All companies have to face the fact that power today is on the side of the client. All companies have to listen to their customers and initiate a dialogue with them. Finally, all companies should actively maintain their community ecosystem in an appropriate manner. Awareness has recognized this need very early and now supports companies in social media marketing. Asian eMarketing was pleased to get the opportunity to speak with David Carter, CTO of Awareness about their Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution and how businesses and communities can benefit from it.

Awareness Inc. began as a pure “content management” application delivered as a SaaS based offering in 1999, known then as iUpload. By 2003, the company decided the more valuable role was to help customers gather, organize and distribute “User Generated Content”, which led to the launch of their platform in February 2004.

The company works with brand-name organizations to transform their marketing from a traditional one-way “push and interrupt” model to a multi-way participation-based model that emphasizes customer engagement. In short, they help companies “make their marketing social.” Their philosophy is to embody their expertise directly into their products and services to provide a focused solution that delivers the greatest value in Social Media Marketing.

According to Carter, the Awareness Social Media Marketing platform is the most advanced technology in the social media marketing space. “Our value proposition revolves around the strength of our technology, and we provide an array of consulting and services to create a complete solution spanning community strategy, design, implementation, and management,” he shares.

“We have all the “ingredients” for any type of social media implementation. Our history in the industry has also allowed us to capture a number of best practices and we have recently offered those as “Best Practice Communities” to get clients up and running quickly with social media “recipes” that we know work. While the client or their agency can create their own site, Awareness can also provide services to deliver a turnkey “Best Practice Community”, or we can assemble our ingredients into a pixel perfect match with the clients own vision,” he says.

Best Practice Communities allow organizations to dip their toe into the social media marketing waters and provide the flexibility to dive in once they have realized the tremendous business potential. Awareness Best Practice Communities (BPCs) can be rapidly configured and launched in days,  says the company, thereby allowing marketers to quickly and confidently leverage the power of social media marketing to engage with their customers, build their brand, increase revenues, and build trust and loyalty.

According to Carter, Awareness’ emphasis has always been on multiple points of participation and pixel perfect presentation of content. “We make participation as frictionless as possible. All members can contribute via a contest form, a comment box, a blog post, a quick poll, a discussion forum and a number of other methods.  In the end, we store all that content in one unified place, so it can be presented back in a variety of ways.  We support dozens of presentation and content capture widgets as building blocks for the client’s community.  Each can be completely styled, and rebuilt to match the client’s site exactly. In the end all the content resides in two core areas.  These areas are “content”, and “profile”.  Other platforms have individual apps, but drawing content out of both in a unified way is difficult,” he elaborates.

Carter adds that the platform also features rich editorial and security control. He explains further, “Within each category we can assign who can see, contribute, comment, and who requires moderation. All content is versioned, so as changes are made, companies will have a record of each new version of content. This is extremely valuable for companies regulated by SEC, HIPAA, or other regulatory bodies.”

The effectiveness of social media in the business world is a current hot topic, so what are the key metrics that are making the most impact in this scene? Commenting on this, Carter says, “There are definitely key metrics for any community.  It’s very important to be able to “go deep” on those metrics.  For example in a broad community, what are the specific categories that these people are engaged in? A member may be great at answering support questions, but seldom writes thought provoking posts.  Another user may share dozens of best practices. These posts may not inspire more conversation, but they are often classified as a “favorite” or “bookmarked”. A member may have “made friends with many other members, but may not be driving conversation with them. Influence and engagement will create more questions and our platform allows the community administrator to slice and dice that data.”

He stresses that as important as data is, it is one’s ability to act on that data that is crucial. Key questions to ask here include how to promote the top support answers and how to draw the so called “lurkers” into the conversation. Awareness’ answer to this, Carter says is their platform which allows communities to create more categories and add new and interesting aggregations to pages as they get to know their members or refocus their business goals.  “Anything created in our communities can also be repurposed as a “widget” that can be placed in other web sites or blogs to draw the conversation in,” he points out.

What about if and how social media funnels traffic for affiliate revenues? Carter’s response here is that it entirely depends on the community. He believes that affiliate programs are a good way to monetize a site with a generic topic. He adds, “However, simply “bolting” on affiliate programs to any community might over commercialize a site. Most Awareness clients are big brands who are expanding their reach into the customer lifecycle, or promoting existing thought leadership and expertise.  Affiliate programs that present other offerings would not be appropriate here.”

Bearing this in mind, it is very important that companies remember the differences between traditional marketing and social media marketing. To Carter, traditional marketing really targets the first three phases of the customer lifecycle.  These are “awareness – consideration - trial”.  Once the customer purchases the product it’s up to other tactics to keep the customer happy.  Social media marketing on the other hand, he says, can cover the entire customer lifecycle. These are “awareness – consideration – trial – adoption – loyalty – referral”. In order to do this, customers need a place to interact with each other and even to specific individual personalities in the company. After all, Social Media Marketing is augmenting, enhancing, and, in some companies, replacing "old" forms of marketing. It's radically different from traditional forms of marketing in a few fundamental and dramatic ways. “Of upmost importance is that we need to amplify the voices of happy customers. If you ultimately get your clients to a state of referral, then you have closed the loop and generating new clients through word-of-mouth.”

