Where’s the beef?

1024px-Chipotle_Mexican_Grill_logo.svgChipotle is famous for two things:

  1. Making a mean burrito
  2. Being a nice company

These two things are strongly correlated, which can help explain the company’s rabid customer base and meteoric growth the past couple of years. In fact, most would argue Chipotle couldn’t be known for one without the other.

The restaurant chain recently had a unique and unexpected chance to determine if that was true. The result caught a lot of people by surprise – except for its customers.

Earlier this week, Chipotle announced that it was halting pork sales at roughly one-third of its U.S. restaurants after discovering violations of its pig-housing policies at a supplier. That equates to a lot of customers not being able to enjoy their beloved carnitas burritos which, in turn, could have a big impact on Chipotle’s sales for the quarter and the year, depending on how long the shortage runs. This, in turn, could equate to a lot of unhappy customers and a lot of lost sales for Chipotle.

With that in mind, it would have been relatively easy for the company to quietly reprimand the supplier and make it try its hardest to make things better, all while still using its pork to make those mean burritos. Who would have known, right?

Chipotle would have known, of course, and that was enough for them.They know that being a nice company is a big part of what helps them make a mean burrito – and what has made them such a beloved brand in the eyes of their customers. They counted the long-term cost of using a product that went against their brand philosophy and “Food With Integrity” approach and determined it would be way more costly than any short-term losses resulting from the shortage.

Brands talk a lot about their philosophy, their identity, their essence – the foundation that makes them who they are. And yet it’s still rare – and refreshing – to see examples of brands that practice what they preach. Chipotle has a keen understanding of who they are and how their customers view them, recognizing that their customers love them for more than just their killer burritos. Turning a blind eye to their core philosophy may have saved them some sales in the short term, but it would have made them just another fast food joint in the long run.

Put your ear to the ground

When developing a social media strategy, the two questions brands most often focus on answering are:

  • Where? (What platforms should we be active on?)
  • What? (What do we talk about?)

ear_guyAnd both are important questions, to be sure. The first question answers the critical audience part of your strategy; after all, if you’re not where your audience is, how will you connect and engage with them? The second question answers the equally crucial content portion of your social media strategy. If you don’t provide informative and entertaining content to our audience, after all, how will you connect and engage with them?

While these are of vital importance, there’s another component of a sound social strategy brands must be mindful of. While the questions above both focus on what you say, it’s just as important to focus on what you hear.

“Social listening” is what it’s called, and it’s pretty much just like it sounds. It’s the act of observing and measuring how the market talks about your products, your services and your brand online, and especially via social media – and using that intelligence as an important cog in your marketing machine, content development and brand strategy.

It’s just as important as content and platform – and, ideally, an integral part of your overall strategy. And it’s more than just casually scanning various social platforms and the web for mentions of your brand. Doing so would be incredibly time consuming, of course, and inefficient, creating a ripple effect that negatively impacts all other aspects of your social strategy and activity.

Here are a couple of key aspects of a good social listening program to keep in mind as you get started – or as you look to refine what you’re already doing:

  1. Set your terms. Define and map out the specific words, phrases and terms you want to listen for. These will cover your brand, your products and your services, to be sure, but think beyond the basics: Names of leaders and key personnel, competitive brands and products, industry thought leaders, etc. Clearly defining what and who you want to listen for gives you a key benchmark and commonly understood parameters.
  2. Keep your ears to the ground. Always. Having a defined sense of what you’re listening for helps you be more consistent and proactive in how you listen. There are many great monitoring and listening tools out there to help you streamline and centralize the process beyond the Google Alerts of the world. A couple of very good lists of such tools can be found here and here and here.
  3. Analyze and adapt. The market and industry in which you operate is always changing – your social listening habits should be the same. Monthly – or quarterly at the very least – measure and analyze your social listening data and then answer key questions about what is working and where you may be missing important sources of input and insight. And adapt your social listening habits as a result.

What you say – and where you say it – are both of utmost importance when it comes to the perception of your brand via its social presence. Here’s an important reminder that knowing what others say – and where they say it – about you is just as important.

Is your brand in conflict…with itself?

It used to be, companies had customers. Now brands have audiences. Existing customers. Potential customers. Industry influencers. Trade media. Basically, anyone who “experiences” your brand in some meaningful way on a semi-regular basis is an audience. And, the digital revolution has created an almost dizzying amount of new touch points for those audiences to experience your brand. This is good, of course, because it’s many new avenues through which you can engage your audiences. It’s also potentially bad, however, because it’s many new avenues through which you can confuse your audiences if you’re not consistent.

lightbulbIt’s very important, obviously, to find and maintain consistency across your many different touch points and toward your many different audiences. And while it may seem a bit overwhelming at first, taking a huge step in that direction may be simpler – and closer to home – than you think. The key to consistency in communicating your brand, then, may lie with one very unique group – a group that is both a touch point and an audience: Your own employees.

More often than not, employees are the most overlooked audience when it comes to a brand’s marketing, advertising and communications. The reasons for not involving them early and often in marketing can be many; the reasons for swiftly changing that approach, however, are just as numerous and important. After all, as this great blog post from Boston Consulting Group points out, “to become part of its customers’ lives…a company’s product and brands will first have to be ‘lived’ by its employees.”

