Imagine opening a retail store and never advertising that you are open for business. How would potential customers find you? How would they even know if what you are selling is something that they want or need? It's probably safe to say that you wouldn't be open for business for very long.
In the ancient days of the Internet (the 1990's), there was overwhelming "peer pressure" to have a presence on the Web. Most companies didn't really understand why they needed a Web site, they just knew that they needed a Web site to keep up with the virtual Joneses. Many times, Web sites were quickly thrown up without foresight or regard for ROI, interactivity, or retention.
Then came the dot-com bomb of the late 1990s. Companies bloated by venture capitalists heralded style over substance. Many didn't even have a real product, or even more astonishing, a coherent long-term marketing strategy. Unfortunately, there were hard but very valuable lessons learned concerning functionality and the importance of the Web as part of an integrated marketing campaign.
The concepts of integrated marketing communications and brand building are the same for whatever media mix you choose for your marketing. The key to a successful brand is getting your customers to interact and help create the brand. Social networks allow users to generate content and have a conversation, not only with their fellow consumers but with your company as well.
Again, let's step back to the real world and have a look at how people in real communities interact. Let's say you're interested in healthy raw foods. You might go to a class and meet other folks sharing your interest in raw veggies and other delicious uncooked fare. You're bound to meet some kindred souls with whom you develop a rapport. The next thing you know, you're calling each other to share recipes. Or maybe you go home and tell your friends about your great new club and you share a ride to the next meeting. The club begins to build a following, and the tribe begins to grow.
The Web is a powerful virtual extension of this community-building process and offers many ways for your customers to interact with a brand and make it their own. Available portals include blogs, podcasts, forums, Web feeds (RSS), and social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, or Flickr. The access to information abounds and the potential of that pure democratic power is only now beginning to be realized. Customers can evaluate, evangelize, or even contribute input to help refine and improve a product offering.
User-generated content is like the branches of a tree. With your Web site as the trunk, each contact branches out, extending your reach to a larger audience. The more branches you have, the bigger the tree grows, allowing it to bear more fruit and have a greater potential for survival.
While it's not possible to maintain complete control of your brand on the Web, there are ways to manage it. Search engine optimization (SEO) is one way to actively monitor and have some control over when, where, and how you are seen on the Web. The more your company, product, and services are present online, the more you're going to get noticed by those search engines. Besides winning popularity contests, there are many tools for parsing Web data. Google offers a free tool for managing your SEO called Google Analytics. This allows you to see what content might be driving a potential customer to your site. It can show the types of keywords that have been searched and can enable you to refine your content to better coincide with those more popular search terms.
The Web has transformed traditional push marketing and has created a fluid, push-pull dynamic. A producer pushes a product or message. And now consumers not only have the power to pull information toward them, they can also push information back. Where once there was a broad-based, one-way monologue, there now can be a very targeted dialogue. The Web has cemented itself as a viable and enduring communications and business tool. And the tenets of good marketing and branding from the physical world still apply to the virtual world. Who knows what the future holds for the next new marketing and branding media. Yet no matter where you're trying to reach your customers, good marketing will always be about building a relationship and giving them a platform to gather and share information. In the long run, you'll develop a strong exchange and conversation that will endear your brand to your customers and foster your continued success.
So carefully consider your Web presence and what you are bringing to the marketplace that is unique and of value. Then focus on communicating that to prospects in a way that is meaningful and relevant. Good things will follow.
Jeff Hilton is cofounder and partner of Integrated Marketing Group (IMG; Salt Lake City). For more information about IMG, visit www.imgbranding.com.