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The Third Phase Of Social Marketing Is Upon Us: 5 Steps To Get Ahead

It's not about listening to customers, or even communicating with them. The future of social marketing is now all about collaboration.

It’s hard to escape hearing about social marketing platforms being acquired by major tech players these days. In May, Oracle purchased Vitrue for $300 million, in June, Salesforce scooped up Buddy Media for $689 million, and in July, Google joined in, acquiring Wildfire for $250 million. In the past year we’ve reached an inflection point within the social marketing industry. With these three tech giants gobbling up companies, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down—but what comes next?

Before we go there, let’s briefly take a look at how we got here.

Phase One: Social Listening

When Facebook opened its doors beyond college students in 2006 and Twitter began to explode in 2007, a new era of real-time communication was upon us. Seemingly overnight, people had the ability to share what was on their mind at any time with people around the world. This created the first problem and opportunity for brands: listening. Listening formed the building blocks of what would become the first phase of social marketing.

As Facebook and Twitter quickly became places for people to share their opinions on everything from fashion to music to food, it became extremely important for marketers to monitor and listen in on the growing conversations around their brand; companies like Radian6, Crimson Hexagon, and Collective Intellect were founded to do just this. For the first time ever, marketers had the ability to eavesdrop on conversations and get instantaneous and unprompted feedback from consumers.

Social networks quickly became the new customer service channel, places where negative opinions on a new product or botched campaign often resulted in angry online mobs. When the negative tweets began to pour in, brands got serious about listening and responding. Marketers also found they could gain valuable insights on how consumers viewed their brand through listening tools. In both cases, social media was utilized purely as a reactive strategy.

Phase Two: Social Management

In 2008, Facebook launched the brand page and with it a race for marketers to acquire fans. Brands moved beyond simply listening to their fans, and the next opportunity arose: Brands needed ways to communicate with them.

Michael Lazerow, who founded BuddyMedia, originally focused on developing Facebook apps for brands, helping them create promotions to drive this growth. As brands began acquiring fans, Lazerow saw a need for more standardized social management tools.

Along with Buddy, companies like Vitrue, Wildfire, Involver, and Context Optional along with many smaller, still independent players built out their social management platforms. These technology providers focused on making it easier for brands to create and manage content on their social pages. Audience analytics and performance of posted content became key pieces of these platforms.

It is easy to see the parallels between social management platforms and their CRM and email marketing predecessors. While these platforms enabled more personalized communication at scale, like their predecessors they largely focused on pushing content out. As social has become so integrated into our lives, Adobe, Oracle, Salesforce and Google had little choice but to make strategic acquisitions. With Salesforce’s newly launched Marketing Cloud, they have already begun to integrate their listening platform (Radian 6) with Buddy Media and likely have plans for deeper integration with their legacy CRM business.

Phase Three: Collaborative Marketing

What lies ahead as we begin the third phase of social marketing is to truly leverage and monetize the enormous social databases that brands have already began to building. Now armed with millions of fans and followers along with their pre-existing CRM databases, brands have a huge asset at their fingertips. After all of this work, brands are still only in the early days of truly driving business value from their respective social followings.

In this third phase of social marketing, brands must develop strategies to drive deeper participation and collaboration with consumers. Marketers will allow consumers to get up close and personal with their brand, and in return, consumers will provide an endless amount of insight, ideas, and content. Consumers will also serve as a core media channel for delivering a brand’s message. To accomplish this, a new group of platforms will emerge to help brands understand, manage, and recognize their most loyal consumers.

Here are 5 easy steps to begin positioning your brand for success as we enter this third phase of social marketing:

1. Conduct a social audit. Look at all of your brand’s existing communities and databases, including CRM, Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites. Understand who these people are and how and why they want to be involved with your brand.

2. Segment members by role. Every brand will have consumers that want to participate at different levels. Some love to tell you what they think of your brand, others want to shout from the rooftops, while many are simply in it for the perks. Brands need to understand all of these consumer segments and ensure they have plans to maximize the value of each.

3. Focus on the top. While each segment is important, the most important segment marketers need to cater to is likely the most underserved. Facebook, Twitter, and email marketing are great for messaging the masses or the occasional personal response, but lack in their ability to provide opportunities to those who want to be deeply involved with the brand.

4. Recognize contributions. Your consumers know they are adding value to your brand by sharing their thoughts and ideas and spreading the word about your brand. While incentives aren’t always needed, appreciation is. Be sure to pat your top advocates on the back by providing perks and rewards from time to time.

5. Always be testing. In process, marketing in the social age has more in common with technology development than with advertising. It requires marketers to test out new platforms and technologies so they can learn and iterate on possible solutions. Unlike traditional advertising, one can’t get it completely right no matter how focused and detailed—get started and learn fast.

While this third phase may not seem fully realized by brands just yet, it will emerge as a major shift in marketing over the coming year. Brands, agencies, and vendors have worked hard to build platforms and programs to enable listening to and communicating with their social followings. These are both valuable and necessary steps as marketers adjust to the social age. That said, the true fans still hold enormous unlocked value in their ability to serve as real-time focus groups, crowdsourced ideators, and brand advocates at scale. In a few years, marketers who have embraced this third phase will reap the rewards of a collaborative approach to marketing.

Want to know more about the future of social media? Subscribe to Fast Company's daily and weekly Co.Lead newsletter.

—Brandon Evans is the CEO and founder of Crowdtap, an Influencer Marketing platform that enables brands to identify, activate, and manage their influential consumers.

[Image: Flickr user Josep Ma. Rosell]

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