I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Lyle Fong, the CEO of Lithium. Lithium recently partnered with Omniture to provide a holistic view of user behavior on social networks.  This post is the first in a three-part series.

Chris: Lyle, why did Lithium partner with Omniture? What kind of value can marketers gain from this partnership?

Lyle: This integration answers some of the “holy grail questions” for online marketers: who are my community members? How are they influencing purchase behavior and leading to my call to action? Are they helping drive sales? Are our efforts in social media actually driving conversion? Actually being able to measure engagement in a quantitative way is really powerful. Our partnership with Omniture is relatively new, but many of our customers and prospects are excited about it. In fact, we have a great case study with Omniture at Sprint for their BuzzAboutWireless.com social media initiative.

Chris: It appears that Lithium is positioning itself more as a platform service rather than a point solution. What is your strategy behind creating this platform?

Lyle: In the past, companies were interested in deploying “siloed” communities such as forums, blogs, or chat solutions. Over the years, they have realized that these have tremendous value. As they added new solutions, they realized that they weren’t providing a unified customer experience. They also realized that as they added these new ways to interact, the whole concept of a corporate web site is changed. It went from being “brochure site” where you are pushing out content to visitors, to a site where you are engaging customers at almost every touch point. Whether it’s user ratings and reviews on your product pages or allowing customers to edit documents on your support site, community elements become a part of the entire site. In doing so, companies want to have one unified platform.

Chris: What advice do you give as companies as they consider embarking on this social networking journey?

Lyle: A lot of companies that consider embracing social media fear the unknown. What if we open up and let people say whatever they want on our web site and they say something we don’t want to see? We have seen that almost any company that goes down this road will go through a learning curve. They may make mistakes.

We have learned that if companies are transparent, they will find that their customers are very tolerant. Dell is a great example of this. They were certainly on the forefront of the social media movement, but along way they made some mistakes. Whenever they made a mistake they acknowledged it and people commended them for it.

There is no best time to start with social media. Our advice to all companies is at least listen to what your customers are saying. Whether you like it or not they are talking about your brand on Facebook, MsySpace, Twitter and the other communities out there. Once you start hearing this, you’ll want to create a place that is sanctioned by the company to engage with the customer.

Chris: So like it or not, people are out there talking about you. Isn’t better to know what is being stated about your brands than using a “head in the sand” approach?” Even if you aren’t 100% prepared, you need to at least be listening to what they have to say.

Lyle: Exactly. To take it one step further, many companies don’t realize that by creating a community, the conversations are generally 30-40% more positive than if they were to take place on a third-party site. What is happening is that due to brand affinity, people who love your products will come and flock to the site. The people who don’t like your company probably wouldn’t bother to come to your site. If anything, to counteract what is out there, you should create a community where your best customers can hang out.

Chris: Which industries are doing a great job with social media? Are there particular industries that are behind in using social media well?

Lyle: The high-tech industry has a lot of early adopters. But we are starting to see deployments across the board, from the telecommunications industry to companies in the media space such as MTV, Univision, to even some of the big retailers such as Barnes and Noble and Best Buy.

Each of these companies is out there every day learning more about what the market thinks of them and gaining a large advantage over those not doing this.
I would say that those that are lagging behind with regard to social media are some of the large brands. There is definitely a clear opportunity for some of the biggest companies out there to gain insight over their competitors by employing some of these tactics.

Marketing at these large companies has always been thought of as campaigns. It is difficult for some of these companies to embrace social media because it is not a campaign. Building a community should be a long-term effort. It is not a one-shot campaign. It is more about fostering relationships over a period of years, not months.

Chris: Lyle, are there any takeaways from our discussion that you’d like to emphasize?

Lyle: Instead of looking at customers as a liability that requires support, you can actually turn them into an asset. By employing social media, you can actually turn your best customers into a competitive advantage that others can’t reach.

Chris: Through CRM we aren’t providing a transaction tracking platform, but a relationship tracking platform. Through Omniture SiteCatalyst, married with Lithium’s technology, a marketer can now understand the relationship value of the company’s best customers. It is a complete new paradigm: the promise of CRM actually being fulfilled.

Lyle: Traditional CRM is about a one to one relationship. Before, a company only really understood what a customer is talking about when they called you to either buy something or to complain. In between that, a company had no idea what their customer experience was.

Now in communities paired with web analytics, you can hear what customers are saying to you en masse, as well as what they are saying to each other.

Tomorrow: Top-and-bottom line benefits of enterprise social networking….