Like the Industrial Age, the Conversation Age (often referred to as Web 2.0) requires businesses to change and recognize that the status quo is unproductive and unacceptable. If your company is to remain competitive, increase market share and grow its business, the time to reinvent yourself is now. That means it’s time to invest in social media, specifically blogging, and add it to your marketing and branding toolbox. This new age rejects the traditional ways you’ve reached your markets through push marketing and advertising. Today’s consumers ignore messages about your company. Instead, they seek community, and they want businesses to engage them as equals, notice them and meet their wants and needs, not your brand’s. They don’t want to listen to you; they want you to listen to them. That’s why it’s called the Conversation Age. It’s about building customer relationships in a new way. It is about the “who,” not the “what.” It puts people ahead of products and services and, more than ever, insists that you engage your customers and clients in a dialogue. It calls on you to create a community and give it a voice. Like the various ages before Web 2.0, business success isn’t about the tools. It is about communications, messages and reaching out to customers. The primary difference is that in this age, the tools are online and we hand control over to the community. We merely provide the venue and facilitate the conversation. For some executives, that is so scary, so intimidating, they’d rather deny that the age even exists. Instead, they argue that like the dot-com bubble, Web 2.0 will burst, and so-called conversational marketing will become another memory. Unfortunately, the naysayers are the ones living in a bubble. This is a different time and space. Consumers will take control of your messages with or without your blessing. If you don’t stop defending the status quo, you’ll be surpassed by competitors who rose to the challenges of the Conversation Age and adapted their businesses to meet its demands. Any company that doesn’t respond to the demands of the Conversation Age today will find itself in a General Custer situation, where the odds against future success are staggering and overwhelming. Since you are among those savvy enough to recognize both the challenges and the opportunities presented by Web 2.0, you understand that you have to add social media to your marketing mix. But how and at what cost? Do Your Homework Like all marketing efforts, this one should begin with some research. Check out other corporate blogs and social media sites that you admire and create a small blogging team comprised of one or two people from your communications or marketing departments. The team’s first task is to create a strategic plan that melds perfectly into your marketing plan and includes goals tied to the organization’s overall business objectives. Your social media team will spend most of its time ensuring that the site’s content is dynamic, compelling and up-to-date. They’ll also be tasked with guiding the conversation among customers who flock there and responding to comments – both positive and negative – in a timely manner, (i.e., the same day they are posted). The most successful blogs are continually refreshed with new content that keeps visitors coming back for more. Just as you have created strategies to drive customers to your corporate website, you need a planned approach for driving them to your blog. This includes using online directories, search engine optimization and traditional marketing tools. Again, remember that social media is not a new way of selling products; rather, it’s a vehicle for connecting with customers so you can listen to their ideas and gain from their wisdom. Then, you can apply that feedback to the development of new and better products, services and experiences. This will have the added benefit of creating positive word of mouth, initiated not by you but by your customers who’ve appreciated having their voices heard and their ideas taken seriously. That type of customer evangelism carries much more weight and credibility than in-house messaging and can lead to increased sales. In other words, corporate blogging can have a very real impact on your bottom line. As your customer relationships deepen into true partnerships, you will find even more opportunities to engage with them for co-marketing, co-advertising, co-public relations and co-communications (e.g., word-of-mouth marketing) initiatives. By establishing a network of enthusiastic partner-customers, you can find out what they want, need and desire before you launch a marketing campaign, thus cutting your costs and increasing your ROI. Furthermore, user-generated messages, advertising and video together add up to a powerful public relations campaign that no corporation could ever achieve with its own in-house staff. It starts a conversation whereby journalists, bloggers and other pundits can discuss your company without feeling like they’ve been “bought off.” That leads to better and more frequent media coverage. Measure For Results Like any good plan, your new marketing plan needs to feature measurable goals, and there are many outcomes from blog activity that you can track and analyze, such as: • Number of page impressions, site visits and unique visitors; • Time spent on website/page, number of pages per visitor, emails opened and click through rate; • Number of mentions on other blogs, websites, media outlets, etc., and the quality (positive or negative) of these mentions; • Position of your blog in search engine results; • Usable ideas from customers and readers; • Increased sales. To succeed and grow, begin slowly and enter the Conversation Age at a pace that seems right for your company and its resources. Some recommendations: • If you do not have in-house expertise, consider a social media consultant to help you get started. • Talk to your employees; they often know customers best. It’s likely some of your employees are already bloggers themselves or read other people’s blogs. Ask them how they would engage your customers in conversation. • If you do not have an IT person or department that can create your blog, there are a number of inexpensive online tools, such as TypePad and WordPress that will do the job for you. • Blog content should be refreshed or replaced on a regular basis and include items like customer surveys (to find out what they think of your products/ services); helpful tips for getting the most out of your products and services, feedback shared by current users, real-life stories about your company and its people (to put a human face on your brand), both employee-written and customer-submitted posts, and CEO messages. • Include storytelling videos, photos and links to related websites you think your readers might want to visit; show them you are interested in them as more than mere consumers of your product line. • Host creative contests inviting your customers to come up with marketing messages, brochures, print and video ads, etc. Depending on the nature of your products and brand, you should make your blog informative, useful, fun or a combination of the three to get your readers involved and invested in your business. • Do not censor anything except unacceptable language, topics or images. If you can’t take criticism or hear customer complaints, social media is not for you. The Conversation Age need not be viewed with mistrust by corporate marketers. Instead, you should regard Web 2.0 as a way to build solid and loyal relationships with customers, which has always been the cornerstone of a marketer’s job. That means you have to trust your customers, and they have to trust you. You have to create a virtual place for them to gather and talk about you, not just to you. Remember that true conversation requires give-and-take from both sides. You must listen to your customers, for if you don’t respond to their ideas, questions and suggestions in a timely manner, they will see your social media initiative as a self-serving charade. To do this, you’ll have to assign in-house communicators and Web 2.0 practitioners to manage and execute on your social media strategies. These can’t be part-time staffers; they need to be dedicated to building the community and remaining active participants in it. Finally, you have to measure for results. When done right, a corporate blog can drive sales growth and enhance your brand image. Lewis Green is Chief Communications Officer & Founder of L&G Business Solutions, a marketing and communications firm. L&G Business Solutions represents his third company. Additionally, he held management positions with GTE Discovery Publications, Puget Sound Energy and Starbucks Coffee Company. Lewis’s fifth book is entitled Lead With Your Heart.