While I am involved heavily in business and marketing activity, I am a tech guy at heart. I often have to stop myself from being overly influenced by technical concerns and perspective. However, sometimes that perspective is broadly relevant. One example that has been on my mind recently is the issue of scale – how to design and extend a solution to support (sometimes massive) growth.
Social media marketing is about dialog, not monolog. Conversing, not broadcasting. It is about engaging at a personal level. That is probably the most common message shared and passionately propagated by social media marketing experts and practitioners. And I certainly believe it to be true. But the implications of this message make the software architect in me uneasy.
In software development, supporting multiple concurrent dialogs (user sessions, transactions, etc.) is the number one factor inhibiting scale. Content publishing sites (msn, cnn, nytimes) are relatively easy to scale because they don’t have to sustain ongoing dialogs with each reader. But transactional and dialog-centric sites (ecommerce, gaming, social media) are very difficult to scale. This is because each dialog requires memory, CPU cycles, and other finite resources. Twitter is the poster child for the scalability challenges that come with dialog-centric systems. They have had tremendous growth and success, but not without a lot of pain and frustration for both the company and the users.
I see a clear parallel between the scalability challenges faced in software and the challenges that will be faced by agencies and marketing organizations as they attempt to scale their social media marketing programs. Brand engagement, at a personal level, is critical to success. But brand representatives are finite and expensive resources. As social media usage continues to grow, along with consumer expectations of brand engagement, consumer demand for attention will exceed brands’ ability to connect at a personal level. Brands can’t add marketers as readily as they add servers. But without those personal connections, the social media marketing benefits are lost. If brands can’t scale their social media engagement and maintain personal connections, they will be perceived as using social media as a broadcasting medium – and end up fostering resentment, rather than affinity.
Fortunately, the consumers themselves are the solution. Marketing agencies and organizations should include brand ambassador programs as central components of their long-term social media strategies. The brand ambassador term seems to have many definitions and interpretations. So, in this context, I’ll define a brand ambassador as a customer/consumer who is an active advocate and has been given some kind of official recognition or endorsement from the brand – usually for their product knowledge and/or passion. They are part of an exclusive community that have a privileged relationship with the brand, and are recognized by other consumers for that relationship.
Again, I’m really a tech guy, so I’m sure a marketer could provide a much better definition. But, hopefully, I’m in the ballpark – at least in this context.
One of the best examples that I’ve personally experienced is the Microsoft Most Valued Professional (MVP) program. Microsoft describes the program as follows:
Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs) are exceptional technical community leaders from around the world who are awarded for voluntarily sharing their high quality, real world expertise in offline and online technical communities. Microsoft MVPs are a highly select group of experts that represents the technical community’s best and brightest, and they share a deep commitment to community and a willingness to help others.
The program is run by Microsoft’s Community Support Services group – not by marketing. While it was not conceived as an ambassador program, it very affectively solves the same problem of scaling customer engagement through social media. Through this program, Microsoft has extended its reach into hundreds of communities and discussion forums where customers are interacting with and supporting each other. MVP participants in these communities and forums are recognized and respected because of their relationship with Microsoft and are often sought out by other members. Some MVPs have more respect and credibility with customers than many Microsoft employees.
While the MVP program is not a marketing program, it is a fantastic case study for the power and effectiveness of using customers to represent a brand and scale social media engagement. I believe the fact that it is not simply a marketing initiative elevates the credibility of the program and the MVPs.
Sean O’Driscoll was the primary architect of this program. Since it pre-dates the social media term and social media marketing era, you could say he was doing social media before social media was cool. I had the pleasure of meeting him while working on Microsoft’s social media marketing platform for Windows & Windows Live. He has since left Microsoft and is now President of Ant’s Eye View, a community and social media marketing firm. Definitely a company worth following.