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    Where is Social Media Really Headed?

  • Here’s a hint: You won’t be controlling the conversation anymore, but the ROI will be real.

    Now that social media has lost its novelty, Dairy Queen’s Michael Keller is having a flashback as he considers the near-term possibilities for Facebook, Twitter, or whatever buzz-maker might next set fingers a-flutter.

    “You know that moment right before you drop on a rollercoaster? You’re very excited, you’re having fun, but there’s a little fear?

    “That’s what I’m feeling a lot these days,” confesses the 5,600-unit chain’s chief brand officer.

    He’s not the only restaurant executive to suffer a few white-knuckle moments in the transition to Social Media 2.0. Pronounced skepticism is giving way to an appreciative embrace of the new-age communication channels by chains large and small. The quick-service market is shaking off its initial apprehension to become one of the most avid business users of social media, according to consultants specializing in that area. Instead of being dragged along, quick serves are jumping out in front—smack into some discomfort zones.

    For one thing, there’s the nerve-wracking experience of standing mute as others do the talking about and for your brand.

    As the conversations in social media grow louder and more inclusive, their direction and nature are changing, marketers say. They liken the early days of social media discussions to having a brand representative stand at a podium and address a crowd. Individuals in the audience might respond to the speaker, but the talk is all between consumer and brand.

    Now, by evolution or design, that scene is turning into more of a cocktail party, with audience members chatting with other audience members about whatever catches their fancy. No longer is the brand advocate in complete control, and that’s eliciting some pointed OMG!s from veteran chain marketers.

    “The evolution is to situations where brands are going to be listening more instead of talking,” says Jonathan Treiber, CEO of online marketing firm RevTrax.

    Keller not only sees that community dynamic reshaping social media, but plans to foster such a virtual gathering spot for DQ customers this spring. He declines to reveal details, but says the initiative will be “something no other restaurant company has done.” He says the venture will build on the public’s cult-like interest in the Blizzard, the signature mix-in frozen treat that celebrates its 25th birthday this year.

    Indeed, a community is already gelling around the product. A “fanbook” Web site for the Blizzard Fan Club already has 2.2 million registrants who offer comments and look for information from the home office about the item. “We’ll go past 2.5 million members in 2010,” Keller says. “We will turn this from a fan club into more of a community. Our hope is to have them talk to each other. We even joke about it becoming a place where you might find a date.”

    The community will provide a new way to foster a connection between consumers and DQ, he says. But “we know the conversation will be beyond our control. To be a true community, you have to step back and accept that.” And that, Keller says, runs contrary to the marketer’s instinct of programming precisely what’s said about a brand in airspace the brander provides.

    DQ isn’t alone in taking a gulp and turning over a street corner of cyberspace to any consumer who wants to lug along a soapbox. Starbucks drew plenty of “huhs?” in 2008 when it launched MyStarbucksIdea, a freestanding (and freewheeling) Web site that invites fans of the coffee chain to pose ideas to management. The suggestions can be seen by all members, who are encouraged to weigh in with their opinions of peers’ ideas. If the executives spot a notion worth exploring, they say as much publicly, then provide updates of the assessment, undaunted by possible eavesdropping from competitors, journalists, or detractors.

    The conversation can even veer in directions a host presumably would want to avoid in a public forum. A recent posting on MyStarbucksIdea, for instance, blasted the coffee chain’s new full-leaf green tea. “I offered my wife a taste of my drink and she, too, found it almost undrinkable,” the poster wrote. He implored the chain to bring back the shredded-leaf version.

    Keller says the Blizzard Fan Club would remain separate from DQ’s Facebook fan page and its 752,000 registrants. “We’re looking to leverage that in 2010” as well, he says. Keller says it will remain more like the usual pages that brands or companies set up to give customers a place to learn about products and services, though supercharged with “far, far more content.”

    The Blizzard Fan Club, in contrast, “is not about Dairy Queen, it’s not about the brand, it’s all about the Blizzard,” Keller says. Still, “the members tend to be some of our more engaged customers, who want to know more about the brand.” Because of the medium, “they tend to skew a little younger,” he adds.