How brands build relationships online

June 21, 2011
Posted by: Matthew Hammer, VP- Marketing

Many of the events we celebrate are keyed to relationships. Among them: Father’s Day, when we think of one life’s essential relationships; graduations, when we celebrate the achievement of our those who may be related via family or friendship; and weddings, when two who have developed a close personal relationship tie the knot.
While these relationships are on a personal level, a relationship is the key factor involved in the celebration. As we go through life, relationship by relationship, we create a family, a group, a community. We become associated, in one way or another, with others.
Social media relationships are measured via different standards. Views, visits, logins, registrations, clickthroughs, likes, friends, followers – these stats indicate how people relate to a website, community, Facebook Page or Twitter account. Like relationships in the physical realm, online relationships with individuals or brands began the same way: one connection at a time.

What qualities do you value in relationships?

Think about your family and friends. What factors are key facets to those relationships? Trust? Honesty? Reliability? Two-way dialogue?
These positive qualities are equally important in the consumer-to-brand relationship, that association brands hope to cultivate with people who register for their online community or who click Like on their Facebook Page. Would you expect any less than those qualities of the brands you buy from?
Would you Like a brand that didn’t deliver as promised? A brand that didn’t follow up after the sale in terms of support or product repair? No doubt your answer is the same as mine: No.
Not only do brands need to deliver, but they also need to follow through. They need to sell a quality product, and they need to listen to you, the consumer, when you talk about that product. Brands need to know when you are satisfied and less than satisfied, handling any problem you might have with the product or service in a way that validates the relationship. Each step, from sale to follow-through, are components of that brand-customer relationship. And when brands venture into social media, these same considerations must inform their strategy.

Why a brand relationship?

Imagine that you live in South Florida, as I do. The summer heat has set in, and it’s time to turn on the air conditioning. You flip the switch, anticipating cool air surrounding you, and … zip. Nada. Nothing. Dialing the number for your a/c service company, you discover they’ve gone out of business. Now what? Chances are, you’ll call a neighbor or friend and ask for their recommendation.
And that’s why brands want to build a relationship, so that you’ll tell your friends and family to buy their service or product. Brands want you to remember them next time you need XYZ product or service, too.

It’s a fragile relationship.

Like any new relationship, you’ll need to test the waters and make sure you’re happy with its progress. You’ll want to speak your mind, and talk about any problems that arise in hopes of a quick resolution.
Social media — a branded community, Facebook page, or Twitter feed — is the perfect place for you to talk about how you’re feeling about a brand. If you’re happy, the brand will be glad to know. If you’re unhappy, the brand has an opportunity to hear you and act, keeping their aim of a satisfied customer in mind.

The smart relationship response by brands

In May, the Girl Scouts of America Facebook Page was the target of of a “social media day of action” around the company’s use of palm oil in the popular Thin Mints cookies. Instead of listening to the criticism posted on their Wall, the Scouts’ Page monitors removed the negative comments. This set off a chain reaction with comments about censorship that became bad PR for the Girl Scouts.
There’s a smarter approach.
Consider the Facebook marketing efforts of Buffalo Wild Wings, for example. Some 80% of BWW’s Facebook Wall posts are focused on people — fans, participants, and brand advocates — and only 20% on the brand itself. Buffalo Wild Wings also doesn’t remove negative posts, and aims to post “like a friend, not a brand.”
As a solid indication of Buffalo Wild Wing’s success and loyalty built through Facebook, research reveals that fans spend $616 a year in restaurants than non-fans.

Our recommendations

For brands to be successful in building relationships with customers through social media, we recommend the following best practices:

  • Determine a strategy, create a goal, and establish a “social voice.”
  • Develop and publish participation guidelines, or “rules of the road,” for fans, customers, and online community members.
  • Provide content focused on your consumers (consider the 80/20 approach that Buffalo Wild Wings uses).
  • Be honest and transparent.
  • Listen to your followers and fans.
  • Be responsive — reply to posts, reward participants.
  • Use the negative comments as teaching moments to inform the development of future products, campaigns, and content.

This post is part of an ongoing social media marketing series on “Building Relationships” from LiveWorld.