How to Network Online

Navigating one-on-one marketing in an increasingly social world takes commitment and finesse.

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Footwear manufacturers and retailers are quickly learning that there are no wallflowers in the era of social networking. While sites such as MySpace have been around for years, the explosive growth of Facebook and Twitter, among other sites, has now increased the pressure on brands to establish a credible, authentic relationship platform in the digital realm. And these tools are not projects on the periphery of a marketing plan — far from it. In fact, Facebook and Twitter in many cases are now at the center of many companies’ integrated marketing strategies.

“These are the new touchpoints in the marketing mix, and they are incorporated into every single thing we do,” said Stacy Lastrina, EVP of marketing for Jones Apparel Group. “If we are launching something new, we ask [ourselves], ‘What does that mean for Facebook?’ It’s a layer to everything [we do].”

But a successful social networking program can’t be limited to a single site or media outlet, experts say. For many firms, being a social player means communicating with customers in whatever way — and via whatever sites — they choose.

“You definitely need multiple [social sites],” said Joel Heath, global marketing director for Deckers Outdoor Corp.’s Teva brand. “You need to have your feet in all mediums and your ear to the ground.”

Establishing authentic, fluid communication with consumers also requires marketers to learn the delicate etiquette of online networking, joining the discussion without obvious sales ploys. “You have to treat social networking like a cocktail party,” said A.J. Vaynerchuk, co-founder of the social media consultancy Vayner Media. “You don’t just walk up to somebody and pitch. You introduce yourself, be cordial, engage in conversation, and if business comes up, it’s a networking opportunity.”

There’s certainly no sure-fire way for winning over consumers in the social media world, but brands and retailers interviewed said there are steps companies can take to increase the likelihood they’ll become the best kind of social butterflies.

Be Fearless

It is only natural that many marketers have approached social media with trepidation. Unlike traditional marketing tools, the interactive elements of social media force execs to surrender control of their brand message to a certain extent. But they must do so if they wish to engage consumers in a two-way dialogue.

“Consumers are dictating what is said about our brand more than they used to,” said Heath. “With social media, we have to steer the conversation rather than give the conversation.”

When consumers initially began posting messages and blogs about brands, many saw them as a threat, making them a target and giving a forum to detractors. Now, companies are using social outlets as a chance not only to speak with fans but also to diffuse negativity that may plague their image.

“A while back, the biggest worry was that someone might say something negative about the brand,” said Lastrina. “But if somebody has something bad to say, they will post it anyway. It’s better to be in the conversation and be able to manage it than to be an observer.”

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