A few days ago, I attended Social Media Marketing World 2014 (#SMMW14) in San Diego. According to the event's website, this is the world's largest social media marketing conference, where about 2,000 marketing professionals get together every year to network and share their best practices on social media marketing.

I met with many thought leaders at the conference and was able to hear various cases of using social media in sales and marketing. Those cases were drawn from different industry sectors and represented a variety of social media platforms, but are there any core principles that can be applied to any business in social media marketing?

I can think of a few, and here is one that stands out: Listen and respond to customers.

Traditionally, companies may control the content, timing and frequency of information being shared with consumers; consumers may then respond to the information "passively" by sharing the message with their relatives or friends, often in a one-to-one or "one-to-a-few" conversation.

Social media has transformed the way of how people communicate with one another. Today, companies may (and should) still use social media as a medium for marketing communications, but consumers are now playing a more active role in conversations.

Consumers can share their voice and opinions on different social media websites with just a finger-click. Moreover, companies can no longer control how often consumers are exposed to the information once a marketing message is released, which becomes a big challenge for marketing managers.

This challenge, however, can also be turned into a great opportunity for businesses. Because consumers are now having conversations on social media websites, they leave many traceable footprints in the cyberworld.

Companies can collect the "free" and rich consumer data available online for analysis. By "listening" to consumers, companies can find out plenty of valuable information about their business and the market. For example, companies can answer the following questions by analyzing the consumer data on the Internet:

  • For what purpose or on what occasion do customers use a product/service?
  • What do they like or dislike about a product/service? And for what reasons?
  • Who is actually buying and using a particular product/service?
  • When is the best time to communicate with the target customers on social media?
  • Where is the best "place" to reach the target customers?

Here is a true and personal story shared by Marcus Sheridan at SMMW14 about how listening and responding to customers had helped a struggling business turn around:

Sheridan runs a business that installs in-ground fiberglass pools in Virginia and Maryland. In early 2009, his company was struggling with cash flow and getting close to filing for bankruptcy. He then thought about the Internet — he often searched on the Internet for answers when he had questions.

In addition, whenever he spoke with a perspective client, the question of "How much does a fiberglass pool cost?" always came up in the first two minutes of conversation. However, few pool installers answered this question on the Internet because there were so many options available.

Sheridan then decided to answer the question in an article on his company's website even though he could only provide a price range rather than a definite answer. Within 24 hours after he released the article, Google had recognized the article as the No. 1 organic search result for "fiberglass pool" and "cost-related" phrase. Over the years, that one simple article had brought in $1.7 million in sales to the company.

Is it simple? Or is it difficult? All we need to do is to focus on our customers — the core of a marketing mix — and then build our social media marketing strategies around it.