Perhaps the Intimate Apparel Council wanted to convey a sense of irony when it partnered with the Bromley Group to host a discussion about using social media as a marketing tool in early August. The panel presented ways to approach various new and exciting social media technologies in one of New York City's oldest and most private member's only oases, The Union League Club.
A small group of invitees gathered in front of social media experts and marketing professionals to hear how they used -- and in some cases, created -- these tools to make better connections with their customers, and what happened once that connection had been established. On the panel were: Stacey Santo of Rue La La; Stephen Zangre of Facebook; Jonathan Burg of Digitas Inc.; and Tim Smith of SocialVibe.
"These people are the ones who have their pulse on what it means to be a trendsetter," said Eric Kreller, group account director for the Bromley Group, acting as the evening's emcee.
"As marketers, it is our job to impact thought, break through clutter, drive traffic to stores, increase sales and influence consumers," he said, before introducing the first panelist, "but how we can continue to do this, in 140 characters or less, is the new hurdle."
A digital extension of our emotions
For Stacey Santo, hurdles are all a part of the game. The senior vice president of marketing for Rue La La has helped turn a members-only online boutique into a burgeoning shopping community with 2.2 million members in just over two short years. Every day at 11 a.m., items from some of the world's most prestigious brands go up for sale, and only Rue La La members have access to them.
The secret? Engagement.
"At the center of what we do is really bringing our brands and our members to center stage, and this is where the social play comes in. It's about engagement," Santo said.
"It's brought that feeling of the loneliness of online shopping to feeling like you're in there with all of your best girlfriends."
And Rue La La is definitely one of those best friends. Transparency and honesty has helped Rue La La develop a social networking voice, expressed primarily on Facebook and Twitter, that sounds like one of its customers. And that makes it easier to find out what other customers really want.
"They can tell us, hey, I don't like this change in the return policy. Change it back," Santo says.
And in more ways than one, social media has an impact on the business.
"We are a viral model," she said, referring to the popular videos that gain rapid and unexpected popularity through word of mouth. "Seventy percent of our members come from friends telling friends. That's a lot of whispers to get to 2.2 million in two years."
Socializing the bottom line
It's that kind of measurable result that Jonathan Burg, the senior social engineer from Digitas, is looking for. But before he aired his views on social media in business, he polled the room to see how many people had Facebook and Twitter accounts -- and how many people had actually used them recently.
He was quick to stress that, at least in principle, marketing was still the same as it's always been.
"A lot of people talk about how [social media] is exciting," he said. But Facebook and Twitter, he pointed out, "are tools that people use to have the same conversations they've always had."
To illustrate: Digitas brought a man dressed in a Mr. Peanut costume to a college campus, where the students ran wild spreading the news that he was in town; others tried to fill the gas tank of the peanut mobile. Social media made it possible for the conversation to spread further and faster than it would have via in-person communication, but Burg says both played a part in spreading the story.
And while he agrees with Santo's sentiment that these tools can be used to engage customers and potential customers, he believes that a company should use social media to achieve bottom-line goals.
"If you want social to be successful, it has to be about sales," Burg said. "Our goal is not just to raise awareness, but to prove that [social media] matters to your business."
He recommended that brands listen to what's being said about them in these public forums -- after all, most tweets are public and searchable, and if a customer isn't tweeting about your company, he said, they might be tweeting about your competition.
Then, brands have to inspire their customers to continue to pledge their support of a brand or a product, and ultimately, nurture the relationships and let the customers -- and potential customers -- who give it feedback know just how helpful they're being.
"At the end of the day, relationships pay off," Burg. "We know that our brands carry a lot more customers because they're great friends. The question again is how can we ignite those relationships?"
Letting your customers choose for themselves
Tim Smith knows that social media can influence more than just individual customers -- because social networking is all about connecting with other people, customers can influence their friends, and a good social media strategy can put customers to work promoting brands or even ideas they support.
As the East Coast vice president of sales for Social Vibe, which enables its users to "use their influence to do good in the world," Smith finds ways to give people more options to spread their message or their support for a charity or cause.
"If everyone' a really small celebrity, what does a really small endorsement look like?" he asked.
The core of the Social Vibe strategy is to allow people to choose what they do and how they do it for themselves. Social Vibe's applications allow users to get behind a particular cause and then personalize it, put it in their own context. Users have near complete control over how they use the application.
"When we're inviting users to participate in a brand, it's 100 percent opt in," Smith says. "You can put your Facebook constituents in the driver's seat and let them know what they can do. That way you're getting to the follower's friends, and you're getting to them through people they care about."
Mapping the social graph
Stephen Zangre, the director of media sales for Facebook, may have been the voice attendees were most eager to hear.
Facebook, the current king of social media, operates on the idea that there's a social graph linking everyone and everything and everywhere a person knows, likes and goes, together. It would have existed without Facebook, but Zangre says that mapping it out allowed the company to tap into what people really think about the people, places and things that impact their life.
Facebook' power comes from the number of people and the amount of time spent on Facebook.
"The average Facebook user is spending seven hours a month on Facebook," Zangre said. "The average mom, those that say they have children, are spending eight hours a week on Facebook."
And what they'e doing on the site is sharing information -- through status updates, links and wall posts.
"What we also know is that what they're saying is very commercial in nature," Zangre said, adding that women, in particular, have a propensity to share when they've gotten a good deal on a product.
But being an effective part of a social graph isn't as simple as being on the social graph. A brand has to make a commitment to be an active player on the graph if it wants to succeed.
"It's really about creating a social marketing strategy, and thinking about what it is you want to say, how often you say it, and really creating that dialogue," he said.
And in order to make that happen, all the cogs that are involved in the creation of the social media strategy have to be working together.
"It's the collaboration, it;s transparency, it's understanding roles and responsibilities among all these different partners, and so it's different for every single brand in this room, I would imagine, but that is how social works," he said.
Social media is all about connecting with people, after all. And just as private citizens use it to collaborate with one another, so too must a brand's promoters work together to create and distribute their messages.
"When all these folks are playing in the same sandbox, when there's transparency, there's sharing, there's collaboration -- that's the way you're going to develop the social activation strategy for your brand."