Marketers are getting social as they realize the potential and power of networking formats

Social networking is thought by most to be a marketing format on the rise. It gives advertisers entre to entire communities of users, who they can tap into to create a base of brand evangelists. It also provides marketers the ability to connect with their consumers in a more personalized, informal manner, in theory, to make more of an impact. I say “in theory” because the industry is still grappling with how to best implement social networking campaigns. There is agreement that the opportunities and possibilities exist, but developing a plan to take advantage of these is not as easy as the interactive industry predicted. Here is where social networking currently stands:

Wikipedia defines social networks as groups of “people who share interests and activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others.” More than 40 percent of Americans are reportedly active in social networks. As of the beginning of September, 58 percent of the general public did not know what social networking is; however, by the year 2012 eMarketer projects advertisers will spend upward of $2.6 billion on it. The discord between advertising aspirations and user acceptance is one of the main barriers hindering social networking campaigns.

Available platforms

There are numerous social networking platforms that run the gamut between profile-based, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and micro-blogging communities, such as Twitter and Plurk. Each platform provides marketers with different benefits, so before embarking on a campaign or media plan, it is important for advertisers to do their homework and choose a platform that will serve their goals.

The perks of using a social network

For me, there are two reasons why I think marketers should investigate the creation of a social networking community: branding and reputation management. By having a social networking presence, marketers have the chance to interact with their users in a novel format and gain invaluable insights into consumer satisfaction or disappointments. The hotel and casino industry is subject to a wide spectrum of consumer reviews, and consumer conversations are migrating from review sites to social networks. If marketing departments from hotel-casinos are not paying attention to online communities, they could be missing out on candid feedback that could help improve their customer interactions.

Public relations efforts also can be greatly improved with the creation or use of a social network. When times are good, advertisers can cultivate relationships with brand fans. In times of crisis, marketers have a preexisting community for direct messaging. If advertisers know where their users spend their time online, it makes it that much easier to reach out to them quickly. Word-of-mouth marketing efforts can also be expedited in social networks-especially using micro-blogging platforms. This speed of dissemination can also be a detriment to an advertiser. If users spread negative sentiments about their experience at hotel or casino, it is difficult for marketers to stop the news from reaching a large amount of people. The best recourse in these situations is to respond to the critiques using the community, so those who read the negative comments will have access to marketers’ responses.

Using an existing community

Even if marketers do not have the resources or budget to create a community of their own, there are still many opportunities to use existing social networks to push out content and connect with users. One application for the hotel and casino industry is to serve targeted advertisements to community members who note that they have an impending trip to the area or name gambling as one of their hobbies. The important thing to remember here is to be selective when purchasing ad space. Platforms are still struggling to monetize advertisements, so marketers might have to settle for a branding campaign that might not elicit concrete ROI figures.

How to launch a community

One of the most common misconceptions with social networks is that marketers assume once the community is built, their job is done. To create an active and effective social network, advertisers need to constantly monitor it. A simple way to do this is to appoint a community manager that can create a tone of voice for the brand he/she represents. These network personalities can organize events, push out content and continually stimulate user involvement. A dedicated community manager can also relay information about technical malfunctions to internal teams to rectify problems in a timely manner.

Hotel and casino implementations

Being a service industry, hotel and casinos have several opportunities to use social networks to improve their customer relations. One important characteristic of social networks is that they provide marketers a proactive avenue to reach out to disgruntled users. If a consumer expresses dissatisfaction to a concierge or hotel/ casino employee, a message can be sent to their profile or blog account to assure them that the problem was noted and that efforts will be taken to make certain their next visit or stay is better.

Business Week recently cited an applicable example about Southwest Airlines. A frustrated passenger posted a Twitter message about his delayed flight and lost luggage, and Southwest responded, “Sorry to hear about your flight-weather was terrible in the NE. Hope you give us a 2nd chance to prove that Southwest = Awesomeness” (“How Companies Use Twitter to Bolster their Brands,” 9/16/08). The passenger is quoted as saying the message was “cool but frightening at the same time,” but I would venture to guess that he continued to fly with Southwest.

Efforts like this can be used by the hotel and casino industry to show their users that inconsistent service or reservation mix-ups are noticed and abnormal. This helps creates repeat visitors, which is by far and away a most cost efficient relationship. When used as apart of a more tradition customer relationship management tactics like e-mail or follow-up phone calls, users will leave your establishment knowing that their business matters to you.

Whether social networking becomes widely adopted or not, marketing executives from hotel and casinos should investigate how they are currently being perceived in communities to determine whether their brand should have an active presence. With all emerging trends it is important to look before you leap because there is rarely a guarantee it will pay off. However, by using cutting-edge technologies, there is a great chance that you can garner attention with your consumers and set yourself apart from the competition. In the end, maintaining communication with your consumer network is important, no matter how you chose to execute it.