One of the things social media marketing will need if it’s going to live up to its aggressive $5 billion spending forecast is more differentiation between marketing and collaboration platforms. Companies like Jive Software, which filed for its IPO last week; Lithium, which just hired a new CEO; Mzinga; and Telligent offer social network platforms aimed at both employees and customers. But one-size-fits-all social networking platforms may not be around for much longer, because to succeed, vendors will need to start offering tools and services concentrated specifically on community marketing, distinct from enterprise collaboration or social networks.
Vendors making tools for the space broadly defined as social CRM have arrived from various origins: buzz monitoring, fan site creation, customer service and support, and enterprise social networking. Core social networking technologies and techniques (e.g., social graph relationships and information, friend and group following, real-time information feeds) are common across those. But platforms aimed at marketing to communities will need specialization. Let’s take a look at how a new startup, Napkin Labs, is attempting to differentiate the community-marketing platform that it just took out of beta.
Napkin Labs offers a low-cost web service that companies like beta partners Intuit and Sony can use as an online focus group. The founders of Napkin Labs have brand advertising agency backgrounds, and it shows — occasionally to a fault. For example, they expose perhaps a little too much agency-insider terminology to consumers who, unless they’re avid Mad Men watchers, aren’t going to know or care what a “creative brief” is. CEO Riley Gibson is correct that encouraging and rewarding customer engagement is subtly different than doing the same for employees. So Napkin Labs uses gaming mechanics like challenges and points to encourage participation and rate user influence. Its focus on applications to test product features, advertising and packaging looks smart.
But translating the art of focus group analysis into software and social networking features will be challenging. Understanding how to use feedback from rabid fans versus mainstream customers, muting the impact of blowhard commentators and applying focus group insights to mass-market ad campaigns are more consulting services than products. Napkin Labs is attempting to educate less-savvy customers with templates and blog advice rather than hiring consultants.
But there are a host of other community-marketing features besides focus group analysis that vendors will increasingly use, such as:
- Consumer network integration. Community-marketing platforms should enable and encourage community members to spread the message beyond the community. So any gaming or rewards systems must extend into other social media, like Twitter and Facebook.
- Member acquisition. If you’re in the fan page business — or are using social marketing tools for customer acquisition — you need to “fish where the fish are.” Most of the fish today are on Facebook. Napkin Labs has an idea that its offerings might work better as Facebook apps than as a part of a destination site; it’s probably right.
- Community panels. Some community-marketing platform companies like House Party and CrowdTap bring along their own communities, much like traditional market research panels. There are tradeoffs to this approach — some clients want to control audience and data ownership — but those platforms enable data analysis across different customer and product types. That can lead to valuable marketing insights that might otherwise stay hidden from those clients.
Ultimately, a key role for community marketing platforms will be supporting so-called integrated marketing campaigns — that is, big, cross-media (TV, online, print) initiatives that involve things like product placement, brand sponsorships and physical-world presence. House Party and CrowdTap offer services to manage campaign logistics. That may be more like agency work and consulting than building a software platform with seductive margins and a scalable business model, but that’s what it’s going to take.