Whether you think Facebook or any of the other standout social networks are a fad or a harbinger of a new way for people to share and connect, it’s an undeniable fact that right now, people are spending increasing amounts of time in online communities where they can share news about their lives and interests and pick up news about other people. And marketers—always interested in catching people at their most attentive and engaged—are anxious to start reaching folks in those communities and to start putting their social grids to work for them.
That’s certainly the case with e-mailer marketers. For years they’ve been targeting their messages more and more narrowly, trying to reach a state of tailored communication that has the look and feel of one-to-one. That was the rationale behind forward-to-a-friend, after all: making it easy to let advocates line up behind your product, service or brand and put the power of their personal realtionships and address books behind your campaign.
But forward-to-a-friend has been only a partial success. There’s a technology reason for that: many people simply choose to forward e-mail using the “forward’ button, making tracking of viral spread impossible. A survey last year by the Email Experience Council asked e-mailers to name their most successful list-building tactic. Only 6% of respondents named viral dissemination through forward to a friend, compared to 84% who said they had the best results from organic sign-ups. Even buying lists came in higher, at 9%.
That’s why in recent months many e-mail service providers have added a feature that lets marketers make it easy for recipients to post e-mail messages to their social profile pages with a single click. Visitors can be notified that content has been added to their friends’ profiles, pick it up and add it to their own social pages. And just as importantly, marketers can track how their messages are spreading through social networks and measure the reach they’re getting.
That provides the mechanism needed to take an e-mail viral. But it ignores another reason that forward-to-a-friend has not achieved the social results once expected from it: namely, that many e-mail marketers just don’t have a good idea of what kind of message people want to share with their friends.
That’s what’s most interesting about the announcement last week that e-mail provider StrongMail has teamed up with—and in fact has acquired—social marketing agency PopularMedia. The venture will result in a number of new tools e-mail marketers can use to get social with their messages, including Social Share, which leverages PopularMedia’s Social Notes feature to allow sharing e-mail content to Facebook, MySpace, Bebo or other networks.
But the deal is aimed at a deeper level of social-network integration than simple widget-based sharing. Another more sophisticated tool, to be available later this year in the next version of StrongMail’s Message Studio, is Social Direct. This uses a Facebook application programming interface (API) to let marketers who have set up a Facebook profile and acquired a fan base in the network to send e-mail directly into those fans’ Facebook mailboxes.
“The concept here is that if you’ve gone to the trouble of creating a Facebook fan base, you should be communicating with that base in a very different way from the way you take with your general e-mail deployment list,” says Ryan Deutsch, StrongMail’s VP of strategic services and business development. The messages will be dynamic, HTML-based and trackable. Marketers will be able to segment out the Facebook social component in their e-mail list, send them a different message and track them with different metrics.
A third tier of new features, which StrongMail is calling Social Programs, gets beyond the tactical measures of reaching Facebook fans to consider the strategic aims: namely, what kind of messages do you send to these social fans? “Those people that have opted to communicate with your brand via social channels are very valuable to your brand because of the social sharing perspective,” Deutsch says. “A lot of marketers understand that and are creating Facebook and social profiles—but they don’t know how to act on that advocacy. I know Ryan Deutsch is a fan of mine, because he’s friended me on Facebook and MySpace and follows me on Twitter. But now what?”
The Social Programs tool builds campaign strategy around the notions of sharing and virality, to give those campaigns legs within the social sphere. Deutsch lays out the hypothetical example of a social network e-mail campaign for a blender appliance maker. Recipients would get a message that would give them the opportunity to design, blend and send a virtual drink to their friends in the network; once they had engaged with the e-mail and taking advantage of its sharable qualities, they’d then be offered the chance to click to the e-commerce page of the blender maker and browse some relevant real-world mixers. And at the other end of the drink virtual exchange, the friends who got one would also be able to blend, share and, if they chose, to then shop.
E-mail marketers, and particularly the direct marketing contingent who have taken the trackable medium to their bosom, need to re-conceive their approach to succeed in the social network ecosystem, according to both Deutsch and Jim Calhoun, the co-founder and CEO of PopularMedia. (He’ll stay with the company for the time being, but doesn’t rule out moving to another start-up gig in the future.)
“In general, direct marketing tends to be a very tactical medium: drop a million e-mails, make sure it’s a good offer, make the call to action clear, watch the orders roll in, and figure out what you did right and wrong,” Calhoun says. “Social marketing requires different methodologies and strategies. If direct marketers think they should own social marketing within their companies [as a recent StrongMail survey suggested they do], then they’re going to have to come up with different ways that their company, their brand or their offer can be the excuse that consumers use to entertain their friends on Facebook or their other social circles. What can you credibly offer that consumers can engage their friends around: knowledge, a way to show something off about themselves, their status or achievements? What can you credibly participate in in that social environment?”
In a Webinar laying out the social framework StrongMail will build on PopularMedia’s social technology and expertise, Calhoun cited a couple of anonymous examples of social campaign strategies that direct marketer clients had proposed for social networks, and the changes that PopularMedia suggested. In one case, a credit-card provider planned to target heavy air travelers to get them to refer their friends for card membership. To do that, they proposed to offer referrers 25,000 points on their loyalty program; new sign-ups would receive 50,000 points. Instead, PopularMedia suggested a social marketing campaign in which new enrollees got a year of carbon offsets for any plane travel they did; and those who referred them got nothing.
Except that in the social network context, they did in fact receive something: an enhanced status among their circle as altruists who care about the health of the planet. The revamped offer served to enhance their “social capital” inside the network. And the take-up rate for the offer rose to 20%, from around 1% for the air-miles offer.
Calhoun cited another example of a pet food manufacturer who tried offering referrers a free sample of a new dog treat product for encouraging their social-network friends to take a buy-one-get-one-free coupon for the product. Problem was, that offer gave the impression recipients were “selling” their friend lists to get something free—and something they had not tired and thus didn’t know if their friends’ pets, or their own for that matter, would like.
Calhoun and his team again proposed reconfiguring the offer for social networks. In the new version, e-mail recipients who posted the pet-food coupon offer to their profile pages got nothing, while friends who picked up the offer and printed the coupon got, rather than free food, the chance to donate 100 pieces of kibble to FreeKibble.com, a non-profit that donates food to animal shelters. Those who actually redeemed the coupon after printing got to donate 1,000 pieces of kibble.
“It was a more viral feel-good campaign, and it also made good economic sense,” Calhoun said in the Web presentation. “The cost of a BOGO coupon was about $6, and the cost of a few pieces of kibble was less than 10 cents.”
“The typical motivators that we might use in a direct e-mail campaign, where we’re thinking about the offer or the discount and we’ve got people who are subscribed to our lists waiting for those best-day-to-buy e-mails—it’s very different from the strategy that drives a social, viral e-mail program,” Deutsch said on the Web. “Many e-mail marketers that include sharing capability have done so without taking these social motivators into consideration. These are the things that motivate sharing, and they’re very different from the things that motivate a purchase.”
In short, e-mail marketers who want to tap into the viral potential of social networks need to focus more on the conversation going on among members–and less on the conversion they hope to win. That’s just the nature of the social network beast, and marketers who insist on viewing it as primarily a sales medium will be disappointed in the results.