Cultivating Contagion--and Measuring Results--in the Social Media Sphere

As large enterprises take on social media, risk and reward hang in the balance. Direct conversations and relationships with your customers are incredibly powerful. But from a corporate perspective, the seeming lack of control can be unnerving. So how can you engage at a meaningful level? Facebook fan pages and Tweets are interesting and powerful, but I love companies that go big, bold, and emotional with their social media efforts.

Pepsi's Play

Take Pepsi, with its Pepsi Refresh project. Last year, Pepsi took the $20 million that would normally go to a Super Bowl commercial and instead invested in a long term social media project aimed at moving hearts and minds in a fundamentally different way. The project established monthly contests in which nonprofit organizations competed for grant money, ranging from $5K to $250K every month. Last year, 76 million people cast votes, 12,642 ideas were submitted, and $20 million was donated. And, Pepsi will do it all over again.

This project was near and dear to me -- and not just as an online marketer, but because I'm on the board of the Cure JM foundation. We put in an incredible amount of work and won $250,000 for the most votes cast in August 2010. We mobilized both foundation members and doctors by working through dozens of local organizations, news outlets, social media forums, email lists, newsletters and videos to get the word out.

What we did was a labor of love. And the Pepsi brand was attached to every communication we sent out, just as it was attached to every communication sent in every monthly competition. Each time, Pepsi's brand was virally connected to the most powerful idea there is: Doing good. The Pepsi Refresh Project is now recognized by a third of consumers and is the most recognized online charitable giving program. Think about the time, effort, dollars, and processes Pepsi marketing would have needed to replicate this result.

But taking bold steps into social media is not without risk and unexpected outcomes. Pepsi had to adjust its strategy as people used the voting rules in unpredictable ways and the enrollment process was perceived as unfair. As a result, Pepsi adjusted the program to get rid of the largest grant award, limit (down from 10 to 5) the number of causes for which voters can vote for each day, and -- starting in May -- will award nearly twice as many smaller grants.

The Dell Approach

At Dell, we like to go big and innovative as well. We've found that some of the biggest payoffs - for both us and our customers -- have come from using online communities and open communications to foster long-term, value-add relationships with a very targeted segment of the public.

The most powerful example of this is the Dell Tech Center, an online community where customers -- primarily IT users -- communicate directly with Dell enterprise technologists, product developers, members of the CTO's office and each other to address current needs. The Tech Center, which has grown rapidly since its inception, has helped Dell's current and potential customers with their challenges and has directly and measurably accelerated Dell sales cycles in the B2B space.

We've also made an investment in turning Dell employees at every level into frontline social marketers who engage in Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs and more on the company's behalf. We've established a robust training program to teach our employees how to act as brand ambassadors. We have found our best social marketers may not have social marketing in their job description. For instance, an empathetic support guy who figures out users' problems as soon as they talk about them online. Social media allows us to be transparent with our customers and rather than shy away from it, we use it as a powerful force.

In addition to using social media to tell customers our story, Dell has found social media a valuable listening tool as well. Dell's Social Media Ground Control Center is a global operational hub that monitors some 22,000 online mentions about Dell every day. We filter this information based on topics, sentiment, share of voice, geography and trends. Then we funnel critical information to the right people within the organization to address.

Measuring Up

Of course, stepping into the social media fray carries risk and unexpected outcomes as it did for Pepsi. When we launched the Tech Center a few years ago, we did it on faith. There were very few similar efforts in place. We believed we were building loyalty and improving our brand. It took us a while to dial in the analytics to prove out the proposition. We've seen how customers have come to the community and initiated new opportunities with Dell or have used the community to help them in current discussions with Dell.

Whatever the potential pitfalls of social media engagement, successful companies need to consider it a key part of their marketing mix. The trick to making social media work for you is building processes -- like Dell's robust listening initiative and its cadre of certified social media participants -- that enables you to adjust on the fly. And remember: unpredictable outcomes are inevitable, but customers are forgiving, and may even become your advocates, as long as you listen and adjust quickly. And at the end of the day, with the right analytics in place, you should see measurable benefits that should inspire even the most dubious social media observers.