©istockphoto.com/Katrina Brown

©istockphoto.com/Katrina Brown

Social media has blurred the lines between marketing and friend-making.

Consider the wording that social networking sites use.  When you hook up with someone on LinkedIn it’s called a “connection.” The term elicits a feeling of old-school business success based on the size of your Rolodex. Now consider Facebook, where every connection made is a “friend.”  That word brings up emotions of shared experience, understanding and camaraderie. Finally, leap into the world of Twitter and you will find yourself with “followers,” a term that carries the weight of authority and relevance and brings us into the world of social media stardom.

In marketing getting a star to endorse your product is big business.  Think of William Shatner and Priceline, U2 and the iPod, or even Bill Cosby and Jell-O. Companies look to celebrities to link their product to someone the consumer will know and trust.

Here’s the good news: with social media you no longer need the big celebrity endorser as a middle man. Your company can be the star, with thousands of followers who respect your brand and love your product.

Take Southwest Airlines, for example. At the time of this writing the airline had almost 80,000 Facebook fans and 750,000 followers on Twitter. Southwest also has a presence on Flickr, LinkedIn, and YouTube, and its own innovative blog.  Recently Southwest’s social media gurus energized their Twitter followers with a contest, the prize being a two-night stay at the Napa Valley Marriott Hotel & Spa and used the hashtag #wineswa to promote it.  To top it off they used their “Red Belly Radio” podcast to announce the winners. That’s a huge amount of good publicity at relatively little cost. And no celebrity was harmed in the making of their success.

Of course, the simple fact that a brand has thousands of Twitter followers does not make it a star. Here’s where social media stardom diverges from celebrity— you need to follow your followers, friend your friends and connect with your connections. Customers won’t follow you blindly. They will be vocal and they expect a two-sided conversation.

Let me tell you a true story.  A weary traveller showed up at her hotel late at night and stood in line for over an hour waiting to check in. Disgruntled, she logged into her Twitter account on her phone and sent out a message into the virtual soapbox known as the Twittersphere: “Can you believe this–a four-star hotel, 12 at night, no manager, can’t check in . . . insane.”

Someone was listening. The staff at another hotel located a block away said it would gladly accommodate her, and even take care of any cancellation fees. Not only did the customer pick up her bags and leave, so did the three other people that were waiting in line. In this case there were two social media stars created, the hero and the villain.  Which one do you want to be?