By Jennifer James

Social networks like Facebook, provide companies with a ready-made social networking platform to access customers. Groups within a social network offer watering holes for your product, exchanging their membership and interest in your company for the latest information on your products.

As people join your social networking group they are publicly proclaiming approval for your company, potentially attracting their friends to your group through word-of-mouth – the person-to-person transfer of information. Word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM), a growing marketing practice, builds on this concept of information and recommendation transfer and includes many categories, such as blogs, viral advertisements and of course social networks like Facebook.

Due to the personal, one-on-one conversational feel of word-of-mouth, an element of credibility and trust is added to a product or company when WOMM works. In November 2007, a report from PQ Media found that revenues from WOMM marketing jumped 35.9% in 2006 to $981.0 million in North America. The same report predicts that 2008 WOMM revenues will jump by 33% to $1.3 billion by the end of the year. It’s one of those “small but mighty” numbers when measured against total North American advertising spend, but I think it’s akin to search marketing – which grew from $4 billion in 2004 to 5.75 billion in 2005, approximately the same growth rate that WOMM is experiencing now. WOMM spending is predicted to grow at a compound annual rate of 30.4% each year, reaching 3.70 billion by 2011.

In addition to honesty, the marketing standard on the Internet, relevance must be present in order for a WOMM campaign to benefit a launch. In 2004, Burger King launched the “Subservient Chicken” campaign, which featured a viral website. On the site, a man in a chicken suit performed various actions, including the moonwalk, push-ups, cartwheels and 297 other moves, based on key commands from the user. The Internet was buzzing and people were sending invites to friends, making the site hugely popular. However, despite the success of the site, the campaign is often criticized for being a WOMM failure because no one was talking about Burger King because the edgy (and hilarious) campaign overshadowed the chicken sandwiches.

Quicken Loans and the “Yahoo! Answers Knowledge Partner” campaign is a great example of how to do WOMM the right way. Using “Yahoo! Answers”, a community-driven site that rewards users for posting questions and answers on a variety of subjects, Quicken Loans was able to leverage the site to answer questions that users were asking about home loans. Quicken Loans was incredibly honest about their presence on the site. In fact, only one rule was used to guide answers: “Answer the question. Don’t tell them how great Quicken Loans is. Don’t tell them how they will benefit from our product. Don’t tell them anything except what they ask.” This provided users with valuable information, not a sales pitch. The campaign was extremely successful and was awarded the 2007 Wommie Award from the Word of Mouth Marketing Association.

Because of the power that a social networking group member brings, it is important that your company engage members in thoughtful and relevant ways because, after all, they are providing you with two invaluable things: time and trust.

Charlene Li, senior analyst at Forrester Research on social media, during her presentation ‘Big Brands and Facebook: Marketing Case Studies & Best Practices’ made a case for why Facebook and social network marketing requires communication not advertising. Ms. Li laid out five best practices for companies looking to begin a Facebook group:

1. Understand how similar groups meet or don’t meet the needs of the audience already
2. Create a unique experience that engages the audience
3. Enable and update the discussion board, the wall, photos, etc.
4. Read and respond to comments
5. Be transparent about your role

Bottom line: To succeed in putting social platforms to work for marketing purposes, your first priority is to respect your social network contacts’ privacy while talking with the members, not at them, in relevant ways that tie back to your company.

Want to learn how to swim in these new social networking waters? Give market2world a call.

(Jennifer James is a Communications Strategist with market2world communications inc., Ottawa, Canada's Web 2.0 tech PR and product launch agency.)