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Sodexo: Influence is the key to effective social network marketing

Nov 26, 2009 | Blog

Adaptation is the key to surviving in a difficult business environment; understanding what your customers want and staying one step ahead of your competitors. Nowhere is this more important than in a company's marketing efforts.

In July, Andrew Nicholson, e-commerce manager for events firm Sodexo Prestige, hailed social networking as the future of the events industry. Four months on, he stands by that statement.

"If I'd claimed 30 years ago that the main form of sales communication would have been over the telephone, people wouldn't have believed me ... Today we're looking at a similar paradigm shift; where a couple of years ago social networking was a tool to utilise when communicating with friends. Today it has become the tool for communicating with friends, colleagues, business leads and the like."

Having worked with a social marketing strategy for a few months, Mr Nicholson claims that it is so effective because it integrates seamlessly with customers' everyday lives.

"Seventy per cent of your customers are on social networks daily, so it makes sense to communicate with them this way. It's a non-intrusive, non-aggressive marketing channel. It also always keeps you at the front of your customer's minds and for most companies it's essential for generating sales."

While there will always be a place for traditional sales channels, Mr Nicholson believes that to optimise them fully they should be complemented with social networking. He sees it as an opportunity to "have a long-term relationship with [the companies contacts]; even if you're not talking to them every day."

There are risks associated with social networking and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of committing the ultimate corporate sin; mixing your personal and business life.

Mr Nicholson believes that while you cannot control what is being said about you online, you can control what you do about it.

"Imagine you are in a playground back in your school days. This is similar in many ways to a social network. You have the popular kids, who control the dialogue, and ultimately you have little direct control over what is said in these conversations. What you can do however, is act as an influencer, creating social champions to guide conversations on your behalf," he explains.

"Every company will have negative comments online. The trick is to follow online conversations and respond to them. The worst thing you can do is ignore comments and negative groups because it can escalate and this can potentially be very dangerous. Respond to people fairly and promptly, and respond to them as individuals."

Often when you are dealing with the people who have posted disparaging comments online, Mr Nicholson believes it is possible to change their mind and even turn them into brand advocates. This is perhaps a good example of how the whole system of marketing through social network sites works - taking the negative and turning it into a positive.

"In the olden days, people who had a bad experience would go away and grumble, they'd tell their friends and family about bad experiences, but the afflicted company, who most needed to know about the issue, was always the last to know. These days customers can go online and blog their experiences or they Tweet them, and if they're really aggrieved, they set up a Facebook group," Mr Nicholson adds.

"Yes, it is negative exposure to the wider public, but it also means that we can get immediate feedback from the customer and we can actually react to it in real time. So in many ways social networks are helping us grow as a company."

In terms of the next year or two, he believes that there could still be tough times ahead for the events business, although the recession has "resulted in a more efficient, more focussed industry" which will do better in the long term.

However, there is no doubt in Mr Nicholson's mind that, for the foreseeable future, social networking is at the centre of Sodexo's marketing efforts.

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