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Have You Tried Our New Soup Today?

By Kim Hennig
Principal at Kim Hennig Marketing

The scene: two strangers sitting on a park bench. One turns to the other and tentatively says, "Hello..." The other spins around, grabs the first by the shoulders and bellows, "HI, THERE! HAVE YOU TRIED OUR NEW SOUP TODAY?"

A little off-putting, to say the least. Yet this is the scene played by far too many consumer marketers as they seek to establish themselves in social media. The traditional marketing playbook—seek (or build) a sizeable audience of potential customers, then pummel them with "sell" messages until they buy—doesn’t work here. In fact, it can be downright damaging to the brand.

While consumer marketing in social media is no longer in its infancy, it's not much beyond toddlerhood. A number of marketers, however, have grown up quickly and learned to execute well—in a variety of ways, but always consistent with the brand personality. Newcomers, as well as established players, would do well to learn from them.

These marketers probably didn't start with the questions, "Who will we have tweet for us?" or "Should we manage our fan page internally or outsource it?" For them, the real question was, "What's the appropriate voice for our brand?" While much has been written about the hugely-successful efforts of several marketers—like Whole Foods, Jet Blue, Best Buy and Starbucks—what they share in their approaches, each unique, is a relentless adherence to the voice of their brands.

Take a closer look at just one of them, Whole Foods. What comes to your mind when you think of the brand? It might be a passion for good food, a fresh market of specialty purveyors, experts in all that is organic and natural, or an accessible boutique of gourmet items. If those characteristics capture the essence of the brand, we certainly wouldn't expect messages like, "One week only! Two-for-one frozen peas!" What we'd expect—and get—from Whole Foods is expert advice, like insights on cheeses from Whole Foods Fromagerie on Facebook or from Cathy Strange, @WFMcheese on Twitter. Like a visit to your local farmer's market, through Whole Foods' social media channels, you can establish a relationship with the cheese monger, the vintner, the butcher.

This is not to say that price-point messages don't work in social media. Old Navy, for example, does an excellent job of sharing exclusive offers with its fans and followers, like the deal of the week. But the Old Navy brand is about deals, right down to its warehouse—like store décor. Do we really want a relationship with Old Navy, or are we looking for a heads-up on jeans at half price? The value voice plays to the brand.

The recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas provided social media fodder to a plethora of players, many of whom did it very well. For example, Sony clearly knows what its customers want: news about the latest and greatest technology, a firm grasp of what's hot, a peek under the tent. Sony delivered access for its fans and followers with a virtual booth tour before the show, a live stream of its press conference (featuring Taylor Swift) by way of a button on the Sony Facebook page, and an opportunity for camera buffs to ask questions of celebrity photographer Nigel Barker on Twitter. The Sony brand spoke with the voice of authority, experience, and expertise.

Small businesses can establish a social media brand voice as well. When "meet us on Facebook" popped up on the sign at my local dry cleaners, I visited its fan page and found not just coupons (though those were welcomed) but also advice on how to treat holiday party stains, what types of clothing to store professionally, and how to recycle hangers and laundry bags. With all of the dry cleaning options I have, Best Cleaners has become the voice of the expert in my little world.

Recently, I came across a colorful analogy that social media has become something akin to trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose. While our social media journey in recent times has been largely focused on amassing friends, fans, and followers, for most of us, the fire hose stream of messaging has become downright overwhelming. As a result, 2010 is likely to become a year of constriction and selectivity, as consumers begin to pare their streams to those marketers who are most meaningful to them and most consistent with the consumer vision of the brand. Those marketers who can't update the old playbook will quickly learn the power of unfollow.

Establishing a social media brand voice is more than just a way to begin in social media—it's an imperative for survival there.

To make friends on a park bench, you need some social skills. And you need to use the right voice.

Kim Hennig

Kim Hennig is a 20-year marketing veteran who has delivered record sales, award-winning advertising, and profitable marketing plans for some of the nation's best-known consumer brands, including McDonald's, 1-800Flowers.com, and Subway. Her experience covers both the client and agency sides of the business. Kim is a classic marketer, with significant expertise in new media as well. Her key strengths are in strategic leadership, multimillion-dollar budget management, innovation, consensus-building, and most importantly, driving sales and profits. Kim also conducts social media seminars and facilitates social media workshops for corporations and ad agencies.