Social Media Marketing is defined by a new set of characteristics:

  • It's a multi-way dialog. Brands talk to customers, customers talk to brands, and - perhaps most importantly - customers talk to each other. This is a new type of engagement that was never possible until the arrival of Web 2.0.
  • It's participatory. Social media marketing depends on user participation - that's what makes it social. To truly be Social Media Marketing, your users must participate.
  • It's user-generated. Most of the content and connections in an online community are created by the users - not by the brand. Sure, there will be content and conversations that are brand-generated, but they will be the minority. The goal is to get your users to talk.

Some great examples of using social media to do this include:

  1. A Peer Support community for customers to ask and share information on product use
  2. Innovation Communities for customers to offer ideas for future versions of the product.
  3. User Generated Contests to harvest great content from existing loyal customers.
  4. Corporate Voice communities to give “company celebrities” like the CEO, or product specialists a blog to share what’s going on inside the company
  5. Enthusiast communities for customers to share their passion on a topic related to the product.  E.g. Imagine a site to share “photography tips” started by a company that sells photography equipment.
  6. Loyalty Communities – similar to enthusiast communities, but dedicated to loyal customers who want to share info, and possibly encouraged to do so by the vendor. These might be affiliated with a loyalty card offered by the company. 
  7. Association/Subscriber Communities – these member-only communities are generally invite only, or “pay-for-membership”.  Consulting organizations can use these communities to have deeper interaction with paying customers.

Awareness enables Social Media Marketing by building on-line communities that combine four key areas of capability:

User-generated content (blogs, wikis, discussions, photos, videos, voting, etc.)

Social networking (friend lists, user-created groups, status, presence, etc.)

Profiles: Members maintain their own profiles, which are customized for the different needs of each community, and they can change dynamically over time.

Enterprise security and control: Ensure each user has the right permissions, the content meets your standards, the community integrates with your systems, etc.

The integration of these four areas provides practical benefits:

  • A member can find a piece of content (e.g., a blog post, a discussion reply) that has value to them and quickly determine who provided that content. Is the contributor an expert or a novice on the topic? What is their background on the issue? This adds context to content.
  • A member can locate another member based on their descriptive information (e.g., name, location, title, job history, background, affiliations, etc.) and immediately see their participation history (e.g., what content have they posted? What photos or videos have they shared? How did they vote?) This provides a full 360-degree view of a member.
  • A member's privileges and participation can be controlled to ensure that they only have access to certain information and can participate in appropriate ways.

Carter reminds us that every social media marketing initiative needs to focus on a business goal. Once an organization identifies their goal, they need a way to meet that goal as quickly as possible with a proven solution that is low risk. This solution then needs to work now but also evolve and scale over time. Finally, as with any business initiative, there needs to be a clear way to define and measure success.

So, does Carter feel that there are any top social media sites or networks for business owners at the moment? His answer: “Defining a “Top Site” would be difficult.  Each customer has its own success metrics, and audience.  I think Kodak’s 1000 Words blog ( ) has been a great site to remind people that Kodak is a company of photography enthusiasts and not just a “photo paper” company. The images are lush, and it aggregates a number of employee’s contributions.  On the other end of the spectrum, SG2 is a healthcare intelligence community ( targeted at people such as hospital administrators. It’s a “pay-for” community but it’s all business, research, and topic experts.

This brings us to the question if he feels that it is acceptable to pay bloggers to post information on social media sites? Here, Carter believes that paying bloggers is a slippery slope. Why? He feels this is mainly because paying a blogger who is a topic expert to summarize your offerings, or to add insight into an aspect of your product is no different than paying a consultant to speak about your product. “I feel it starts to bleed into an “ethics” question when it’s purely to influence search engines.  Imagine paying someone to simply go through meaningful conversations and interject with product messages.  Of course there are a million shades of grey. I have people comment in my blog on a regular basis, then suddenly, out of the blue, there’s a link to some pharmaceutical. This is completely unrelated spam. Social media is about transparency. As soon as you try to manipulate it, you’ll be found out,” he emphasizes.

Carter acknowledges that compared to other industries, social media is still not mature.  He notes for example that the notion of “friends” as filters is just barely being exploited. “Imagine all sites having a “friends” view that tells us what friends have rated products, bookmarked pages etc.  Today these features are not used in a unified way. We are just now offering more ROI focused metrics, but “acting” on those metrics is not baked into most social media platforms. Social media needs to be woven into the fabric of companies instead of being a separate initiative. Today many companies have their community, and their web site. Moving forward the distinction will be blurred,” he says.

This is why it is so important, he observes, to focus customers on “Return on investment” and not just the sizzle of social media. “Clients come to us with a shopping list of features that are simply the combination of LinkedIn, FaceBook, and  We have to ask what their business goals are and who are their audience? After all, no one is building Facebook now, this has already been done. The important thing is to add value to your customers.  For example, you may leverage FaceBook to extend your reach. Above all, remember that the data that makes up your community is a valuable asset. What people have shared in their profiles, the content they write, what moves them to participate and so on. All this is data traditional marketers have spent millions to figure out via focus groups and research.  If done properly, your community will be creating it real-time.”

Without a doubt, ubiquity will be a key factor of social media’s continued growth. Carter points to the fact that we are already seeing convergence via our phones, iPods, laptops, GPS’, televisions. “Ultimately the communities we join and the friends we connect with will act as a filter on all the information we access on the internet. We’ll buy a car knowing what our friends drive, and their feedback.  We’ll interact without effort via these devices, by choosing what we want to share.  We already see pockets of that happening.”

It’s no wonder then that the social media scene seems to be growing bigger every second which is in turn why it is grabbing the attention of more and more platform providers, technology vendors and consultants that try to tap this promising looking industry.