I’m a little skeptical about the idea of the federal government using Twitter and Facebook to reach out to citizens. Not because it’s a bad idea. Just because I find it weird. Being one of those early Facebook adopters who joined in college, when it was mostly drunken pictures of frat parties and whatnot, I’m still awestruck by its widespread use as a marketing tool and means of communication today.
In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s VP of global communication, indicated that with the right messages, the government can encourage even the most wary citizens to at least accept government agencies online, which then helps spread messages virally through Facebook’s news feeds and other tools. The challenge is getting people to act. Schrage said:
“I don’t think the United States has a particularly strong track record of doing that successfully. But I would say, based on my conversations with people in the new administration, they have a sensitivity to these issues and to [social media] as a priority like no other administration has had certainly since the dawn of the Internet era. So you’re going to see much more innovation, much more creativity. We have not yet designed the Internet equivalent, or the social networking equivalent, of Voice of America [the official radio and television broadcasting service of the U.S. government]. Voice of America was, for its time, an incredibly powerful tool. Incredibly powerful. But we have not yet come up with the tools and techniques for the social networking era that engage people in a way that the Voice of America really couldn’t, because it was constrained by being a one-way media.”
He’s right. But with some innovation on the part of the nation’s best marketing minds, Facebook and other social networking tools could really be used to engage Americans beyond simply getting out the vote. I’ve seen it happen for other causes. Be Hope to Her, a national campaign to raise awareness of the poor quality of water in Africa, was held at dozens of college campuses on the same day last month, and it was largely organized by volunteer groups that networked through Facebook. And that’s just one example. Young people, in particular, have become adept at reaching out to others via Facebook, in a way that the government and other entities haven’t yet mastered. Perhaps they should consider hiring some of those students once they graduate.
I’m a white girl in every stereotypical way. I have no butt, no boobs, no hand-eye coordination, no athletic ability, etc. The list goes on and on. But my stepdad — who is essentially my second dad, as he’s been married to my mom since I was 5 years old — is multiracial. Black, white and Cherokee, to be exact. So I’ve always been a bit sensitive to messages targeted towards a people with a mixed ethnic background. As Lori George Billingsley indicated in a PR Week column published last week, marketers who want to connect with a multiethnic audience should avoid taking a broad-based approach and instead “create specific cultural relevancy with each ethnic group to strengthen their brand.
Targeting each audience with its own unique Facebook page or MySpace group is one good way to accomplish this task, I think, and Billingsley presents evidence in support of that idea. She said minorities are more apt to frequent social networking sites, and Hispanics are actually the fastest-growing group of Internet users. African-Americans account for about 11 percent of U.S. Internet users, and about 90 percent of Asian-Americans are online, too.
Billingsley advocates using social media to strengthen brand relationships with minorities. Expanding on that idea, I think marketers should consider using social media reach out to minorities of mixed ethnicity, too. If that approach proves successful, it might resolve some of the identity issues that arose in the media during last year’s presidential race. Perhaps it might also encourage the population to stop thinking of people as white or black or Cherokee, but rather a mix of all three fascinating ethicities. I know my stepdad would appreciate it.
On another note: I’ve been encouraged by some of the small, local businesses I’ve noticed embracing social media. The Boston Beanery, the Morgantown-based restaurant chain I worked for in college, sent out a message to Facebook users today reminding them that the Beanery’s famous chicken chimichanga special was available today for Cinco de Mayo. Welcome to the 21st-Century!
There are a lot of trends that develop online. But unlike that “25 Random Things” survey that was all the rage on Facebook a few months ago, blogging isn’t a fad. By some counts, there are more than 50 million blogs online, and I doubt that number is going down anytime soon. (A perfect example: Classes like the one I’m in, that require students to create blogs to enhance their understanding of online communications.) The marketing world has even acknowledged that blogs are a powerful communications tool. Web publisher Susannah Gardner even wrote a book, Buzz Marketing with Blogs for Dummies, that explained how powerful blogging could be for businesses.
So I was pretty surprised when I set out to find offiicial company blogs this week. I had a lot of trouble finding them! For a medium that can be so powerful, I amazed to find out that many of the companies I love and adore — and whose loyal customers would likely flock to a well-done company blog — hadn’t tested the blogging waters. Cold Stone Creamery? No. Dunkin’ Donuts? No. Jones Soda? No. Old Navy? No. The Gap? No. Finally, I started just frantically searching Google for “official blog” and random companies’ names.
I eventually found a couple, but boy, was it hard! The biggest thing I learned, as it turned out, was that far too few companies take advantage of the marketing opportunities offered by the blogosphere. According to a Socialtext wiki maintained by marketer John Cass, only 60 of the Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. had active public blogs in mid-February. That’s only 12 percent! Just one or two of the top 25 blogs listed by TIME in late 2008 were company blogs, and only a couple more brand blogs were listed among the top 25 by Technorati today.
I assume most of these companies have questions and concerns about operating a blog. What should you post? How often? Should you permit user-generated content? How do you monitor it? How do you convey a consistent marketing message, but preserve authenticity? There are a lot of issues associated with operating a blog, but the potential benefits seem to outweigh the possible pitfalls. A 2006 study by Porter Novelli and Cymfony found that a majority of companies with blogs saw their Web site traffic increase as a result and felt they acheived their goals for the blog. Though some wanted to see more interaction, most said blog monitoring had shown that posts had a positive impact on the brand.
Most of the blogs I managed to find were well done, and I enjoyed reading through the posts — both by the company and consumers. Dairy Queen, for example, had a blog I really liked. It just lauched earlier this year, but the posts were interesting, thought-provoking and funny. They covered everything from a wedding at DQ to what customers would do for a year of free treats, and it boosted my image of the brand.