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More companies use social media for marketing

David Ranii
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

RALEIGH, N.C. - During the summer Olympics, PC maker Lenovo used social media marketing to enhance its corporate sponsorship of the games.

The company gave laptops and digital cameras to 100 athletes and asked them to document their experiences. The athletes published more than 1,500 posts. Fans responded with 8,000-plus comments.

"That was a big breakthrough for us," said David Churbuck, vice president of global Web marketing, who noted that the effort contributed to a significant increase in traffic on Lenovo's corporate Web site.

Social media marketing is spreading as companies including SAS, Red Hat, Blue Cross and others recognize the benefits of blogs, online video and social networking sites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and more. According to Forrester Research, the number of social media "spectators" - people who read or watch social media - has increased from 48 percent last year to 69 percent of people who venture online.

"There are tons of studies that say word-of-mouth is more effective than any other marketing, and this is essentially word-of-mouth online," said Jim Tobin, who heads Ignite Social Media in Cary, N.C., and is co-author of a self-published book on the phenomenon, "Social Media is a Cocktail Party."

"People are talking about you and your brand and your issues," he added. "The only question is whether you want to have an influence on it."

Some examples of social media initiatives:

  • Health insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina started a Web site promoting a healthful lifestyle. It featured a company executive and an author blogging as they walked 650 miles from Asheville to Wilmington, conducting fitness rallies along the way. More than 6,600 people registered at the site, walk.millionstepmarch.com, and reported walking a total of 350,000 miles. Some of those walkers blogged about their fitness efforts and posted photos, too. The insurer also used social media sites such as Facebook and meetup.com to spread the word.

  • SAS has made social media part of its standard practice for marketing and communication, said David B. Thomas, who recently assumed the position of social media manager at the software company. SAS employees are posting on blogs, social networking sites, iTunes, YouTube and more. A video featuring Santa posted this month on YouTube is generating some buzz.

  • Johnson Automotive in Raleigh uses a modern mix of advertising. Its print ads tout that its TV ads - featuring a nasty car salesman who's a stuffed badger - have gotten millions of hits on YouTube, and include a Web address to the short videos.

  • Online book publisher Lulu.com recently acquired iRead, a social networking site for book lovers. The site - renamed weRead - features a host of content generated by the site's readers, including 1.5 million book reviews. For authors, "it's a great tool for them to sell their books," spokeswoman Gail Jordan said.

  • Red Hat, the Linux software company, has posted more than a dozen videos on YouTube. The videos are put together for other purposes, such as company-sponsored events, but are amplified by appearing on YouTube, spokeswoman Leigh Day said. "We find people like to get their information from several different sources," she said.

The cost of social media marketing pales compared to conventional advertising, although it can be on par with a public relations campaign.

"This isn't expensive, but it is manpower-intensive in terms of hours spent," said Lenovo's Churbuck. His company has more than a half-dozen bloggers.

But social media is not for everybody.

A recent survey of chief marketing officers of major brands by Epsilon, a marketing services firm, found that 10 percent say they're using social media sites. And 33 percent said they aren't at all interested in incorporating social networking sites into their marketing strategies.

Many pharmaceutical companies shy away from social media because their commercial messages are regulated, said Jon Hudson, media director at MedThink Communications, a Raleigh advertising and public relations firm that focuses on life science industries.

"Technically, (a) pharmaceutical company would be liable for things people are posting on their Web site," he said.

Many social media sites such as Facebook already carry advertising. But evangelists of social media marketing put such ads in a different category. A paid banner ad, after all, is a one-way message rather than a conversation.

On the other hand, the spread-like-wildfire aspect of social media can have negative consequences for companies.

Raleigh communications firm Capstrat monitors the blogosphere to provide clients with an early warning of flare-ups that can be harmful.

In its work for a financial services company, Capstrat detected a popular YouTube blogger who had posted a video slamming the customer service he had received from the company. The video attracted more than 100,000 viewers within 90 minutes.

The client's vice president of customer service e-mailed the blogger, expressed regret for the problem, and gave the blogger a number to call to discuss the situation. The executive also posted a contrite message on YouTube.

The problem was resolved, and the blogger quickly posted a second video praising the company's response.

Cord Silverstein, Capstrat's executive vice president of interactive communications, likens such negative posts to a snowball rolling downhill.

"If you catch it early enough, when it either hasn't picked up speed or isn't big enough, you can stop it or knock it off course," he said. "Once it picks up a certain amount of velocity and gets big enough, there's not a whole lot you can do."

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