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Midmarket CIO pushes a corporate social media plan -- by the numbers

A midmarket CIO builds a corporate social media plan that rivals competitors with 10 times its resources, and turns naysayers into supporters.

Metrics may be hard to come by for measuring the value of corporate social media, but numbers do matter.

When Visioneer Inc. CIO Walt Thinfen went to his chairman and CEO and suggested the business might benefit from having a corporate social media and social networking strategy, the reaction was lukewarm to say the least.

"He said, 'What is social media?'" recalled Thinfen, muttering something about "CIO boondoggles."

Thinfen oversees IT at Visioneer, a manufacturer of scanners and other document imaging products. The Pleasonton, Calif., business used to sell primarily to the consumer and home-office market, but increasingly its products are finding their way into large corporations. Thinfen's interest in social media was sparked 18 months ago when he was assigned responsibility for the group that supports pre- and post-sales.

Thinfen discovered that the hits to the company's website -- its "brand relevance" on the Web -- were laughable and out of whack with the volume the company was selling, he said. And one thing his boss understands extremely well is numbers.

Even worse, the consumer perception of the company on the Web was unflattering-- not good for a consumer products business and the exclusive developer of a major line of scanners for Xerox Corp. He hired a search engine optimization expert to verify the findings and showed them to his boss. Thinfen got a green light to push for a corporate social media and networking strategy.

"Business people understand brand awareness. And they understand customer retention, reducing customer acquisition costs, increasing website traffic, enabling viral marketing and boosting revenue," Thinfen said. Plus, he added, his boss's unfamiliarity with social media turned out to be a boon, giving the IT-supported marketing team a "clean slate."

Business people understand brand awareness … customer retention, reducing customer acquisition costs, increasing website traffic, enabling viral marketing and boosting revenue.

Walt Thinfen, CIO, Visioneer Inc.

Today, Visioneer, with a limited budget, supports a robust corporate social media and networking program. A lively Facebook page has amassed a good-sized audience, in part by forging links with outside bloggers to do product reviews. In exchange for the bloggers sending readers Visioneer's way, the company will do a promotion -- e.g. giving away a scanner to readers. Visioneer is also doing some pay-per-click advertising in Facebook. The ads are not only a microcosm of Visioneer's marketing program, but they also serve as a laboratory for major campaigns by gauging which kinds of messages -- green technology, for example -- resonate with which users. Twitter, while used sparingly for marketing, is followed assiduously for customer comments about Visioneer and to track what competitors are doing. The Web page offers outlets for customer feedback.

"I think we keep up with companies that have 10 times the resources in terms of marketing in general, marketing penetration and social media marketing," said John Capurso, vice president of marketing at Visioneer. "I've been told off the record from competitors that we accomplish as much as they do."

Capurso said that in his view, the key to success is having a business plan for why the company wants to do something -- and commitment. "We didn't want to do it wrong or halfhearted. The last thing you want is a Web page that doesn't get updated, or Facebook account that doesn't have good content," he said. "If you're in business to make money, to extend your market, to solve your customers' problems and serve them, you must ask 'What do these social media tools do to extend those benefits?'"

Social media expert Jill Hurst-Wahl, an assistant professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies and president of Hurst Associates Ltd., said that to be effective, companies need to understand that social media is, well, social -- a means to engage people in conversation. "Some businesses get that, and some use it for announcements, which is not conversation," Hurst-Wahl said. And she agrees with Capurso about the commitment part. "[Social media] is not an occasional thing you do. You need someone paying attention."

Thinfen concurred. "Social networking is all about creating a community that helps others and allows the consumer to help themselves." And, in that effort, data counts. "Where we can really put our fingers on the numbers are on how well are we engaged with our customers and how many people are aware of our brand," Thinfen said. And, as a result of knowing its customers better, the company can sell more intelligently -- and sell more.

The sweetest number? Since taking responsibility for the group that supports pre- and post-sales, revenue is five times higher. "Numbers are hard to deny," Thinfen said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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