Everyone knows we are in a bad economy. Many companies are cutting staff and costs. This is all due to the typical budget season known as the fourth quarter. For most companies, the fourth quarter of the calendar year is when budgets get approved for the next year. This is probably a very likely reason why there have been so many layoffs recently, obviously in addition to the economy. Marketing is part of the budget that is considered highly volatile. In good financial times, marketing budgets increase, while in our current situation, the marketing budgets have likely diminished. This is just basic logic. However, there is a very simple way to get some “free marketing” or at least very cheap marketing.

Enter social media. A lot of companies have started using Twitter for some level of community interaction. Zappos has an army of Twitterers, Comcast has the comcastcares account, and others are following. Pepsi recently opened a FriendFeed room. Why is this even remotely important? Aren’t these sites strictly used by early adopters? Not really. CNN has recently started using Twitter during its broadcasts, so it is well on its way to the mainstream. The other reason is that many bloggers are heavy users of social media. Also, bloggers have been show to be very influential. Svetlana Gladkova of Profy has a great post on blogger influence which states:

But the most importance thing about blogs is not that blogs are simply read a lot – it is the fact that blogs actually capable of influencing consumers decision to buy products. To be more specific, half of the blog readers participating in the survey (a blog reader is someone who has read a blog in the last 12 months) admitted that they use blogs to find purchase information.

Obviously, this means that if you have a product, you really want some blogger attention. If the bloggers are on social media sites, then that is where the company should be. The other benefit is that social media is free to use, the only commitment is time. BuzzGain writes that even though you need someone to use the social media site, it is still a good idea:

Social media is labor intensive not capital intensive so in some ways its more capital effective. During a downturn you want more capital effective means of marketing.

So, even though you have someone on these sites, they still save the company cash and cash is important when the economy is tight. Even if you do not believe me, a software developer, why not believe Louis Gray, a marketing/PR professional:

If anything, the economic weakness should make it more important than ever for companies and individuals to double down on social media, as these new tools have enabled less expensive ways to find like-minded individuals, who just might be your next customer.

As you can see, social media seems to be a cost effective method for marketing influencers. That sounds like a great idea in a tough economy. However, I have some words of caution. First, ignore the term “marketing”. If you feel that social media is your next marketing campaign, you will fail or get very little interest. People do not like to be marketed to, they want an honest conversation. So when you start using social media, think of it as trying to build a community of fanatics for your products. Bloggers and early adopters are notoriously passionate, and will praise their current favorite thing. They will defend that brand in discussions, even sometimes against all logic. However, as a brand that is exactly what you want. You want a group of people who will spread the praises of your product for you.

Word of Mouth Marketing

This is word of mouth marketing at its most powerful. The internet has the ability to spread word of mouth marketing faster than any other technology we have seen. This is why a YouTube video can go from obscure to 10 million views in three days. However, do not try to “go viral”, or you will fail or get very little interest. Again, trying to “go viral” means you are probably forcing the message. Bloggers and early adopters do not like being force fed. They are a highly opinionated bunch and will complain loudly if someone tries to force something upon them.

As with any undertaking, you should first try to understand what your goals are. Then, look at the various communities to determine what is the best fit for your company and your goals. FriendFeed has some technical leanings, Twitter has almost every interest, and each social news site has their core interest. Find one that fits, and start participating. Notice I said participating, not marketing. Remember, you are building a community and relationships. This could be more powerful than your best sales force or advertising campaign.

Since I am not a marketing or public relations guru, I will leave you with words from Jeremiah Owyang:

As a result, David fished where the fish were, and avoided trying to suck the members off the community they were part of. Marketers are often measured on the amount of traffic they generate to their corporate website, but in this case, Intel will have to measure using different attributes such as interaction, viral spread, and maybe even a survey.

Rather than coax users to your irrelevant corporate website, savvy brands will fish where the fish are.