In business school we were taught that businesses should engage with prospects in a systematic, organized way, moving them through a standard set of steps to purchase:

awareness –> consideration –> preference –> trial –> purchase.

The Internet and the access is provides to information has changed that model to something more like:

find –> observe/lurk –> engage –> act: watch, purchase, donate, link, etc.

where engage depends the act the enterprise wishes to cause.

As we saw over the last few weeks, many people found ways to donate to Haitian relief efforts via Twitter, skipping the observe and engage stages to get to a non-traditional method of supporting a cause. In a commercial sense, where the goal is to get someone to make a purchase, measuring engagement is much trickier. It could range from noting that someone has spent more than 5 minutes on a web site or has come back 5 times. But today’s tools can’t distinguish between someone actively reading a web page and a person who has gone for coffee and left the browser open; or between someone having a hard time finding something on the site and clicking around to compare product features. Clearly, site visits that end in a purchase are the key metric to track, but what if yours isn’t a business that sells to consumers? The only way to really find out if people are getting your message is to ask them: Do they hear the message you intend to convey? Do they believe it? Are they acting on what they’ve seen or heard?

By the way, it appears that time spent on a website is the metric most often used to measure success, even though it is only an approximation of engagement. Hardly anyone looks to the number of page views these days.

Many companies are starting on social media marketing, but aren’t sure how to go about it and often use search engines to figure out what their competitors are doing. There are numerous tools to investigate who is using Twitter, what they are tweeting and at whom; Twittergrader is the one I’ve most recently come across. The site looks at who is followed by and following a particular Twitter user name, grading the user in comparison to other users. monica_schnitge is a relatively new account with very few followers yet is “graded” at 81 out of 100, with a ranking in the top 20% of Twitter users — not very meaningful. While tracking popularity this way is cool in a way that harkens back to high school, Twittergrader and sites like it at best provide backward-looking information about where competitors have been, not where they are going.

So what should companies do to engage online? An engaging website, webcasts, blog posts, Twitter and Facebook if that’s not outside the comfort zone. The term “social” is a bit misleading and intimidating; I have always taken it to mean talk and respond. To many companies it actually means information distribution (webinars, podcasts, RSS feeds, etc.) and not necessarily interaction. That seems to fine with consumers who are looking to gather information in an asynchronous manner, that they can explore when time permits.

Social media marketing is both different from and the same as more traditional marketing; the point is still to move a prospect to action. Internet-based marketing means it happens on the customer’s timeline; it’s up to the seller to provide the information needed to close the sale.