Your employees are the first line of the most intimate and memorable experience audiences have with your brand. If they don’t deliver on your brand promise – especially because they’re not fully aware of what that brand promise is – the damage can be swift, harsh and often irreparable.

Take stock of your employee communications today – what do you do well when it comes to keeping them up to date, informed and inspired about what you’re doing? Where can you improve? “A tight linking of all the aspects of brand management,” BCG continues, “ensures that brands leverage their most significant asset – employees – to create more powerful and relevant brands for today’s changing world.”

In other words, the best way to ensure harmonious brand management across your many different audiences is to focus on – and engage with – the one closest to home.

The next Facebook? A million little Facebooks

Each its own little universe.

Each its own little universe.

In the beginning, there was Ning. And Zaadz. And Tribe. And a bunch of other niche sites that brought together people from around the country and around the globe because of their shared interest in a topic, hobby or activity. This was way, way back, in the early 2000s. The original social networks developed organically, grew around singular topics and were often no more than glorified chat rooms and community forums. But all of the foundational components of what we now know as social media were there.

And then along came Facebook. It changed how we thought about and interacted with our social networks. Instead of niche networks, you could get everything you wanted under one roof – regardless of interests, hobbies, topics and activities. The introduction of groups and pages especially moved the concept of niche networks to within the walls of the entire Facebook ecosystem, meaning you never had to leave the site, no matter what you wanted to talk about.

With its 10th birthday now behind it, Facebook is starting to show a little gray. Because of this, many people – young ones especially – are now on the lookout for the “next Facebook.” It’s a question we get asked often ourselves – what’s the next Facebook? What’s the next great global, all-encompassing social network out there we should know about?

The answer we give to this question – based on our experience and where we see the future of social marketing headed – often surprises: there won’t be a next Facebook. Instead, there will be a million little Facebooks. This is because a funny thing is happening – we’re seeing a strong and sustained resurgence in niche networks – highly targeted, topical and specialized sites that cater to enthusiasts of all different sorts of things. A return to the way it was in the beginning.

As this TechCrunch article points out, this is especially true for professionals; we’re seeing dedicated networks pop up catering to doctors, software engineers, academics, data scientists and even the military. But this swing back toward niche networks is true for personal interests as well, as any member of VampireFreaks.com or BirdPost or Behance will surely attest.

The next question, of course, becomes, what does this mean for you? While Facebook isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, brands certainly need to be aware of existing niche sites out there that may align with its products, services and values. As with many things, this trend brings with it both challenge and opportunity:

Challenge: Audiences become more fragmented and isolated, which can make targeting more difficult and labor-intensive. Targeting is easier on broad social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn because that’s where everyone is. But you can easily end up targeting a lot of people who may not be interested in you or your product. Conversely, finding your target audience via smaller niche networks can be much more time-consuming and less scientific. When you find them, however…

Opportunity: Members of niche networks are more likely to be much, much more interested in brands that align with their interests and passions. If you’re not a crafter, you probably don’t care too much to see what’s going on at CraftersCommunity. If you are a crafter, on the other hand, it may be your single favorite place to spend time online, which is why these types of audiences – though smaller – can be so valuable to brands.

So instead of asking yourself what the next Facebook is, the more important question to ask – and answer – for your brand is, which of these million little Facebooks is most important to my target audience?

The Streisand Effect strikes again

The Streisand EffectIt’s every marketer’s dream come true – your products so inspire people that they voluntarily organize around your brand. They meet, converse, share ideas, inspire one another and, most importantly, buy more of your product. All without you having to lift a finger. They connect online and in person from all parts of the globe, and all because of you. Your products become part of their lives – indeed, they help define an entirely new lifestyle.

This dream scenario can quickly turn into a nightmare for some marketers, unfortunately. Even worse, it does so because of their own actions.

Some companies, it turns out, don’t take too kindly to strangers appropriating their identity without asking first – or paying for it. They see their name being appropriated unofficially by this group – no matter their positive intentions – and demand, usually through lawyers, that they cease and desist such unsanctioned and unbridled fandom immediately. As a result, they draw additional, much more negative attention to themselves, looking like a big bully picking on the small guy who only wants to be his friend.

It’s called the Streisand Effect – calling more attention to something by trying to eliminate it. IKEA found itself falling victim to this particular phenomenon recently when it sent a takedown notice to an unofficial website, ikeahacks.com, which served as a vibrant community of enthusiasts, sharing ideas about how to “hack” a wide variety of products you could find at the Swedish purveyor of furniture, accessories and meatballs.

The story quickly spread online, and IKEA became the big, bad bully in the eyes of the public. Things got especially bad when the site’s purveyor announced she’d have to shut it down completely rather than pay expensive lawyers. The outcry grew from there until finally IKEA relented and worked with the site on a compromise that would allow it to live another day.

This most recent example from IKEA is representative of what can often happen when brands encounter this unfamiliar new territory of a group of devoted fans – they feel the need to do something to acknowledge that passion and loyalty. Problem is, that something tends to backfire – or worse.

As can often be the case, the best solution is the easiest (and, at the same time, most counterintuitive): sit back and watch your growing, passionate fan base connect and engage organically. Look for opportunities to support and strengthen, of course, and then get back out of the way. Otherwise, you may be next to fall victim to the Streisand Effect.