In what had to be the most entertaining history lesson I’ve had in many years, he reminded us that the changes social media has brought to the way we connect and communicate aren’t the first of their kind. Almost 500 years ago Martin Luther utilized “new media” (aka words printed on the printing press) to fan the flames of his reformation. Thanks to this new-fangled print media, information was more readily-available and it changed the way people thought about, discussed, and impacted the world around them. This technology opened the doors for a much larger group of content creators to tell their story and publications were no longer under the control of a select few with the knowledge and funds to publish. Today’s social media tools have very much paralleled the impact the printing press had on society – albeit much more quickly. We’re in the midst of the same kind of information evolution that Luther so deftly leveraged to change the course of history.

    In the midst of Tim’s excellent trip to times past, I started to think about how the printing press changed its audience and, conversely, how the new audience for works spun from the printing press directly impacted what was written and printed. The audience and the content were inexorably tied. With more books to read, more people had a reason to learn how to read. With a much more diverse audience to serve, the subject matter of books changed greatly and many more publishers emerged to serve the new demand for information both fact and fiction. Before the printing press the audience for books was largely the clergy and the extremely wealthy and the books of those times were for those audiences. After the printing press, the audience grew to include all classes and multiple vocations. The diversification of a previously homogeneous audience completely drove what was written and printed – but without the printing press, that audience would never have existed.

    Following this tangential mental activity, I realized that social media technology and its audience have the same relationship that the printing press and its audience did so many centuries ago. When the Web first emerged, publishing was limited to those who understood the technology required to put up a site and who could afford to host a site. The message was completely controlled by the publisher and the audience was fairly homogenous and small. With the emergence of simple, free, and socially-focused tools for publishing everything from the written word to images and pictures, a new group of publishers was born. Immediately thereafter, a new audience was born. When the total number of available web pages was smaller and the content heavily guided by the publishers, the audiences for those pages were smaller and less-diverse. The population in general simply didn’t have a compelling reason to be online regularly for any extended period of time. As soon as that audience could read the works of those they cared about most – friends, family, and interesting content creators who might not otherwise have been published – they found their reason. And just as the printing press drove an increase in literacy, so did the social web drive an increase in technology literacy and connectivity (both physical and virtual). And just as the new literate audience drove the evolution of what was printed on the printing presses, the new social web audience is now actively driving what is created on the web. The circle has been joined and the web hasn’t been the same since.

    So what does the history of the printing press and its audience tells us about the possible future of the social web? A few things come to mind:

    • Many publishers will emerge but not all will remain. While cheap publishing means more people can publish, in the end, the audience cares about quality content that is relevant to them and will be the drivers of which publishers are successful. While the number of Web publishers is significantly larger the number of people who have ever been published in print, over time web publishers will see attrition just as print publishers did. In the case of print publishers lack of revenue largely drove attrition, whereas on the web lack of readership (and possibly revenue) will be the culprit. And then there’s the fact that publishing quality content on a regular basis does take a reasonable amount of energy and when your content isn’t monetized there’s the pesky issue of the day-job to consider. There are only so many hours in the day that people will devote to taking in content – and over time the best content will rise to the top. The publishers that will find success are the ones that can stay focused on their audience and what that audience cares about.
    • While the audience may not drive the initial innovation of a technology, they will impact its evolution and its uses. Had you asked the pre-printing press world how they would feel about a printing press, many wouldn’t have even known how to respond. But once they experienced the results of the innovation – inexpensive and easily available books — they had a direct impact on the evolution of the printing press. The audience favored certain printed formats and disliked others, helping shape the world of print over time. The same is already true of social web technologies – from blogs to rich media sharing and micro blogging. While a pre-twitter world wouldn’t have known how to feel about Twitter, now that micro-blogging is real, there are many opinions driving its growth and evolution. Once exposed to a technology or an application of it, audiences will start to impact its future direction, even if you don’t necessarily want them to. Those who respond well and show agility will be successful.
    • New forms of media will emerge. For many years print was the best game in town. Then internet came along and changed everything. Granted, it took a few hundred years between the two innovations, but chances are we won’t have the luxury of that kind of time before new media types emerge that make the Web look old school. Will you be ready when the next printing press comes along?

    My single biggest take away from today was to re-remember my favorite Cicero quote: “Not to know what happened before you were born is always to be a child”. While we are all blazing new trails and innovating, we should never forget that there are good lessons from the past that can provide valuable guidance in our current endeavors.