The ABCs of Social Branding

Given the role social media plays in the world, you have to know how online social interactions are impacting perceptions about your company's brand.

The behaviors a company must engage in to build a social brand are different than those of traditional brand building, which was about broadcasting your message and living up to your brand promise through your products and services.

Customer relationships are far more multidimensional now. Social branding embraces listening, participation and engagement in online brand communities. This includes company-sponsored websites and social media, but it also includes being part of thousands of other communities, networks and face-to-face experiences where employees, customers and other interested parties talk about your company or topics related to what your company does.

For example, I can take part in the Apple community directly on the Apple-sponsored Facebook site. I can indulge my need for behind-the-scenes Apple news on the independent webzine Apple Matters. I can rave about my new iPod on my personal Facebook page, or I can read blogs written by others about their Apple experiences. In each of those activities, Apple's social brand is built, virtual brick by virtual brick.

From Telling to TalkingIf traditional branding pushes opinions and information to customers, social branding, in contrast, is about encouraging information flows in every direction: between employees and customers, customers and customers, employees and employees, and influencers and everyone. Social branding goes well beyond receiving market information to engaging, networking and community building, one customer at a time.

By changing branding from a one-dimensional experience to a series of conversations, social branding turns the company--collectively and as individual employees--into participants finding ways to fuel meaningful conversations and evolve the brand. While your company will experience this as losing some control over the brand, the upside is a much more powerful and meaningful brand experience. A strong social brand builds preference through peer endorsements as well as positive product and company experiences. By creating this broad network, you will also build a defense and extended support team in times of crisis (think about all the loyal Toyota owners chatting on Facebook some months ago).

Building a Brand Community: Two Great ExamplesMy Starbucks Idea is a great brand community-building example, where anyone can offer up suggestions for products or services from Starbucks, many of which actually get implemented. This collaboration with the customer is a great example of the company extending its brand promise to the web (of being the Third Place in people's lives, after home and work).

At an even more personal level, Comcast monitors Twitter for customer concerns and uses that information to advance product development efforts and solve problems. It has also taken Twitter mining to another level by responding to problems tweeted by customers. Comcast's brand promise is innovation and reliability. Monitoring Twitter allows it to be highly responsive to customer-service issues such as downtime. That improves reliability while also demonstrating that the company is tech-savvy.

Here are six key guidelines for building your social brand:

  1. Recognize that the online brand community is something you influence but don't control. 
  2. Create strategies for building community around areas of interest, communicating your message and getting feedback from customers. This includes participating in conversations that aren't about your message and marketing, and leading new conversations based on what you hear people talking about. 
  3. Develop a set of employee guidelines (not rules!) that include legal, etiquette and on-brand actions. 
  4. Train employees on the basics of being company brand ambassadors, including ways for them to tell their own stories about the brand. 
  5. Monitor the conversation. Track what people are talking about in your industry on existing as well as up-and-coming social media vehicles. 
  6. Experiment, and continuously improve.