"A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is – it is what consumers tell each other it is." - Scott Cook, co-founder, Intuit
"Our head of social media is the customer." - Unknown spokesperson, McDonald's
These social media adages are scary enough to give any CMO the chills. The lifeblood of online marketing before the Age of the Consumer has centered around control – of brand, user experience, messaging, conversations. Marketers have been told countless times over the last few years that social meant the end of control. You were told that no longer would your users linger on your carefully manicured website, absorbing your delicately crafted messaging as they click on products and articles. You were told that consumers now had the power, and, in some ways, that has become the reality. But that's not the whole story. Social business has evolved to the point to where marketers are taking back their brands and, by using social infrastructure, they are reaching, understanding and influencing their customers like never before.
For some time, the prescription to the "social problem" for businesses has been to create a Facebook fan page, a corporate Twitter handle and, for the avant-garde, a Google+ and Pinterest page. While creating and managing social media profiles has become the norm for many big brands, data shows that posting content to marketing tools like Facebook pages does little to engender any significant level of engagement or other meaningful business metric. Furthermore, booting users from your company's website to its Facebook page isn't an optimal way of getting your users to engage with or stay connected to your brand.
This raises an important question: If consumers are deeply rooted in being social on the Web (a thesis widely accepted by analysts and industry observers and evident from the billions of active social networks users), how can companies respond in a way that provides both a social experience to those consumers and brand control to those very companies? While there is no social silver bullet to miraculously help brands navigate through new media, there is a powerful set of technologies that companies can employ to maintain control over their brands while catering to a social user-base: social infrastructure.
Social infrastructure is the technology that makes Web properties social. It's the backbone of the social Web beyond the walls of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks. Anytime a user registers or logs into a website with his social ID, leaves a comment with his social ID, shares content from the site to his social network(s) or participates in a site's gamification elements while leveraging his social profile – that is social infrastructure at work. This set of technologies mobilizes a user's social identity and allows them to be truly social across the web. But aside from an improved user experience, social infrastructure delivers a critical element to marketers: control.
Control in this case refers to two distinct but interrelated concepts. First, by implementing social infrastructure and allowing your users to be social on your site, you can control what your users see – messages, content and even advertising. The alternative is to boot your users to Facebook where they are placed in a hyperactive circus of ads from other companies, sponsored posts and two constantly updating feeds displaying their friends' activities across the social Web. This all-too-common scenario provides little control for a business trying to foster brand engagement. In fact, for marketers, it's chaos.
The second way that social infrastructure gives marketers control is in the incredibly valuable sets of data that your social users bring to your site. When a customer comes to your site and signs in via social login, for example, a cordial exchange occurs. He is able to register and login to your site quickly without needing to create a new set of credentials and is able to seamlessly share and comment on and otherwise interact with your site's content using his social profile. In return, you, the marketer, gain permission-based access to his social profile information, building a lasting relationship with the user. This data set is quite literally the most extensive and valuable assortment of user information available. When authenticating via social login, the
user passes dozens of data fields to you including: name, email, birthdate, hometown, relationship status, political views, interests, activities, work history, religious views and education level. It's the holy grail of customer information which is easily attainable in an aboveboard and responsible way.
The exchange that takes place when a user logs into your site via social login is essentially a "virtual handshake" where customers receive value from a faster login process and the ability to interact with content, and you, the marketer, gain permission-based access to customers' social profile data.
There is little debate that social networks have changed consumer behavior and expectation. Big brands can no longer get away with unresponsive customer service, lackadaisical content and poor quality products. Customers now have a voice and they're not afraid to shout their cacophonous opinions across any number of social platforms for the world to see. But rather than cowering in fear at the new uninhibited consumer or simply trying to manage the online conversations that take place outside of your business's Web properties, you can embrace technologies that help you maintain control of your brand and understand your customers like never before.