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Reference Programs and Social Media: 9 Questions for Jeremiah Owyang

Posted by Bill Lee on March 8, 2007 at 12:03 PM

In addition to having substantial experience with Hitachi Data Systems' customer reference program, Jeremiah Owyang is a rapidly rising star in the world of social media. His own blog is in the top 1% according to Technorati. In his video show for the Pod network he has interviewed luminaries such as Michael Dell, Craig Newmark (craigslist founder) and Marc Canter, founder of Macromedia (now Adobe). He has been involved with or managed four Corporate Enterprise Intranets, and two extranets ranging from enterprises such as Exodus Communications, Cable and Wireless, World Savings, and most recently Hitachi Data Systems. He is also the Director of Corporate Media Strategy at PodTech Networks in Palo Alto, a company focused on Video Blogging, Podcasting and Blogging. And I'm happy to say he'll be presenting at our next Customer Reference Forum on April 24. To learn more about Jeremiah, check out his blog, Web Strategy by Jeremiah.

Today he's sharing thoughts on the rise of social media and its coming impact on reference programs.

Q: First off, what is Social Media? What is Social Networking? How are they different?

A: In the taxonomy of the Internet, "Social Media" is the larger family and "Social Networks" are a sub- class within that family. One analogy could be Social Media = all paper publications, and Social Networks are paper magazines, just one subset.

Social Media is the superset and encompasses many tools such as Blogs, Podcasts, Wikis, forums, tagging software, videoblogs, mashups, as well as social networks.

When I think of "Social Networks", I think of MySpace, LinkedIn, FaceBook, Xanga, CyWord, and Club Penguin. Most of these websites require users to register, provide some profile information, and often (but not always) limit the community to participate within the confines of its domain.

Q: Will social media make marketing obsolete?

A: No, it makes savvy Marketers more relevant.

Marketers are traditional one-way message creators. With Social Media, this forces Marketers to join these conversations of communities that are forming (even if corporations don't participate) and be part of a two-way dialogue that matters.

Customers will be telling marketers exactly how they want their products, information, and services, and that is an opportunity to become better and more accurate marketers.

Q: Suppose a group of buyers start comparing notes on vendors, perhaps like a CIO user group. What should a customer reference program do about it?

A: For private user groups, this is a challenge. I would recommend creating open feedback mechanisms using social media forums or blogs to encourage members of these private user groups to offer their opinion or group findings. It's in their best interest to tell vendors what they think of them, so vendors can improve their offerings over time.

Savvy companies will try to join conversations that exist in public spaces or build tools that let customers and user groups voice their feedback directly to corporations. Intuit's QuickBooks online community is documented as an excellent online community. Recently, Dell launched IdeaStorm, which gives customers and prospects the opportunity to tell Dell exactly what products they want by a submission and voting process. It's still too early to label IdeaStorm as a success or failure yet.

If it's a public space, like blogs, social networks, or public forums, there's opportunity for customer reference programs to get involved. I'll be going into detail at the Customer Reference forum on some methods to do this.

Q: How is Social Media different in the B2B space vs. the consumer space?

A: Without having seen any formal reports on this, I'm going to suggest there is little difference.

Based upon my experience deploying a B2B Social Media program at a Global Fortune 1000 tech company (Hitachi Data Systems), customers would use social media to tell their experiences with the products and services of the company just like I've seen consumers do.

If there was a difference, perhaps the longer decision/buying cycle common to B2B marketing could require a corporate Social Media program to extend along that cycle.

Q: The premise of marketing is that corporations need to communicate to customers and prospects. The premise of customer reference programs is to gain credibility by using customers to speak on the corporation's behalf. Now with social media, customers are talking to each other, unimpeded. Isn't that dangerous for the corporation? Isn't it dangerous to reference managers' careers?

A: There are definite threatening disruptions for corporations and customer reference managers due to Social Media. My post provides some practical suggestions on how to make the Customer Reference Program MORE relevant.

Instead of just harvesting positive references, by extending the Customer Reference program into the Social Media programs, managers can also help build loyalty, join customers in creating the brand together, improve product innovation and feedback, better understand their customers and learn about other market forces, such as competition.

Most importantly, in addition to the Customer Reference program, the savvy manager will harness the word of mouth of existing customers and get them to sing the praises on behalf of the corporation.

Q: What B2B companies have been notably successful in fostering online customer communities?

A: To start off with, Hitachi had a successful "Community Marketing" program that brought customers closer, connected product managers with customers, extended executive thought leadership, tied together an industry, and leveraged the word of mouth of customers. I'm biased of course, as I lead this program!

Microsoft, Sun, IBM, HP, Wells Fargo, Intuit, every music artist, most TV shows are using online communities for success. There are many case studies and examples that are developing right now.

Q: If I'm running a reference program, what's the first thing I should do to capitalize on the Social Media phenomenon?

A: Step One: Understand Social Media. Get educated: Grab some books like Naked Conversations, or ClueTrain Manifesto, and consider attending some conferences. I first learned about social media at the Blog Business Summit . I'm also a fan of the Social Media Club. Both organizations are run by my respected industry peers.

Q: What's the best use of Social Media you've seen that's relevant to a reference manager (by a B2B company, if possible)?

A: Hitachi's CTO is a blogger, and on one key post he asked for feedback on products. A few vocal customers responded in detail about their experiences with Hitachi products (both positive and negative). We then involved the product teams in responding and learning from this free 'focus group' information.

Our CTO then referred to these posts from his own blog. It was an authentic Customer Reference initiative that was not influenced by Hitachi to be positive. One would only expect a prospect reading such dialogue to have a higher degree of trust in Hitachi.

There are many other examples. Former Microsoft Blogger Robert Scoble (now my colleague at PodTech) would highlight customer opinions and experiences with products. He pointed both to the positive and negative ones, which resulted in Robert becoming a trusted source of information about Microsoft -- despite being their employee.

Q: What's the worst Social Media screw-up you've seen?

A: It's hard to tell if it was a screw-up or not -- perhaps there were some intended objectives that I don't know of -- but many have suggested that WalMart's efforts to create a social networking MySpace clone was a big mistake. It's hard to imagine why children would use such a network when they're already in existing networks. I would suggest to corporate web strategists that they consider joining communities rather than creating ones -- especially if the community you envision already exists.

Just a few months later, WalMart and Edelman were found out to have created and produced a fake blog that promoted WalMart which is now cynically dubbed "Edelmart." One PR professional verbally compared it to "finding out your favorite athlete who you idolize just got caught using drugs or steroids."

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